Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games.
If you were a certain kind of person in 2009, your life slowly, and then quickly, filled up with mentions of Fallen London. The game lived partly on Twitter, spawning quixotic out-of-context tweets that spread like the swirling parachutes of a ripe dandelion. Its lush, grim setting set the stage for all of founder Alexis Kennedy’s subsequent work, and the world of Fallen London continues to grow. But that’s only the very beginning of Failbetter Games’ story.
Alexis Kennedy built Failbetter, the studio that made Fallen London, Sunless Seas, and 2018’s floundering-but-still-upcoming Sunless Skies, nearly with his own two hands. Fallen London is powered by Kennedy’s own StoryNexus engine, which he made to enable more content like FL to spread and make money through a version of freemium gameplay. In 2013, Failbetter made a Kickstarter for a standalone game set in the universe of Fallen London, Sunless Sea, which met its goals and was released to wide acclaim in 2015.
Enter the Browser
Last week we learned that interactive fiction dates back as far as actual computer interaction, and browser games are similarly as old as web browsers themselves. The internet began with government and slowly branched out into regional networks that were hosted by major phone and other telecom companies like CompuServe and Prodigy. But these early users didn’t browse; they used proprietary, paid software that connected to servers and exchanged content. I played a color-matching game in my aunt’s Prodigy software in the early 1990s, but this wasn’t a browser game.
The so-called “open internet” was developed parallel to consumer products like Prodigy and, later, America Online. Academics and researchers wanted pure ways to exchange information. Users had long used text-only dial-in bulletin board systems that allowed a small group of users to log in with up to 4 or 8 users online at a time, for example. They could upload and download files. But it wasn’t until the Mosaic browser in 1993 that so-called “regular folks” could write marked-up pages that included links and images.
Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee coined the term World Wide Web during his work on inventions like hypertext transfer protocol, the “http” that precedes every web URL to this day. And his analogy of a linked web of strands in turn caused search-engine bots to be known as spiders, and their work to be known as crawling. With Mosaic and subsequently Netscape Navigator, these technologies spread like wildfire.
Today, “online gaming” usually means MMOs and other games that have dedicated servers for players to join using their own copies of games. But for much of the ‘90s and ‘00s, online gaming was more like the hosted Java clients running versions of hearts and canasta that Yahoo! users played. Runescape launched in 2001 and opened the door for browser RPGs that still exist. Hosted game sites like FreeArcade, which still exists today, date back 20 years and ran standalone single-player versions of classic software games. Users didn’t have to install files in order to play these games, which made them hugely accessible for a userbase that was using computers more and more in places like schools and workplaces.
Everything was right for Alexis Kennedy to introduce Fallen London in 2009. Ren’py, the visual novel engine built on Python, was five years old with an established base and stable of games. Major content management services like WordPress reached huge audiences and grew more accessible, removing barriers like manually uploading files using an FTP server. Facebook had begun its slow roll into the tarpit of user data scrubbing and sales after opening to the general public in 2006. And Twitter, which launched in 2006, had 18 million users by 2009 and more than 50 million by 2010.
You can play Fallen London to virtually the fullest for free. The conceit of the game is, roughly, that Queen Victoria made a power play that involved selling London to hell. The entire city has sunk into the underworld, and you regularly rub elbows with devils along with more earthly varieties of ne’erdowells. There are indecipherable markings and inscrutable items everywhere. You might catch rats for a living or solve mysteries in exchange for favors and social power.
Over time, you boost four major stats: Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous, and Persuasive. There are secondary qualities like Respectable, Bizarre, and Dreaded. And there are blights on your person that can harm you over time: Nightmares, Wounds, Suspicion, and Scandal. That’s a lot of attribute word salad, but basically, you aim to balance all of your qualities over time. And if not, there is often massive fun to be had when you let one of your qualities get out of control.
The gameplay involves rich narratives that you interact with by, say, writing a short story that you sell to a political operative, or becoming a spy and choosing sides between two equally unlikeable groups. Fallen London is filled with such nonchalant moments of staggering imagery and dread and beauty that it’s easy to take them for granted. This is a game for people who read and who love to read. And perhaps, when your short story is almost finished, you’d like to throw it into the fire for a chance at something better.
StoryNexus’s freemium hook is this: you get 20 actions at a time, which means 20 button clicks to work on a mystery or explore a new place. Then your actions refill over time, one every ten minutes, giving you a fresh 20 every few hours. You can pay to refill your actions. You can pay for a monthly membership that gives you 40 actions at a time and access to premium content each month. You can also pay to unlock a lot of individual stories.
