Impressions: Fallen London

By Adam Smith on March 30th, 2012 at 6:00 pm.

The RPS social club is at The Medusa's Head

Browser-based narrative experiment Echo Bazaar has quite the following and when it took on the new name, Fallen London, I decided I was long overdue a visit to the delirious, devil-haunted sprawl of suggestive steampunk. It’s a browser-based adventure, working from a lovingly illustrated but mostly textual interface, which involves seeking mysteries, stories, secrets and opportunities in the sunken city. There are stats that increase as plotlines are pursued and there are action points that replenish over time, or through the expenditure of real world currency. The pleasure of it isn’t really in the self-improvement though, it’s in the joy of discovery, and the word-forging and world-building are quite brilliant.

I’ve had the game open in a tab since yesterday evening. It takes ten minutes to receive an action point, which allows the furtherance of one story or the playing of a card that unlocks a new opportunity for your character. While the cards seem to be randomly drawn, the available stories depend on all manner of character-specific numbers such as the level of abilities, progress made in other areas of the game and the expenditure of various items.

For example, if you want to make a name for yourself with the poets and playwrights, langorously boozing the nights away at The Singing Mandrake, you’ll have a better chance of succeeding if you’re sufficiently persuasive. If you really want to learn about some of London’s secret places, mere persuasion may not be enough; to loosen a spy’s tongue you may need a bottle of wine to go with your sly words.

It’s much more simple than I’ve probably made it sound. Any available action tells you clearly what makes it open to you and if there’s something unlocked that you’re not yet able to follow up you’ll be told what you need, whether skills, items or contacts. Thanks to my shadowy nature and nondescript bowler hat I’m able to blend into a crowd, which is handy when there are pockets to be picked. Furthermore, I’m developing some rather useful contacts among both the urchins and the gentry, people won over by my ability to produce fine works of art.

The strangeness of the world is the main reward for play. It’s dripping with lore, obscure and refreshingly odd, and the writing is the equal of the inventive setting. While the stop-start nature of the interactions may irritate some, it hasn’t bothered me in the slightest. In fact, it’s probably the only thing that’s prevented me from tearing through all the content in a few hours, although that said there are apparently 400,000 words to be read. And how ace is that? Not 100 locations, sixteen levels or 20 enemy types. It’s a game measured in words and they are words to be savoured.

Take a look at this:

“It is good that your former troubles are resolved. The gift I sent you is not intended to create obligation. It is to assist in the performance of evil acts to good purpose. Opportunities to disreputably gather virtue will be accorded before the wheel turns long. We will meet very soon.’ The note is not signed”

“Opportunities to disreputably gather virtue” is a magnificent phrase, poised and coiled in the middle of a note from an unknown benefactor. Maybe Fallen London is essentially a very complex ‘choose your own adventure’ book, although taking place around a variety of hubs with many stories unfolding from them rather than being a single linear narrative. Maybe. It’s wormed its way onto my screen though and I’m happy to click back every half hour or so to discover another paragraph or two of humour as black as the dust in a sweep’s lungs, or esoteric Victoriana.

One of the greatest strengths of the writing is the assumption that your character understands why he’s asked to write a ballad about mushrooms, or to race his pet slug; he’s not an amnesiac or a visitor from another world, so nobody ever stops to explain things. Discovery comes by doing things, by considering connections and by filling in the blanks with a little imagination of your own.

And if all that isn’t enough for you, it’s also the sort of game that allows me to be a gentleman, a Romantic, a rogue and a poet, and seems intent on providing the attire to suit such roles. It will also consistently refer to you as “delicious friend”.

I could do without the occasional attempts to intertwine with my social networks but they don’t much detract from the cleansing draught of linguistic play that’s the heart of the thing. It really is one of the most well-realised worlds I’ve slouched through in recent times, as full of decadence and decorum as devilry and debauchery.

I highly recommend you take a look for yourself by signing up here, either through one of those aforementioned social spiderwebs or with an account made for the purpose.

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41 Comments »

  1. frightlever says:

    I suppose I should get around to making a dummy Facebook account for this sort of thing and Spotify. Sigh.

    • Adam Smith says:

      No Facebook account needed to play – I signed up for a specific account with the site rather than using an existing one from elsewhere.

      • Premium User Badge Melum says:

        It used to require Twitter, then they added Facebook. As of the Fallen London revamp this week, you can just us your email.

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      I prefer Grooveshark to Spotify.

    • daggerbite says:

      The last time I tried to setup a fake facebook account it required a mobile phone number to text a verification code to! Not impressed and had a little ragequit there and then…

    • Ragnar says:

      Make a fake Twitter account instead. It’s a lot easier to do, and only requires a unique email address.

  2. Premium User Badge AndrewC says:

    It’s very atmospheric and full of dark English glee. It’s definitely made for teabreaks though.

