Greetings Delicious Friends!
Once again, we dive into interactive fiction. For this post I’m going to focus on the works of Failbetter Games, and their unforgettable Fallen London setting. The game Fallen London, formerly known as Echo Bazaar, puts you in the role of an escaped prisoner exploring the dark, surreal, and often hilarious underground city. It’s the actual Victorian London of the 1890’s, but it was stolen by bats and brought to the underworld. It was terribly inconvenient for everyone.
I can’t stop playing this game. I first heard about it when the company released a spin-off game called Sunless Sea on Steam, first launched in early-access beta. Sunless Sea sounded interesting, but I prefer to play finished games. It takes place in the same world as Fallen London, and uses many of the same storytelling mechanics, so I figured I’d give the original a try first. And it was free.
Fallen London uses a program called Storynexus. It’s weird, different, and doesn’t feel anything like the other IF programs out there. For one thing, it’s meant to be played on a browser. Some of you might remember Kingdom of Loathing? It’s a bit like that. You have a limited number of actions per session (which prevents junkies like me from playing for too long). Storynexus games use “cards” which can be either random, or repeatable storylines. These cards are called “storylets,” because they’re tiny, delicious little vignettes, rather than longer continuous narratives. A typical session in Fallen London has you reading through dozens of these little stories, creating the impression of an open, nonlinear narrative, not firmly stuck in time or space.
Fallen London has an interesting origin story, explained in this interview with one of the lead writers (it was a Twitter game). It has since grown into one of the biggest (if not the biggest) IF worlds in history. There are thousands of storylets to explore, millions of words to read, and I’m pretty sure you can’t even see everything in just one game. Like I said, it’s different from other kinds of IF I’ve tried because it really feels like a living, breathing world that you can roam around in as you please. If it were a role-playing game (which it kind of is) it would be mostly made of side-quests. There is a main story-line to follow (or rather, there are four of them), but these are meant to progress very slowly, and with a lot of work to move them along.
It also supports more complex, RPG-like sub-systems that other IF programs lack. Your character in Fallen London (and any Storynexus game) is composed of “Qualities,” some of which are story details (like “On the Trail of the Cheesemonger”), statistics that measure how effective you are (Dangerous, Persuasive), or actual items and equipment (the Exceptional Hat, the Salt Weasel). You can use these qualities to unlock stories, or just feel more awesome in your samurai armor and elegant top hat. Part of the fun of the game is hunting down and collecting these items and qualities. I’ll never forget the day I bought my tiger.
Other Storynexus Games
Failbetter released the Storynexus engine to the community, and there are a number of fine games that have been written by fans. These are nearly all labors of love created by community members, so they’re not as polished as Fallen London, but I find that they’re usually more diverse and interesting than other fan games. Notable mention goes to –
- Zero Summer – A somewhat surreal, post-apocalyptic Western. There’s a good amnesia story, a large world to explore, and a more cohesive narrative than you usually see in Storynexus.
- The Thirst Frontier – Strange, sad, poetic science fiction. I haven’t played enough of this to even properly tell you what it’s about, but I was impressed enough with the writing that it’s definitely worth a look.
- Below – A game about dungeon exploration, with original art and graphics. Challenging, fun, and tells a fine story of magic and mystery, in spite of it’s dungeon crawl presentation.
I also spent some time working on my own Storynexus game about the Byzantine Empire, in the year 1198, called the Purple Chamber. It was meant to be an open-world game in a similar vein to Fallen London, and also an exercise to teach myself the workings of the program. It was perhaps a bit too ambitious, and I don’t know if I’ll return to it anytime soon. You can try out the beginning stories here (I’ve currently only worked on the “Intriguing” story-lines).
Before signing off, I should also mention that Failbetter’s Sunless Sea is complete, and is truly a game worthy of your time. It features the same top-notch writing that it’s browser counterpart has, combined with a fun system for trading, exploring, and shooting things with cannons.
I now bid you a fond farewell, or as London’s Rubbery Men would say, THIRILTHITHOROOTH!!!
Image courtesy of the wonderful and talented Abi Nighthill