That said, there are over a dozen individual locations in Fallen London, and each has plenty of stories and ways to drum up action. In fact, there’s so much going on that it can be overwhelming to try to keep track of your goals and which resources you need to gather up for your next step. But the same feeling of a buffet line of choices means it’s easy to jump back into the story. I haven’t played in a few months, and I might see if I can reset my character and start completely over.
In 2013, Kennedy said publicly that the StoryNexus project, where he planned for others to use Failbetter’s engine to power similar games that could make freemium profits, had not turned out as he hoped. Instead, Failbetter would stop supporting more StoryNexus work and turn to developing Fallen London’s lush world. The first big project was Sunless Sea, a brutal roguelike exploration game with the same powerfully good writing as Fallen London.
In the lore of Fallen London, the city is just one of untold many in the rest of the underworld, or Unterzee. There’s no natural light, and in Sunless Sea, you explore huge reaches of bleak, empty darkness punctuated with island colonies and monsters. In the browser game, you never die, I don’t believe. In Sunless Sea, you never not die. Your crew runs out of food and eats each other and then you. Your ship is sunk by pirate cannons. You are consumed by sea monsters.
As a zailor (see what they did there), you raise stats that help you hide from enemies, earn characters’ trust, and fight with more power. And you choose your own victory scenario. Would you like to win when you’ve gotten a certain amount of money? This is literally the only way I’ve ever won the game. Would you like to accumulate the laundry list of rare items that make up an epic sea yarn and then retire? Would you like to avenge the mysterious death of your father?
Like Rogue Legacy, Sunless Sea uses inheritance as a convenient way to make incremental progress. After a certain point, you can have an heir, using handwavingly obtuse options that don’t require you to be a certain gender or bear a child. And then you can begin to accumulate things and add them to your will. This means even in death you hand over artifacts that your heir can sell for startup funds. And there are permanent legacies that you find and unlock by doing special tasks. Each of these legacies doubles one of your beginning stats.
These mechanics are important, because you have to be alive in order to find the game’s extensive worldbuilding. Your map resets with every death, unless you choose a legacy that keeps it the same. As with everything Alexis Kennedy has ever made, this choice may seem obvious but represents a big tradeoff. And so you explore blindly, from the tame “collar county” islands out into the furthest reaches of chaotic nothingness.
The writing is beautiful in this game, no doubt. It’s as funny, heartbreaking, and treacherous as the best parts of Fallen London. But what elevates Sunless Sea is its striking artwork. Locations seem to glow from within with the phosphorescence of the deep Zee. Unfathomably huge statues lie deep underwater, reaching for you with long-forgotten fingertips. You approach light that somehow blinds all your senses and leaves you drunk and grasping. Your ship slows in the swirling flurries of the far north before you choose to sail off the map and into whatever lies beyond.
Failbetter announced Sunless Skies in 2016, months after Kennedy himself announced that he was leaving the company he created. He began work on Cultist Simulator with his new studio, Weather Factory. Sunless Skies raised funds on Kickstarter but has struggled through early access, and the game’s official release date has moved back later into 2018. When I first started Sunless Sea in 2015, everything about the game was a startling revelation. But when I opened Sunless Skies, there was just no magic.
It makes sense to me that Kennedy drove much of Failbetter’s signature bleak humor and beautiful writing, and that these areas have languished without him. Polygon’s Victoria Rose wrote a piece on Cultist Simulator called “I’m obsessed with Cultist Simulator, even after it made me a cannibal.” In the meantime, Fallen London became a failed mobile app instead of just revamping its out-of-date website for adaptive design. Failbetter laid off 25% of its employees and pushed back the release date for Sunless Skies. Their new stories for Fallen London are either paid content or large-scale generic stories like citywide elections.
Emily Short writes premium stories for Fallen London and contributed to Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies. She wrote some of my favorite islands in Sunless Sea, in fact. But in 2010, she was just another influential person asked to review Fallen London, which was still called Echo Bazaar at the time. “It’s the writing and the world that keep me tinkering around with Echo Bazaar weeks after I was initially invited to look at it. I am still having fun dipping into the environment it provides, and the daily time investment to do so is slight enough that I can forgive the slightness of the gameplay,” she wrote in 2010.
Playing in the Unterzee has always felt like a long walk through a hall of the mythologies and literature of the real world and of Kennedy’s invented world. Short’s work has this same quality of, what, hugeness? Her writing for Sunless Sea and in her own games like Bronze gives players a feeling of learning just enough information about something to anticipate and truly dread what is to come. I hope Sunless Skies will turn out to meet expectations, but the rich lore of Fallen London and Sunless Sea are enough to last anyone a long, long time.