  3. gilrain says:

    I played this for about a month and it’s fun for a while. At the beginning, you’re able to get a satisfying taste of content each day without paying for more actions. However, fairly quickly the stories require long, long grinds to progress. Multiple days, even a week, before even moving the story you’re pursuing on by a step. And the, indeed, very clever and amusing writing begins to wear thin when you’re reading the same paragraphs over and over, grinding to get to a new area or story element.

    I assume that’s mitigated if you’re willing to pay for more actions and, as a free user, it’s difficult to complain. But it’s what kept me from coming back after a while. Excellent design, excellent writing… and then the grind sets in.

    • gilrain says:

      I will also add:

      The starvling cat! The starvling cat!
      Works as a neckerchief, but shreds your hat!

    • Devenger says:

      The grind does, indeed, set in. It will be more than a thousand more actions before I can build my Zubmarine (a ship for zailors wishing to sail the Unterzee, and dive to its depths).

      …but it has an option to build a Zubmarine! I struggle to complain, really. The game is magnifizent, though often too repetitive.

      • Blackcompany says:

        It is, however, zery atmospheric.
        .
        Also, I zee what you did there.

    • Fhoenix says:

      No, buying actions is not a solution… well, unless you are stinking rich. 130 actions would cost you 24 dollars. And 130 actions is something you can get in 24 hours of real time.

      Also
      The Starveling Cat! The Starveling Cat!
      Stole your shoes! Ate your cravat!

      • voxtrot says:

        Also:

        The Starveling Cat! The Staveling Cat!
        Look what it did to your nice new hat!

      • gilrain says:

        I never bothered to price it myself. Wow, that is crazy expensive. They would make a ton more money if they lowered their prices. The equivalent of an extra free day’s worth of play should cost no more than $5, and even less if they can afford it… the lower they can make it without going bankrupt, the more users will take the bait and stick around.

        • malkav11 says:

          They don’t really intend that you pay large sums of money to them for extra actions. My sense is that the refresh-for-fate options aren’t so much something you’re meant to take advantage of for long jaunts, but rather as a convenience if there’s some tempting delectable just a few actions away and, oh look, you’re out.

          The monetization comes in the form of the Exceptional Friend subscription (the action cap is doubled for 30 days and you have access to an additional location which has some fun things to play with and a few conveniences), which weighs in at 20 fate (around $5, IIRC, a bit less if you buy Fate in bulk), and various one time storyline purchases and conveniences. E.g., you may get an opportunity to reduce a negative Quality by a bit, with a Fate option to eliminate it entirely. The pay story content is entertaining but is not required to learn about any of the core secrets or storylines of Fallen London.

          My understanding is that the grind, which they are working to alleviate, is not intended to encourage you to pay, but rather serves as a way to prevent players from racing through the content much faster than they can add it. The game is also, while quite polished and enjoyable, not finished and considered to technically be in a beta state.

  4. mmalove says:

    I too, am largely considering a facebook account specific for games. It would keep the social network advertising off my main page and my friend’s feeds, keeps my personal information/photos from being leaked out and potentially used maliciously. Would be annoying to swap between the two accounts regularly though, which is largely why I haven’t yet.

  5. Blackcompany says:

    I work a very slow helpdesk (government contract) on Saturday mornings. This…this is a dream come true for my saturdays. Thank you RPS, things like this are the reason I keep coming to this site. You just cannot find this stuff anywhere else.

    Edit: If only 3D RPG/open world/sandbox games had this kind of choice and consequence…and this open a narrative. Would be amazing.

  6. Kasper says:

    I read it as “Fallout London” in my feed reader. I think I’m broken.

  7. voxtrot says:

    This is a really great game, and I almost wished I hadn’t been reminded about it. Today I’ve gone back to staring at the wee clock waiting for just one more action…
    The writing is excellent – this is probably the strongest sense of place I’ve got from any game.
    You do end up grinding to advance some of the stories, but there’s a huge amount of the variety to the stories themselves. So if you get bored of composing an opera for the Traitor Empress, then you can take a break to hunt for Jack-of-Smiles (known to hide inside snowmen to ambush his victims) or help the church recover illegally traded souls in exchange for Foxfire candles.
    It really is really good, and horribly addictive.

  8. icecoldinfamy says:

    Signed up Just rite now. This is great.

  9. Ian says:

    I have no facebook or twitter and the silly thing won’t send the confirm thing to my e-mail address. :(

    • Arglebargle says:

      Also getting no confirmation to email address and can’t start. I guess something is not right in the London Innertubes…..

    • Premium User Badge rilian says:

      Likewise I cannot sign up as it won’t confirm my address. What’s worse is that it tries to lock out the website of unconfirmed users – if I visit the site I get an immediate redirect to a ‘wait for confirmation’ page. Visiting with another browser I notice that the only contact address they publish is for press to be given an access code.

