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by Maciej Miszczyk - October 14, 2015

The Fallen London universe, created by a British independent studio Failbetter Games, is a 'gaslamp fantasy' setting: something a bit like steampunk, a bit like magic realism and a bit like cosmic horror. It's quite a creative world, where entire cities are dragged into the underworld by mysterious forces, Hell is not only real but a significant political power and the darkness of the hollow Earth can distort the laws of physics. In this world, stories and secrets can be more valuable than money, criminals get rich by illegally smuggling human souls and people can suffer from crippling addiction to sunlight.

There are currently three games set in this universe: Fallen London, Tales of Fallen London: The Silver Tree - both browser-based titles, although quite dissimilar in gameplay - and Sunless Sea, a roguelite game with a focus on trading and resource management. There's also a short webcomic available on Failbetter's website, which was supposed to get expanded into a full-lenght graphic novel, but there haven't been any updates for over two years so its future is uncertain.

Fallen London webcomic


Fallen London / Echo Bazaar - Web Browser, iOS (2009)

Three decades ago, London was stolen by bats.

After a quick character creation, you begin the game as a prisoner of London's Newgate Prison. Naturally, the first goal is to escape - this serves as a tutorial in which you are to learn about the game's mechanics, which are mostly related to probability and stats: watchful (perception), shadowy (stealth and bluffing), dangerous (strength and combat skills) and persuasive (charisma, social skills and artistic talents). Like everything else in this game, it's done through a text-heavy sequence of choose your own adventure events - or, as the game calls them, 'storylets'. The game is almost entirely text-based - there are some graphics in it but the main focus is on the written word.

After escaping, you must travel the streets of London in search for a job and a place to live - both will be usually related to your stat of choice - a persuasive character will usually start as a poet living in Veilgarden while dangerous folks will likely spend their time catching rats on Watchmaker's Hill.

To progress in Fallen London, you play through storylets either chosen from your current location or randomly by drawing cards from an opportunity deck. Completing storylets leads to increase in stats, gaining items and the change of some of many variables the game uses to keep track of your choices (unusually, all those variables - or 'qualities' - are visible to the player).

Failure may still increase stats (at least on lower levels) but it can also increase 'menaces' (e.g. wounds, nightmares and scandal) which lock you in special punishment areas if they get too high and change qualities in undesirable ways - and that's important because qualities can lock and unlock storylets or add cards to the opportunity deck.

Items gained through storylets have multiple purposes: they can be sold on the Bazaar, used for crafting other items or used to unlock more storylets. Some items - clothes, weapons, pets - are also equippable, allowing to further manipulate stats.

While most storylets are short and self-contained, the game does have a few more complex event chains: criminal cases to solve, people to spy on, books to write and romantic partners to seduce. Some of those are 'living stories' and their progress depends on time passing outside of the game. Others - 'ambitions' - are long, epic quests requiring a lot of time and effort from the player.

Storylets, item description and randomized text in the sidebar together slowly reveal the story of Fallen London: that of strange creatures living underground (from intelligent rats and apes to nearly undead tomb colonists and semi-monstrous rubbery man), the Bazaar and its Masters, the stolen cities and the light of the stars. It's all strange and fascinating, and each answer you find leads to more questions.

There's also a multiplayer aspect to Fallen London. Experienced players can become patrons to the newcomers and playing with friends makes acquiring certain helpful items much easier. There's also an optional PVP mode, the 'game of knife and candle', where players attempt to kill each other. It's not very complex and sometimes feels like a separate game, as it uses its own special stats instead of the ones used by the rest of the game.

Fallen London (Web Browser)

All the things described above could make Fallen London stand out among the many boring browser-based MMORPGs. Unfortunately, it has one fatal flaw, which can completely ruin the experience: it's still a browser-based MMORPG. That's not to say that it's bad because it's multiplayer and it runs in the web browser - rather that despite great writing and interesting setting, it can't escape from the problems that plague this genre.

While its creators claim that Fallen London is 'civilized free-to-play' as opposed to 'unethical social games', the truth is that it's still designed entirely around grinding: progressing through the story requires raising your stats, getting different items in large quantities (which might require either crafting from large quantities of other items or spending in-game money which isn't easy to come by - especially when you avoid selling items because the game might require you to have a few hundreds of them at some point) and getting qualities to a desired level. This, of course, requires doing persistent storylets over and over again and watching progress bars fill slowly. Almost everything you do costs actions - sometimes more than one - which you get every 10 minutes unless you're at your maximum (20 for non-paying players). It feels like work - do repetitive tasks over and over again, wait and periodically collect a reward (in this case: good writing).

