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Of London And The Sunless Sea: Failbetter Interview Pt 2

Tentacular Talk

Our lengthy conversation with Alexis Kennedy and Paul Arendt of Failbetter Games continues, with mysterious, enigmatic and untold tales of Fallen London, details of the nightmarish voyages undertaken by the captains of the Sunless Sea, and adventures in the mind of a dead god. If you haven't read part one, you'll find it here. If you have, jump right in.

RPS: Before we move on to the new game, I must admit, embarrassingly, that I’ve forgotten how the actual narrative of Fallen London begins…

Arendt: You’re in prison.

Kennedy: Which was specifically done to give a sense of geography. You’re in a prison in the stalactites. First of all, that tells you that the world you’re in isn’t entirely naturalistic. Secondly, it tells you that you’re underground. And third, it gives you a sense of your physical place in that world. Prison openings are such a trope now (laughs).

Arendt: It’s a trope for a reason though. So many games fail by just popping the player down in a huge open space and saying, ‘be free’.

Kennedy: A tutorial in a constrained space is useful. Otherwise there’s a panic, people think they have to explore everything in case they miss it. If you can’t explore the entire space at the beginning for an in-game reason, you help the player to adjust and have some ludonarrative consonance. You can start in a lab or a med-bay, or an operating table. Or a morgue, as in the case of Torment. It’s about constraint.

RPS: If you’re an Elder Scrolls game, you have to imprison the player at the beginning. I think that’s in the scripture.

Kennedy: People are sometimes rude about that but it’s for a reason and it works.

RPS: I think Morrowind did it very well. You’re on a boat, arriving at a place you’ve never seen before in your life, but to begin with you’re at the coast, at a specific settlement, and restrained. Fallen London is restrictive as well, impossible to plough through. It’s like my bit on the side – I’m playing other games for review and I’ll occasionally lean out of one window and into another for a quick dabble.

Arendt: That’s totally what it’s designed for.

Kennedy: Keep us open in a tab should probably be our motto (laughs). I did talk to somebody once who said they played Fallen London in an in-game browser within EVE.

RPS: I love reading about EVE. It’s like a big book that people are writing, but I don’t have the patience, or perhaps the time, to commit to it. So often games expect the player to spend a lot of time doing very little, especially free-to-play games, which often have the element of grinding until the next thing opens up. You avoid that to an extent by having choices at every page, even if they do repeat.

Kennedy: Did you start playing in 2011?

RPS: Yes, thereabouts. When it relaunched.

Kennedy: The very first reiteration, in 2009, was practically Morrowind by the standards of something like Mafia Wars. But it was very grindy, there was choice but it was very limited. Initially, we were just really terrified of running out of content and we didn’t have a core game. What the last couple of years have been about is finding ways to put more game mechanics in there and finding ways to provide a variety of randomness. But everytime I create new content, we have to decide between adding that content or revisiting the old stuff.

Arendt: At the same time, what we’re discovering now is that what people really care about is the world and the story rather than the mechanics.

Kennedy: Yes. But you need to find something that respects their time as much as possible. So if they are hitting the same button ten times, I’d rather they see five different things even if we can’t give them ten different things. Or hit five different buttons. Ultimately, everybody knows what’s going on – there’s a pacing mechanism there. I would say that the pacing is 70% in order to provide a sense of time passing and to actually pace the stories, and 30% in order to encourage people to part with a little bit of cash to refresh their actions.

Arendt: This parallel thing of understanding how the mechanics work in order to make them more pleasant…

Kennedy: …and to provide a sense of narrative pacing.

Arendt: In the last six months particularly, we’ve concentrated a lot on gameplay delivery and making these structures work effectively. But what we’re finding is that people just want more Fallen London and they don’t really care what form it’s in. We did a comic recently, which was way better received than we thought it would be. The world, in a way, has become bigger than the game.

Kennedy: There are a million words of content in Fallen London. Literally. I’m sure there are other interactive projects on the planet with more than a million words of content…

RPS: Not many, I wouldn’t have thought.

Kennedy: Four times the size of Mass Effect 2’s script, I believe.

Arendt: Yeah, but they have pictures. Pictures that move.

Kennedy: Witchcraft.

Arendt: Speaking of which…

Kennedy: Yes. Our new game, with moving pictures! One of the really nice things about Fallen London is that it’s really handy as a research tool. We asked people, within the game, what they’d like to see in a Kickstarter. At the top were the comic and marginally ahead of that, a 2d, top-down roguelike trading game. And the comic is in search of a publisher because the response was so enthusiastic but we can’t make the numbers work. Comic book Kickstarters are a really dicey proposition. But we’re going to go ahead with the KS for…

Arendt: Sunless Sea!

