Games for People Who Prefer to Read — Fallen London

Albert, the Prince Consort, lies on the threshold of death. Facing the loss of her true love, Queen Victoria cuts a deal with the Masters of the Bazaar. They will save Albert, but in exchange they will take the Traitor Empress, her consort, and all of London to their domain deep beneath the Earth. The Neath.

Years later, when you come to the vast underground cavern that contains Fallen London, the Empress and the parliament remain, but it is unquestionably the Masters of the Bazaar who rule the city. The city is changed but recognizable, twisted and reconfigured around its new heart: the mysterious Echo Bazaar. Londoners are resilient, and have come to grips with the strange situation, including the fact that death is now a mere inconvenience — as long as you don’t venture back up into the sun.

Fallen London is a web browser game more than a decade old — an incredibly long run by the standards of such games. Thanks to its art style, its reliance on text, and a steady stream of improvements, it doesn’t feel outdated. It is by turns comedic and dark, and overflowing with Victorian sensibilities and literary references.

Gameplay

The gameplay elements are simple. You create a character, and this character has attributes. They may represent skills you’ve picked up, items you’ve acquired, or connections you’ve made with people and organizations. In general, they represent who you are, and what you can do.

Your character, at any given moment, is in a location. You draw from a deck of cards called the opportunity deck. Your opportunities depend on your attributes and where you are. Each opportunity gives you an illustration, a few paragraphs of text, and usually a choice. The outcome will often depend on your attributes and plain luck, and you may gain or lose something as a result.

Unfortunately, Fallen London came of age in the heyday of FarmVille-style mobile games, with energy mechanics that limit the number of actions you can take before you must wait (or pay) to recharge. You cannot binge Fallen London without paying. That said, it’s designed around brief play sessions, and I don’t think the energy mechanic detracts too much from the experience.

Story

The gameplay is not really the draw of Fallen London. It’s merely the engine for dispensing story. Players have stayed with the game for a decade because of the masterful environmental storytelling, interesting characters, and deeply interwoven plot elements.

There are hundreds of unique characters in dozens of locations within the city. There are centuries of history buried (literally) beneath London, including the ruins of other cities previously stolen from the surface world by the Masters.

You can venture out into the cavern, across the Unterzee. There are strange islands and distant shores. Hell is a real place, populated by bureaucratic and seductive devils. In Polythreme, inanimate objects spring to life.

Above all, Fallen London is a game of mysteries. The rewards most valued by the playerbase are not currency or items. They’re new stories that reveal why things are the way they are in this slightly steampunk, cosmic-horror alternate history.

How did the Gracious Widow come to run a vast smuggling empire? What exactly are the bumbling, Cthulhu-esque rubbery men, and where did they come from? Why do the Masters of the Bazaar steal cities and bring them to the Neath?

Content and Costs

The bulk of the content in the game is free, and there is enough to keep new players busy for months. Additionally, there are seasonal stories that appear for a limited time each year, sometimes with little additions. The developers also release a new story each month, with new locations and opportunities.

The game makes money primarily by selling these monthly stories. Players can purchase a $7 monthly subscription to automatically get all the new stories as they come out, but old stories must be purchased individually for around $5 – $25 each, depending on size. The subscription option also doubles your energy pool.

See You in the Neath

Whether Fallen London pulls you into its story or not, I think it’s a great game for writers to check out, to see just how literary and story-centric a video game can be. It’s a master class in the looping and branching techniques of interactive fiction.

If you like cosmic horror, steampunk, Victorian mystery, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Fallen London. It’s a weird and living city, deep as Vandermeer’s Ambergris or Miéville’s New Crobuzon. I find myself getting pulled back into it every couple years.

In fact, I created a new account as I was writing this. So if you need an acquaintance in the Neath, let me know in the comments. We can exchange letters, insult each other for our own gain, or take turns attempting assassination.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — “What Remains of Edith Finch”

Video games can be many things. They may be about building empires, stacking oddly shaped bricks, or finding misplaced princesses. Most often, they’re about rather a lot of shooting and blowing things up. Games can be simple or juvenile, and they can certainly have bad writing. For these reasons and many others, games tend to get a bad reputation among the literary-minded.

In this series, I want to highlight a few games that care about story. I want to try to prove to the skeptics that some games have something to say, in much the same way that a good book does. These are games where you can’t die. You don’t need twitch reflexes or a deep knowledge of 900 pokémon. Instead, these games work hard to build deep characters and a compelling narrative, and pull you into their world.

So, if you’re someone who loves books and hates games, consider giving one of these a try. You might just be surprised.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Edith Finch is a young woman returning to her childhood home. She is the youngest of the family, and the last one still alive. As she explains, the Finches believe they are the victims of a curse. Few of them die of natural causes. Instead, they seem destined for strange ends, whether their lives are long or cut tragically short.