Of course, the tedium can be reduced by paying real money. Real money allows getting more actions, getting more cards in the opportunity deck, unlocking certain storylets and getting an 'exceptional friend' status which unlock certain areas and raises your action limit. While it's possible to gain 'Fate' (the currency based on real money) by filling out surveys, you won't get that opportunity very often and the reward for them is pretty small. Fallen London is designed to either take extremely long time or to nickel-and-dime you with micropayments. While its designers reportedly took measures to make it less grindy, it's still far from enjoyable if you don't spend any money on it.

Fallen London could have been a great piece of interactive fiction or a choose-your-own-adventure game. As it is, it's a fascinating world trapped in a more or less typical browser-based MMO. For those who dislike this kind of game, it's really a test of patience: how much grinding will you be able to do before you either give up on the game forever or look up spoilers on the internet.

Fallen London uses StoryNexus - Failbetter's in-house engine geared towards browser-based MMORPGs and choose your own adventure games. It's a solid tool that allows for the creation of fairly complex games and keeping them relatively bug-free. Players are allowed to use the engine to develop, publish and monetize their own games and while none of the user-created worlds approach the complexity of Fallen London, it seems that what is given to the players is a pretty powerful engine nevertheless.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • Failbetter Games

Designer:

  • Alexis Kennedy

Genre:

Themes:


Fallen London (Web Browser)

Fallen London (Web Browser)

Fallen London (Web Browser)

Fallen London (Web Browser)


Tales of the Fallen London: The Silver Tree - Web Browser (2012)

Crowdfunded through the Kickstarter platform, The Silver Tree is a prequel to Fallen London. Its storyline takes place in the 13th century in the Mongolian Empire, with the player taking the role of a papal emissary to the Khan's court in the city of Karakorum. Unlike its predecessor, it's more of a story than a world: it's a single player game with a defined beginning and multiple endings depending on player choice as well as a strong focus on the three major characters: Khan, Princess and Interpreter. While it might not seem to have much to do with Fallen London - or even feature any supernatural elements - at first, the shared world aspect becomes apparent as the game progresses.

The gameplay of The Silver Tree is slightly different from that of Fallen London. The player can now draw cards from two different opportunity decks (official business and secret business), there are only three stats (diplomacy, spycraft and scholar) and they're raised not through use but by spending three types of currency (secrets, bribes and gifts), there is only one menace (suspected) and the qualities are used to keep track of the player's relation to the major NPCs and progress with different storylines. The scope is noticeably smaller when compared to Fallen London, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

While at first The Silver Tree was a free-to-play game with microtransactions, it has since been made completely free. Originally, progress through the game was slowed down by a maximum action limit, and several sidequests were available only by paying real money. Nowadays, you get a maximum of 1000 actions that regenerate extremely quickly, and you can access everything for free provided your stats are high enough. It's clearly a step in the right direction - The Silver Tree is a truly free game and it doesn't try to frustrate you into paying. It also doesn't force you to play its predecessor, as knowledge of Fallen London isn't really required to understand The Silver Tree - on the other hand, knowing The Silver Tree can help players make sense of Fallen London.

The Silver Tree (Web Browser)

Unfortunately, being truly free to play does not save The Silver Tree from its focus on grinding. It's still obvious that the game was designed as as Fallen London lite: you perform the action that gives you some items, repeat it until you get enough items to advance stats, reduce suspected quality or move the plot forward (which often reduces your relationship to the major NPCs and forces you to regain it), keep doing that until you finish your current sidequest and proceed this way until the game ends. While making the game free was a good choice, it's a shame that making it less reliant on doing the same thing over and over again did not follow.

Ultimately, though, The Silver Tree is a more staisfying experience than Fallen London. The writing is still very good and the world is still intriguing, although not quite as imaginative, given that the game is mostly cofined to the surface of Earth were the laws of nature still apply. Its shorter length and focus on a single story makes everything tighter and more connected. The lack of a paywall means that it plays more like a conventional game, and the ability to finish it without waiting for actions to regenerate makes it less frustrating. It would still be a better game if it got rid of resource gathering and played like a traditional choose-your-own-adventure - after a certain point, the idea of looking up spoilers still becomes more appealing than the vision of repeating the same actions for hours.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • Failbetter Games

Designer:

  • Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat
  • Yasmeen Khan

Genre:

Themes:


The Silver Tree (Web Browser)

The Silver Tree (Web Browser)


<<< Prior Page

Next Page >>>

Page 1:
Fallen London
The Silver Tree

Page 2:
Sunless Sea

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