Full disclosure time. I’m about to talk about Fallen London [official site] by Failbetter Games, a game and company that I’ve now done a fair amount of writing for. Please pause to get the necessary pinch of salt to take with anything that follows, if you wish. However, my love for this crazy Victorian universe goes back a lot further than that, and this week I’m not going to talk about anything I’ve had a hand in. Instead, I thought I’d discuss Seeking the Name. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one of the most interesting, disturbing quests you’ll ever regret taking on.
Some minor lore spoilers follow, but nothing too deep.
Seeking The Name is the exact opposite of most RPG quests. You can argue it has an element of fighting for justice to it, but that’s not really the point. Really, from the point of view of your Fallen London character, it’s less a quest than it is a curse – a voracious hunger, an unstoppable drive that strips them of everything they have and promises nothing in return. One of the standard Fallen London slogans is “All will be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Seeking The Name is so far removed from that, the game itself regularly breaks character to tell you that you are making a mistake, that you should turn back, and that nothing awaits but pain, suffering and more pain. Pain like losing half your stats in a single click. Pain like throwing away your Destiny. Pain like sacrificing your hardest earned possessions just for a chance of progressing.
Which of course doesn’t stop anyone.
The basic story of Fallen London is that during the reign of Victoria, London was stolen by bats and dragged down into an underground cavern called the Neath by the Masters of the Bazaar – Mr Iron, Mr Cups, Mr Pages, Mr Veils and so on. London is not however the first city to be taken, but the Fifth. The story of the Name begins in the Third City, when the Masters turned on one of their own, known to us as Mr Candles. They had him chained, stabbed, devoured, drowned in liquid sadness, and thrown down a well. In the words of William Shakespeare, thou dost not get much more owned than that. Unfortunately for everyone and everything, even that was not enough to do it. Something of the new “Mr Eaten” remains at large in the world; a gnawing hunger that goes beyond flesh and craving. And a reckoning will not be postponed indefinitely.
As for Fallen London itself, it’s a browser-based game set in the city and various other parts of the Neath, with your goal being to create a character at the bottom of society and quickly rise to the prominence that your brilliance demands. That’s done by playing through stories, grinding a lot of abstract concepts like whispered secrets into higher value items, and slowly levelling up stats like Dangerous and Shadowy as you move between better and better Lodgings and become the talk of the town. At this point, players unlock a Destiny, which is essentially a glimpse of what will happen once all else has played out – their character’s ultimate, world-changing ending seen in dream form now, allowing for the actual game to continue as long as necessary.
Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name is about taking all of that hard work and willingly flushing it down the toilet for no particularly good reason except sheer bloody-mindedness and curiosity. One of its most famous stories, before it went on hiatus a few years ago, involved a player who reached a nightmare version of Mrs Plenty’s Carnival, featuring a big wheel that headed up to the light of the Surface. Despite what some players believe, it is actually possible for people from the Neath to survive on the surface – it’s just risky, and becomes more so the longer they’ve been down there. Here though, the informative text just warned that riding the Big Wheel would kill their character dead. D-E-D, dead. Game over dead, which isn’t usually possible. It even promised that there was no interesting text waiting behind the decision. It was an option not worth taking.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, of course somebody clicked it. What makes it special is that when their character… after months, maybe years of play-time, wasn’t immediately immolated into nothing but dust particles… they filed a bug report.
This is the commitment of Mr Eaten players. Indeed, since the content being shut down at the end of 2013 until now (for reasons explained in this blog post), one of the most common questions has been when Seeking will re-open and when more can either a) join the self-destructive quest or b) just enjoy the sadistic joy of watching other people put themselves through it – chained, mutilated, cast out, and all the effort wasted on reaching endgame simply washed away in the hope of doing something that most people are, let’s face it, wise not to even attempt. At least, without a sacrificial alt created specifically to be burned on the pyre of curiosity. You’re constantly giving up what you worked so hard for, from stats to possessions to in-game standing, with no idea how far it’s going to go and no promise except that it’s not worth it.
There’s a delicious irony to the Eaten content of course, that while its roots are in transgression, it’s every bit as much of a planned experience as any other interactive story. You swap the gilded cage for one wreathed in barbed wire, but that doesn’t change its core function. That’s why the bug report example stands out as so effective – that in a high-stakes game of chicken between the author and the players, the author blinked. However brief the moment, it’s always satisfying to see gods bleed.
In a more meta context, I’d argue this ties into the delight of watching speed-runs. It’s not just the high-level play, it’s the subversion of the rules, the seeking out of chips in the armour that can be wedged open, and taking back power – Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, only being likely rewarded with a polite retweet from an impressed developer instead of becoming an all-you-can-eat liver buffet. RPGs tend to be the best genre for this due to the sheer number of systems in play to abuse. Finding and exploiting a loophole is a satisfaction that no outright cheat code can match, though I do particularly love when a game is smart enough to detect it and respond.