As the player, you guide Edith through the Finch house, a seaside mansion that has been built-upon and expanded over several generations, a bit like the Winchester House. You quickly discover that the rooms of the deceased Finches have been sealed off, untouched, like little museum pieces. As you open those rooms up, you get glimpses of each person — visions from their perspective, enhanced by Edith’s narration and her journal entries, filling out her family tree with whimsical sketches. You begin to piece together the history of the Finch family in all of its joys and tragedies.

Each room in the house, each person, is revealed through a unique experience. Each is delightful in a different way. They range from eldritch horror to peaceful meditation. From the simplicity of flying a kite or swinging on a swing to navigating a living comic book to vignettes of a camping trip seen through the viewfinder of an old camera.

The uppermost rooms of the house are stacked in a teetering tower. They are a promise made in the opening moments of the game, as you first approach the house. They are the most recently-built rooms, the ones once occupied by the people most important to Edith. She will have to climb to the apex and come to grips with the legacy of the Finch family.

This poignant anthology of stories about death ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. The purpose of the journal, the narration, and the title all come together to deliver a clear message: it’s your life that defines you, not your death.

Getting the Game

What Remains of Edith Finch is a game by Giant Sparrow. It’s available for PC (from several providers), as well as Nintendo Switch, Xbox and Playstation.

Story in Games: Experience and Participation

This is still a blog about writing fiction, but in this post I’m going to talk about video games and the way they can provide some unique narrative experiences that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other media.

Even if you’re not interested in games, it’s worth learning a bit about how narrative in games continues to expand what media is capable of. A good place to start might be interactive fiction, an art form that straddles the boundaries of prose and video games. Interactive fiction is where a lot of interesting experimentation is going on, but more and more “traditional” video games are incorporating narrative lessons that were originally explored by IF.

Gameplay and Narrative

In many ways, the experiences in games can be tracked along two axes: gameplay and narrative.

I’ll define gameplay as systems to be solved or optimized. They are goal-based, whether implicitly or explicitly, and can be open-ended. Examples of gameplay include spinning and placing Tetris pieces or aiming and shooting opponents in a first-person shooter.

Narrative, on the other hand, is the “story” of the game. This may hew close to traditional story structures, as in film or fiction, but it can also branch, or even arise organically from the interaction of systems. Examples of narrative include branching dialogue choices in an RPG, characters talking in a cutscene, or distracting an enemy with a well-placed arrow in order to sneak past them.

I realize that there is a lot that could be argued within these definitions. I made them purposely broad, partly to illustrate how often we categorize narrative and story very narrowly.

Under these definitions, games may still range from no gameplay to all gameplay, and from no narrative to all narrative. However, the presence of one does not necessarily exclude the other — it’s not zero-sum, but it can require a deft hand to balance both.

Preconceptions

There is a certain set of gamers who think gameplay is the most important thing in a game. For this group, a game with little or no gameplay and lots of narrative doesn’t qualify as a game at all. These are the folks who coined the derisive term “walking simulator” for games that are entirely narrative, with little to no gameplay systems or challenges.

In opposition, we find the “games are art” crowd, who tend to be much more inclusive of walking simulators or visual novels, and appreciate narrative as much or more than gameplay. Many of the people in this camp will feel frustrated and excluded if a game has a lot of gameplay to wade through to get to the story, especially if it is difficult gameplay. If the player cares about the story, having that story blocked by gameplay that the player doesn’t care about can be irritating.

What Makes Game Narrative Special?

Games are a special narrative medium for two reasons:

  • They’re experiential
  • They’re participatory

In cinema, TV and books, the author will often try to create sympathy for a character. TV and movies have certain disadvantages here, because the visual media are always showing characters from the outside. Character narration is about as deep inside a viewpoint as they can get. Novels and stories, on the other hand, can use the first-person perspective to put the reader directly inside the character’s head. Even in third-person, they can reveal a character’s thoughts and emotions. The reader can more directly experience what the character experiences.

Games have a similar advantage, and go even further. In games, the player often controls or even inhabits a character. In this way, the player can experience what the character experiences. This is experientiality.

What a consumer of traditional fiction or visual media cannot do is take control of the story. Simple gameplay systems such as choosing where to walk at a given moment, or picking from several dialogue options, make the player an active participant in the story. Even if the choice is artificial and they are eventually funneled into a single location to progress, or the dialogue always ends with the same result, the feeling of participation is a powerful tool.