      I think we’ve given them more users than they can handle, and they’ve gone into stealth mode for a while.

  10. liance says:

    I don’t think you need to confirm the email address to use it: I’ve linked my email address to my account no problem, and never had any such confirmation-thingy sent to me.

    I’ve been playing this game for a few years on and off now, and they’ve definitely improved on the grind as of late – I’m not quite at the end-game content (they’re always adding stuff anyway), but I’m a good way into the game, and the grind is offset by the variety of content and ways in which you can gather the resources you need.

    For those worrying about the amount of actions you can take per day, I believe the game recently removed the actions-per-day cap, and I find spending the 20 fate (five dollars or so?) for a month’s worth of doubled actions makes the game a lot more enjoyable.

    The people developing the game seem a delightful bunch anyway – I certainly wouldn’t buy actions, but five dollars a month is well worth the enjoyment I get from this game.

  11. rei says:

    This is great; thanks for posting about it! Or perhaps I should curse you for it, as I don’t really need more obsessions.

    EDIT: These people seem almost as fond of T. S. Eliot as I am!

  12. Sohum says:

    You can use social actions to get “second chance items” or to reduce your menaces, which are handy! Check out http://community.failbettergames.com/topic148-find-friends-for-sparring-dinners-chess–theft.aspx for volunteers or just bug your own friends, and feel free to ping me, @SohumB :P

    But yes, I love Fallen London. They’re really trying to figure out how to handle writing and narratives in a fundamentally gamic way.

  13. Megadyptes says:

    I remember playing this ages ago but got put off after a while by the huge levels of grinding you need to do for higher level stuff.

  14. Tom Davidson says:

    I love — love — this game, even though hitting the content cap is surprisingly emotionally draining. :) Here’s my character, in case anyone wants to get in touch: http://www.fallenlondon.com/Profile/Black~Tom

  15. Paul_Failbetter says:

    Hi folks, this is Paul from Failbetter Games. Apologies to those who have been waiting for confirmation emails. We got unlucky and had a few server issues, but we’ve now fixed the problem and your mails should arrive soon.

    • pertusaria says:

      Hi Paul, thanks for the quick response, but I’m still waiting for the email. Not to sound aggrieved or anything, I just want to make sure you know.

    • rei says:

      EDIT: *retracted!*

    • pertusaria says:

      Ah, fixed for me now, thanks.

      Edit: Played for a few hours off and on – it’s neat.

  16. Paul_Failbetter says:

    Hi Rei. If you’re still having difficulties, mail us at fallenlondonbugs@failbettergames.com and someone will sort you out.

    • rei says:

      I was a bit too hasty, all fine now, thanks!

      Didn’t realize I clicked ‘resend’ quite that many times…

  17. soulblur says:

    When I first glanced at the headline, I thought it said “Impressions: Fallout London”. Thus, anything I actually found was slightly disappointing in comparision. However, it is a lovely game. I’m enjoying the act of discovery.

  18. neils says:

    Played this for a couple of months, last year. Plenty of subtle improvements since. The writing first pulled me in, and, ultimately the grind of selfsame content drove me out (over 100 for the stuff I was interested in, though, so that was a lot of great, free content). From a quick look, I’m not sure that’s changed. Am I wrong?

    If the game weren’t asking so much access to my twitter (edit my profile, etc), I’d leave Fallen London with permissions.

    If they brought back the PvP, I’d probably come back regardless.

  19. Kdansky says:

    I really loved it in the beginning, but my stats are now 40/60/80/60, and getting Persuasion up another point takes me multiple days of doing the same action. I’ve already forgotten what the story is about right now. I also completely dislike its reliance on my returning to it time and time again, because that wreaks havoc on my concentration. It would be neat to play during a coffee break at work, but the way the actions refresh that’s suboptimal, and playing it suboptimal is not an option when it requires so many actions to do stuff.

    TLDR: Their monetisation scheme is evil.

    Also, they delete comments from their blog if you disagree with them, or point out flaws, or say that their game inspired you to write something similar (on my blog).

    • Ragnar says:

      That first bit is really what keeps me from playing these games. I cannot abide games that are designed around wasting my time. If they removed the grind and limits, I’d buy it. But I can’t afford such “free” games with micro-transactions.

  20. alexiskennedy says:

    Hi kdansky,

    >Also, they delete comments from their blog if you disagree with them, or point out flaws, or say that their game inspired you to write something similar (on my blog).

    Hey! We really don’t. We have a pretty specific comments policy (linked from the front page) but if you look at the blog you’ll see dozens of people disagreeing with us or pointing out flaws. On your last point – did you mean your comment here? http://blog.failbettergames.com/post/Tree-River-City-Lights-Part-I.aspx ? It’s very much not deleted – it may have sat in the moderation queue over a weekend or something.