As anyone who’s played a modern video game can attest, better graphics don’t necessarily make for a better game. What happens when you remove the graphics entirely? Word Games is Playboy.com’s column on text adventures both classic and contemporary.
Alexis Kennedy doesn’t initially sound like the kind of guy who founds companies. “I was an English teacher first and a software developer second,” he says. There’s no bravado or overinflated sense of pride when he tells me he started Failbetter Games, and its massive text adventure game brainchild Fallen London, in his room back in 2009. It’s just a fact—what is.
He’s also quite candid about the company’s failures, like when they tried to give players the tools to make their own adventures and that system tanked, or how Fallen London, though it’s more than earned its status as a cult classic, has been mostly unprofitable. There’s trepidation when he speaks, as though the floor might fall out from under him at anytime and he’ll be sent spinning into the void like one of the poor souls at the end of John Carpenter’s Dark Star.
It’s hard to blame him, really. Fallen London is weird. Even to someone versed in text adventures, Fallen London is really, really strange.
It’s set in an alternate timeline where Queen Victoria sold London to mysterious forces in order to save her husband’s life (in real life she was so devastated by his death that she mourned him for 40 years), causing the city to be pulled underground by bats. You play as someone who’s broken out of a prison and is now exploring the city thirty years after the event. The game is less of a straightforward text adventure and more of a fantastical setting packed with quests that you explore through a text game in your browser.
You can’t really tell what it is from looking at screenshots and there are no trailers that communicate what it’s about either; it’s a hard game to market, something that Kennedy realizes, saying that one of the biggest things that has worked against Fallen London is that it looks like the sort of game you’d play on Facebook while goofing off at work—the kind hardcore gamers scoff at—but it’s actually much more complex than Farmville and its ilk. It’s a case where, according to Kennedy, they lose out on casual and non-casual players.
“Those first few years we really struggled…we had the reputational disadvantages of being a social game without the advantages of being successfully spammy. I think at the time I said it was a bit like dressing up like Darth Vader but not actually having any dark force powers. You get the reputation hit but you don’t get to do anything powerful.”
Nonetheless Fallen London has a surprisingly passionate fanbase, resulting in a messageboard filled with thousands of posts and discussions from players, some of whom have been around since the game’s launch in 2009, and a wiki to help guide new players through this strange, dark world.
At first glance it’s rather complex—with detailed statistics and notifications bombarding you from the onset—but once it settles into its groove, Fallen London reveals itself to be a grand and surprisingly well-written experience that’s quite unlike any other in games. What sets Failbetter apart from other developers, even those of other text adventures, is that a love for words is clearly seen in every line in the game. Sentences are fun and playful, pulling you by the hand into dark alleys where disturbing fates and strange creatures await you. It’s in the same wheelhouse as Neil Gaiman’s writing, a combination of darkness and whimsy that should mix together about as well as oil and water do but somehow the underlying humor brings everything together rather well.
It’s a quality that’s spread out to their other games as well, including the more recent Sunless Sea, which has eclipsed Fallen London’s popularity while also bringing in more players, and Dragon Age: The Last Court, a crossover text adventure that Failbetter made with Bioware, the developer of the very popular Dragon Age series.
PLAY GAMES WITH DEATH
The Last Court was born when Bioware invited Kennedy to give an interactive narrative seminar. After the seminar, he was approached by the studio about the possibility of doing a text adventure tie-in for Dragon Age that would fill the space between Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
“When I recovered from the panic attack I of course said yes,” Kennedy said. “It actually took us two years to get everything signed because it was such an unusual project from the point of EA [Electronic Arts, Bioware’s parent company].” The Last Court was released shortly before Dragon Age Inquisition and has been received favorably as a well-written, enjoyable game and a nice addition to Bioware’s expansive fantasy universe.
After some shake-ups over the past six years it seems that Kennedy’s company is in a better place, with a strong favorable reaction to the dark delights of Sunless Sea, which you should check out if you haven’t yet, and an iOS port of Fallen London to be released in 2016.
I’m actually really excited about playing Fallen London on mobile because it seems like the perfect game for that platform and a strong addition to the growing library of quality mobile text adventures alongside the likes of 80 Days and Lifeline. I’ve only spent a handful of hours with the game but it’s already overwhelming in the same way that massive big budget role-playing games like The Witcher are—filled to the brim with quest branches and events worthy of your attention. Kennedy says that the game already contains 1.5 million words and is still growing every month with content additions. Being able to play it on the go will make it much easier to spend time inside of Failbetter’s entrancing interactive world with its eccentric characters bidding you to step inside inns and bazaars, a world where if you die you can play games with Death to try and win back your life.
Fallen London is one of the few fictional universes in games I think deserves constant expansion. It’s like Discworld or Cat’s Cradle, so strange and loopy it’s difficult to explain to people who haven’t experienced it themselves but totally worth the blind leap and time investment it takes to situate oneself in that world and learn why it’s so appealing.
For me it didn’t click, though I was having fun before this, until I was hours deep into *Sunless Sea. After visiting countless islands and squaring off against their residents, after discovering riches and becoming well-respected throughout London, my captain and her crew were devoured by a massive shark bound in iron. I had gotten cocky and become something of a legend but even legends can become fish food in this dank underground hell.
These games are mischievous and irresistible in their exquisitely written slapstick cruelty, a beacon that the flame for quality text games burns on well into the age of photorealism, that imagination, as Kennedy tells me near the end of our interview, can dwarf any special effects budget on the planet. As someone who wants more of Failbetter’s amusing and fiendish hijinks I hope enough players realize he’s right and that this fantastic world is one they shouldn’t ignore.
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