While other media can give the reader or viewer insight into a character’s thoughts and beliefs, games have a unique power to make the player feel unified with the character. The player becomes invested in the character’s actions as if it were the player making those actions, even when there really is no other option. Players often fall into first-person when talking about actions performed in the game. They say “I accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp,” not “Link accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp.”

Along with this fusion of player and character comes a strange feeling of player responsibility over the story. An unusual first person shooter called Spec Ops: the Line actively explores these concepts of narrative and player agency. The player has no real control over the story, moving from place to place and shooting everyone that moves. But when the characters participate in war crimes, the game asserts that the player did these terrible things. Because of the unification of player and character, it’s hard not to feel some amount of responsibility, even though the only other choice is to put the game down and walk away.

Simple experientiality can be as powerful as active participation and choice, but that power is often underestimated. In What Remains of Edith Finch, the player spends most of the game exploring the many ways that the members of the supposedly cursed Finch family died. It quickly becomes apparent that whenever you encounter a new character, they are destined by the narrative to die. It’s surprisingly crushing then, when you reach a point in the game where you discover that you are inhabiting the perspective of a small child, left alone for a moment in the tub. You know what will happen, and the very fact that you have no power to make a choice to change that outcome is gut-wrenching.

Bringing it Back to Fiction

Games can deploy experientiality and participation to create stories that would be impossible in other media. But is there anything in these concepts that we can bring back to our fiction writing?

I think there is, although it’s a challenge. We may have to dip our toes into the experimental end of the pool.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is an experimental novel that contains a layered narrative. It presents itself as a book pieced together from disparate documents, collected by multiple authors, and based in turn on lost video footage. It carefully passes the story through this chain of custody, from Will Navidson’s videos, to the old man, Zampanò, to the narrator, Johnny Truant. Implied within this is that the reader is the latest custodian of this story, which has driven its previous owners to obsession and insanity.

The text itself is cryptic and formatted in a variety of strange ways, sometimes swirling around the page with swaths of whitespace, colors or boxes. It is riddled with footnotes (and footnotes to footnotes), “supplementary” materials, and copious references to other works, both real and fictional. In some places, the text is so disordered, the reader must choose the order to read it in. At a broader level, the reader must make connections between disparate pieces of text across the book to assemble the story.

Simply by reading the text, the reader becomes a sort of detective, trying to derive meaning from this carefully constructed mish-mash. The reader begins to feel what Johnny or Zampanò might have felt as they compiled scraps of text into the book, or scrawled bewildered footnotes late into the night.

House of Leaves is a challenging book to read, and was no doubt a challenging one to write, but it is clearly trying to pull off the same tricks that many games achieve: to make the reader feel that they are experiencing and even actively participating in the story.

Trade-offs and Opportunities

Different forms of media will always have trade-offs — things they do better than other media, and things they do worse. For games, experientiality and participation are powerful storytelling tools. Working in fiction, we will always struggle to leverage those tools as effectively as games can.

Still, there are lessons that can be learned from this style of narrative, and perhaps opportunities to allow the reader to experience the story and even feel like an active participant.

Reference Desk – #2 – Interactive Fiction

Innovation in Fiction

As a software developer, innovation is part of my everyday life. My job is to grow and improve the software I’m responsible for. I use technologies that are regularly updated, and new tech is always being invented to improve on the old. Innovation is everywhere, and it’s constant.

As a writer, “innovation” is a much more nebulous term.

You might call challenging, complex language and structure innovative. James Joyce is popular largely because of this. Or you might consider experiments in formatting and typography to be innovative, such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves. But how innovative are these things, really? They’re still words, printed inside a book. You still read them from front to back. They’re still attempting to deliver a story from the writer to the reader.

Fiction has been around for so long, and it is so ubiquitous, that it’s difficult to find ways to truly innovate. But I’d argue there is at least one type of fiction that is genuinely innovating, by testing and expanding the boundaries of what fiction can be. As you might have guessed from the title, it’s called interactive fiction.

Where most fiction involves the creator (such as a writer or director) delivering a story to the consumer (a reader or viewer), interactive fiction turns this on its head, and says that the consumer should be an active participant in the story. This is a fairly broad scope, and can include media as diverse as books, movies and video games.

Choose Your Own Adventure

One of the most iconic forms of interactive fiction is the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. This was probably my first experience with interactive fiction. These books, aimed at kids, contained a branching narrative that used a second-person perspective to make the reader the protagonist. Every few pages, the reader would be presented with a choice (usually with two options, occasionally with more). Each choice pointed the reader to a specific page where the story would continue.

These stories approached interactive fiction from the angle of books with choices, but this was the time period where personal computing was beginning to come into its own on a large scale, and others were approaching interactive fiction from a different direction: stories told through computer software.

