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Impressions: Fallen London

Under the Underground

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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