Most examples of course involve emergent examples of gameplay, in the player’s favour. Mr Eaten doesn’t allow for any of this. It’s a scripted experience. You click text options. Text pops up. You can’t do anything that the author hasn’t intended. It does however do a great job of creating the feel of in-game transgression (as previously seen in moments like selling party members into slavery, or Heather the ghoul in Vampire: Bloodlines, and how her presence unwittingly places the player character into an abusive relationship that only ever punishes attempts to do the right thing) simply by how much you have to hurt yourself after becoming invested in a game about advancement, how much you spend for no benefit or gamble on incredibly poor odds, and just how often you’re reminded that nothing good is coming of it. Much like The Stanley Parable, it’s about being told ‘no’ and replying ‘but yes!’ In particular, I think one of the smartest elements is how it casts the character relationship for the duration, where you as the player essentially become the spirit of hunger and insanity destroying them for your own amusement and interest in how far they can truly fall.
Either way, it’s a good example of how offering players a big red button can genuinely add something to the world. Even if you don’t press it, it’s there, as a temptation, as a dare, and as a source of stories outside the game as well as within. It’s just a shame that most RPGs are absolutely terrified right now of actual consequence, where by ‘consequence’ I mean anything more than just choosing a carefully laid path. Sometimes, there has to be a boom. A big boom, like Ultima VII casually handing out a spell called Armageddon and daring you not to cast it. A small boom, like Underworld II letting you actively crash the evil flying castle of Kilhorn Keep by killing the monsters keeping it in the air, escaping, and returning to search through the rubble. In most of these cases it’s a bad idea because you prevent yourself finishing the game or at least make it much harder for yourself. Still, if you don’t have that freedom in the big moments, how are you expected to have it in the small ones? You may never win a fight against a whole town, or even start one, knowing that. It’s still nice to have the choice.
There’s also a big difference between this and what many games have traditionally done – allow you to make a mistake that renders the game unwinnable. Morrowind for instance would flash up a message if you killed the wrong person. Ultima VII: Serpent Isle would happily let you lose one of the artifacts necessary to save the world. That’s not really what I’m talking about here, which is the active choice to be self-destructive in some way and enjoy the experience that follows for the innovative slaps to the face as well as the novelty. Rolling a low-int character in Fallout for instance changed your dialogue to be little above grunts and moans. In another Bloodlines example, choosing a Nosferatu meant having to avoid the streets and travel everywhere in LA by the sewer system. When you’re used to being able to do everything and have the game bend over backwards to praise your every mouse-click, restrictions eventually become the only thing that make success and effort remotely meaningful. When they’re clever with it, they can become unforgettable.
But even in this era of open worlds and player freedom, the closest we really get are self-imposed challenges like finishing a game in underwear, or the scripted destruction of a town as a story point rather than even a wagging finger of failure. And that’s just boring. I want to see the destructive spirit of Mr Eaten get into other games, and for them to have the confidence to make things more interesting by screwing up or making dangerous choices. In the next Elder Scrolls game for instance, how about the Daedric Quests not just being cute little vignettes where you do some naughty things to NPCs in exchange for a weapon of some sort, but, say, twelve world-changing bells that can’t be un-rung. Cities being taken over by madness. Weather lashing the land with incredible power. Mehrunes Dagon stamping around the world, with fire in every footstep. Molag Bal apologising for his boring realm in The Elder Scrolls Online. Zombies! Magic becoming wild and random. An-all girl reboot of The Goonies!
Oh, sure, you might complete one in ignorance and be a little inconvenienced, but to keep going? To bring an entire world to its knees, just to see what might happen and if you can still succeed? That’s how you go from mere story to legend. And if you fail, you can’t claim you weren’t warned, or didn’t go into it with eyes open.
But, back to our friend in the well. Like a lot of Fallen London’s big stories, part of its mystique definitely comes from the fact that as an unfinished story (much like the four Ambitions), there’s always been the curiosity of how it will end. Perhaps in the telling, the curiosity will fade away into its well. If anyone knows, it’s no longer a true mystery. A trail of tears becomes so much more manageable when the end is actually in sight. I suspect that Mr Eaten’s true greatness was back in 2013, when Seeking was about being one of the first to climb Everest or reach the North Pole, and the impossibility of it only made it more tantalising. However, even complete, I hope it lives on along with the likes of Dark Souls as an example of how players respond to adversity, and how enduring can lead to so much more than just another quest to complete.