Video Games

Games like Zork and its sequels provided a narrative in text, but also included game elements such as puzzles and simple battles. By using the computer to parse commands from the player, a much richer set of interactions could be developed. Even simple (and often cryptic) commands like “go north” or “hit troll” gave the player much more freedom than the binary options provided by Choose Your Own Adventure.

(Unfortunately, the promise of parsers that could effectively parse arbitrary plain-text commands from users never materialized. Modern computer scientists and tech giants still haven’t managed to produce AI that can carry on a simple conversation, decades later.)

As computer graphics advanced, these story-focused games would influence the graphical adventure games of the ’90s, popularized by LucasArts and Sierra, and role-playing games all the way up to the present day.

The limitations of early computer graphics were a boon to interactive fiction. Some games painted rich and detailed worlds in text at least partly because graphics were so limited. However, the graphics have become more and more advanced, effectively killing the commercial viability of genres like text and graphical adventure games.

In modern times, it’s still possible to find games that pride themselves on narrative depth – huge AAA role-playing and adventure games, and all manner of small-team indies. However, even as graphics and gameplay have advanced tremendously, there seems to be comparatively little exploration of how the player can interact with the narrative in interesting ways. Much of the interesting work on this front is happening not in the huge, successful game studios with multi-million dollar budgets, but in small, independent studios with niche audiences.

Fallen London

One such example is Fallen London, a browser game that has been around for a decade and continues to put out new content every few weeks. Fallen London has some of the classic video game trappings: character stats in the form of vague attributes (watchful, shadowy, dangerous, and persuasive), as well as an expansive item system. However, all of these systems work in service of the story. The story itself is branching and immense – millions of words doled out a few paragraphs at a time.

The story is the main content and the reward. Whereas most free games would ask players to pay for shiny graphical customizations and costumes, convenience features, or a bigger, sharper sword, Fallen London offers pay-to-play stories, and rewards cleverness or hard work with more words and perhaps the chance to learn something about a character or faction in the sprawling story.

Rather than the simple binary options of Choose Your Own Adventure, or the flexible-but-sometimes-inscrutable commands of Zork, Fallen London uses a system of semi-randomized “opportunity cards” that the player draws. Each card offers an opportunity – a small story or snippet of a larger narrative. Which cards can appear in a player’s deck depends on the location of their character, as well as the character’s attribute scores and qualities. Qualities can be anything from a profession to living arrangements to acquaintances to quirks of personality. The choices available are dependent on a wide variety of choices already made by the player along with a bit of luck and randomness.

This kind of game shows the immense range of possibilities available when game systems that have normally been used for gameplay are turned toward deep, interactive narrative, where the player can feel like their choices matter. Failbetter Games, the makers of Fallen London, have been coming up with new and innovative systems for interactive fiction for years.

Exploring Interactive Fiction

While interactive fiction remains something of a niche, it has many vibrant and growing communities. There has probably never been a better time to explore.

I’d highly recommend at least dabbling in Fallen London. It’s free to play, but has an energy system that limits how frequently the player can take action. They’ve also built up an impressive library of additional stories for purchase.

The Interactive Fiction tag on Steam shows hundreds of games, ranging from classic text-adventure RPGs to visual novels.

The Interactive Fiction Database, Interactive Fiction Archive, and the Interactive Fiction Community Forum are all great resources to find interesting works.

Writing Interactive Fiction

The quantity and quality of tools for writing interactive fiction has exploded in recent years.

To get started, or just play around a little, Twine and InkleWriter are two excellent, free tools that can be used without any programming experience.

However, depending on how elaborate you want to get, there are many, many tools. Some of these can be quite technical. At the most technical end of the spectrum, there are many interactive fiction writers who code their own engines so they can tell their stories with very specific forms of interaction. The IF Community Forum has a section dedicated to tools that is a great resource.

The Craft of Interactive Fiction

One of the most exciting things about IF is that it’s still a relatively new and fresh medium. Authors are still exploring how it can be used, and innovation is happening all the time. Much like traditional fiction, one of the best ways to learn is to read or play a few stories. There are also plenty of discussions going on if you like to dig deep into theory and analysis.

  • The Failbetter Blog – The makers of Fallen London have interesting insights on narrative structure, as well as making interactive fiction as a business.
  • Emily Short – The only individual I’ll mention here, and it’s because she is the most prolific and insightful author I’ve found on the topic of interactive fiction. Check out her blog and her talks. She also has some great resource lists for digging deeper.
  • The Interactive Fiction Community Forum – A wealth of discussion on the technical and literary details of writing IF.

Try it Out

This is a topic that really interests me, so I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it again in the future. For now, if it sounds interesting to you, try writing a bit of interactive fiction yourself, and let me know what you come up with!