Kennedy: 2d, top-down, explorey.

Arendt: With story!

Kennedy: We’ll re-use the storylet engine from Fallen London, so I’ll probably use the same CMS to write the content. We’ll have events triggered by what are effectively qualities, and that way we can keep putting out free content releases and little bits of DLC as well.

Arendt: The other important part is exploration. It’s set in the world of Fallen London and you are the captain of a steamship, or steam corvette, or steam dreadnought. And you sail about on the Underzee looking for adventure and giant Cthulhian monsters. Islands that are sentient. Zeppelins and so on and so forth.

Kenndy: Island mimics.

Arendt: This is all in Unity. The key thing is that it’s an underground cavern, so it’s really dark. A lot of the exploration is going to be based around the light around your ship, but you might see a vaguely phosphorescent shape in the distance that might be a friendly home port or might be the slitted pupils of Cthulhu, or whatever. There’s that roguelike sense of ‘do I risk my resources to explore something that might be fascinating, that might give me objects or more story, or do I head home while I still have the chance.

Kennedy: This is one of the storylet elements – you’re low on provisions so you stock up, head out to find staging posts on the way across the Underzee, which is a big place. If your provisions run out and your crew’s terror rises to high because they’ve seen too many tentacled monstrosities, then you don’t just hit a gameover button. You start getting events popping up, based on those qualities. So you might find that the cook has been eating and serving up the crew because madness has overtaken him, or that two men have gone missing, having jumped overboard in a fit of terror. Or nightmares overtake you. Eventually, that might lead to mutiny, which is game over.

Arendt: These are presented as interactive log entries.

Kennedy: Again, it goes back to the idea of dealing with a sense of place. An archipelago, and we’re particularly conscious of this living in Greenwich, is a net of trading routes. When you are playing something in the mould of Elite, you are primarily dealing with these places as drop-off points.

RPS: Nodes.

Arendt: Shops.

Kennedy: And what they should be is a source of stories. You’re exploring islands and discovering interesting things. How old are you, Adam?

RPS: Thirty…two? I had to think about that.

Kennedy: So not quite there for the first coming of Elite.

RPS: I discovered it quite late actually. Funnily enough, I don’t remember how I got into games. My parents didn’t play them. There must have been a mad uncle or someone who bought me an Atari 2600 because that just appeared one day.

Kennedy: My mother bought me my first machine. She thought it was educational. Do you know about Asteroid Hermits in Elite?

RPS: No.

Kennedy: There was reference in the Elite manual to hermits living on asteroids and generation ships. And to planet eaters. This being before the internet, it was all about playground gossip. X claimed Y claimed Z had actually seen an Asteroid Hermit. So I spent a lot of time flying out into deep space in Elite and looking between the stars, looking for these things.

We want that. We want people to occasionally find something that they’ve never come across before, and we can do that relatively cheapy with the 2d engine and very cheaply with the text. And that can then tie back into the player’s own story – maybe you knew this person before they cut off their legs and decided to become a hermit. And the stories can even feed back into Fallen London. We don’t have character imports from Fallen London because the logistics are too appalling to contemplate, but we can reference storylines.

Arendt: What really nails what we’re trying to capture is the loneliness of exploration. It’s an emotion that doesn’t have a name but is very core to the geek experience.

RPS: I bet there’s a German word for it.

Kennedy: There’s actually a Japanese term, Mono No Aware, which is somewhat appropriate.

Arendt: I’m thinking more of the excitement of knowing that there is so much that is new out there in the world, but at the same time being scared of actually encountering them.

RPS: Is the goal to make money by trading, or to explore the Underzee?

Kennedy: The roguelike tradition is that you have a victory tradition, a goal at the end, or the greatest depth. In Sunless Sea, you can take commissions to explore to explore new areas, to find sources of income, and to shoot things and take their stuff, and to trade goods. The end-games are story-based, finding your father’s murderer and his hiding place among the isles, dropping all of your resources into the resource sink that is your pirate lair so that you can become the terror of the seas. Or you can do the Dawntreader thing, sail off into the farthest east and have an epiphany. One of the great things about the Underzee is that it doesn’t have an edge, even though it has a north, east, west and south. It goes on forever in an unlikely way for a subterranean sea.

Arendt: The north is a whole different ballgame. It’s very wise to avoid that particular direction.

RPS: Is it procedurally generated?

Kennedy: It’s a hybrid. It’s tileset based, with a map sliced up into tiles. The near tiles, which are canonically geographically set anyway – the same islands and places. The mid and far zones, effectively, we shuffle the tiles and then deal a bunch in so that you’ll see similar tiles in similar places, but then there’s an entity encounter table system for each tile. That can be other ships, tentacle monstrosities, mimic islands.

RPS: There are going to be a lot of tentacles, aren’t there?

Arendt: Tentacles are a theme.

Kennedy: And depending on how well we do on KS, one of the stretch goals allows for submersibles. They’re already in the lore and it’d give us an extra resource to manage, with air. It’d work well in 2d because it gives a sense of peeling back the map. Second stretch goal goes the opposite way and explores the cavern roof. There’s a whole bunch of lore we haven’t gone into up there. Stalagtite citadels full of men waging way against the alien entities on the roof. But, the focus is on the sea.

RPS: As a collection of words, including the tentacles, it sounds like my cup of brewed leaves. I was going to say it being a ‘roguelike’ appeals strongly as well, but everything’s a roguelike these days. I get barked at all the time by our readers for attaching it to things where it doesn’t quite belong. Maybe it’s all my fault.

Kennedy: I think what people like about roguelikes…and this is my own reaction to them…is the dream of exploration. That you can maintain the thrill of exploration because it’s procedural, with different areas on each playthrough.

RPS: It’s the Asteroid Hermit thing as well.

Kennedy: Yeah! There’s a two percent chance of seeing some aspects of the game on a particular playthrough.

Arendt: We’re all about story and structure so we’re a little more curated.

Kennedy: Pure procedural isn’t where our strengths lie so we don’t want to go that way. But, again, we have people who have been playing Fallen London for four years and will suddenly discover something new – that they can get lost inside the mind of a dead god, for example, or that you can actually sell your soul to another character, or find a tribute to Jack Vance. Is it true that there’s a rubbery euphonium pet? There’s also the rare haircut.

Arendt: And the enigma ambition that very few people are aware of. Do we share this one?

Kennedy: Yeah.

Arendt: It’s a joke. It doesn’t exist.

Kennedy: We both put them on our mantelpiece at one point and people went mad trying to find it.

Arendt: We like to fuck with our players occasionally. Partly in terms of narrative experimentation. People who play understand that we want to push things as far as we can in terms of how we deliver these snippets of story.

Kennedy: I got my best bug report ever. The formal company policy and this is on the cards as you play through the Mr Eaten content. We say if you play thAt content and you think something’s wrong, it’s possible that you’re just screwed. Obviously, if people do report actual bugs we try to fix them.

But this particular report was very polite and it went like this: “Dear Failbetter, I played through four-fifths of a story, until I reached the nightmarish midnight carnival, where I was offered a 40 nex opportunity to delete my character forever, with no advantage or unique text to gain. I thought I’d do it anyway because I was curious.” Now, bear in mind, that nobody is going to get this far with a starting character. But he went through with it and then wrote to us to say: “There must have been a glitch because my character wasn’t deleted. I hesitate to ask for the return of the Nex but could you please delete my character because I feel like I’ve got away with something.”

RPS: Did you? Delete it, I mean?

Kennedy: I think I gave him a unique quality as a badge of honour actually. “Your game failed to destroy my character after I paid it to!”

RPS: I once mentioned my character’s name on RPS and I received so many gifts over the next week or two.

Kennedy: One of our fans is very enthusiastic. He started sending me rats, everytime the card came up. So I was receiving hundreds of rats. One day, I sent him a message from the Bazaar with all of the rats he’d sent attached, saying ‘excuse me, I think these are yours.’ But it didn’t discourage him. He started sending even more rats, hundreds of them, so I went into the debug tool and sent fifty thousand back to him. Then it became an in-forum joke and he’s built a StoryNexus game called Rat Sending Simulator 2013 and it’s all about players sending rats to each other, through an elaborate in-game mythos.

Arendt: We get a better class of stalker.

Kennedy: And there’s a ten page thread on the forum about all of this.

Arendt: One of the nice things about Fallen London is that it has this barrier of entry – you have to like reading.

RPS: We share that barrier.

Arendt: It’s a good barrier to have.

This weekend, the conversation concludes, with further thoughts about free-to-play, creating a roguelike, and the wonder and horror of Rob Sherman's Black Crown. We'll have the transcript of a long conversation with Rob next week, containing all of the grisly details and more besides.

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Adam Smith


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