Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fallen London

I've been getting really into a browser game called "Fallen London." It's kinda similar to an idea I had for a web game a few years ago, but with a much more clever set of mechanics and a deeper level of polish than I'd be able to have made. Plus, y'know, they actually did it.

It's a very story-based game, which sets apart from the other browser games I've checked out in the past and endears itself to me immensely. It's a very sprawling and open-ended game that allows you to simultaneously pursue any of the dozens of plots that interest you. Imagine having a whole set of Choose Your Own Adventure books, all set in the same world, that you're playing at the same time, and you have a good idea of what this is like.

The setting is excellent, but I actually don't want to get into it too much, since part of the fun of the game is discovering where you are and what's happening. The game starts in media res, without any real background or exposition, and you gradually pick up more of the setting as you begin to explore London Beneath.

MINI SPOILERS (pretty tame stuff that you'll find in your first play session or two)

This is a fairly Victorian game, with the elements you would expect from that time period. There are bohemians reading one another's poetry in parlors, street urchins living on rooftops, bomb-tossing anarchists, constables chasing after horse-drawn carriages, etc.

There's also a Lovecraftian strain through the game. I haven't gotten too deep into that aspect yet, but my character has already started having nightmares, and there are whispers of strange creatures roaming through the luminescent dark tunnels.

In the story as in everything else, though, the game lets you do whatever you want. I suspect that the Cthulhu-ish elements are there for people who feel like indulging in the weird mysteries of the deep, and everyone else can enjoy their own game experience, whether it's a vaguely steam-punk-ish action/adventure, a Sherlock Holmes investigation, a Jane Austen comedy of manners, a Charles Dickens exploration of social class, a Lewis Carroll literary exploration of drug dens, or any of the many other diversions Fallen London has to offer.


The mechanics are remarkably intuitive while allowing for a nicely complex style of play. After you finish the tutorial, you can move between different locations within Fallen London by clicking the "Travel" button (towards the upper right; it took a little while for me to find) and then clicking on your destination. You'll spend most of your time in the location(s) that best align with the type of story you enjoy, but it can be in your interest to occasionally visit other areas to see what other adventures are brewing.

Within a location, you'll see a bunch of "Storylets" that you can play. Each Storylet is a particular occasion or encounter. Clicking it will present a paragraph that describes the situation, and give you one or more action you can take in response. For example, a Storylet might describe an urchin snatching a purse from a gentleman; your responses might be to pursue the urchin, or to create a distraction, or to console the gentleman. Each of these responses could use different skills, be of different difficulties, and lead to different results.

Oh, I suppose I should describe skills. Fallen London is sort of a role-playing game, but, very refreshingly, it does not use the standard D&D style statistics of strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc.; instead, the skills are things like Watchful, Dangerous, and Persuasive. You increase your skills by using them, and can be as focused or as disparate as you like; I've been primarily focusing on my Watchful and Persuasive skills, while also keeping up my Shadowy skill somewhat, and still have a Dangerous level of only 1. Beyond these main skills, though, there's a stunning and often hilarious range of attributes your character can gain, like "Friend of Bohemians," "Connected to the Duchess," "Hedonist," "Suspicious," "Altruistic," etc. Some of these steadily increase as you use them; others can go up or down as you trade in favors and make future decisions.

Besides the "Storylets", you can also draw from a deck of Story cards. These behave somewhat similarly to Storylets, except that a Storylet is always available for as long as you meet the requirements, while you can only have a few Story cards at a time, and each is random.

Making a choice in a Storylet or a Story consumes an action point. This is the main mechanic that limits and guides your gameplay. It's impossible to die in this game, or to be permanently stuck anywhere; even if you fail at a challenge, you can keep retrying it until you succeed. So, to keep Fallen London from being something that you just obsessively keep clicking until you eventually finish, the game limits that number of choices that you can make in a session. You start out with 10 Action Points, which means you can complete 10 storylets or stories. You regain action points over time, back up to a maximum of 10. So, you can check in a couple of times a day and advance your storylines. It's a very... civilised way of doing an online game.

There's a bunch of other stuff in here too, which I haven't really explored yet. There's the Bazaar, where you can sell some of the many rewards that you've earned, and buy clothing, "weapons" (like bottles of wine, watches, canes, and magnifying glasses), or pets (including a Winsome Dispossessed Orphan and a Malevolent Monkey). There's a circus, which kind of baffles me; I may re-visit when I hit a lull in my stories. There's a whole social aspect, which I'm not doing anything with; it seems to be optional, but it can provide some mild improvements to your character's social and psychological constitution. (My profile is pretty bare at the moment, but may evolve over time.)

Anywho... I'm having a blast, and really admire the great job the developers and creators have done at creating something that feels like a casual game, but is way more entertaining and higher-quality than any other casual/social game that I've played. I recommend checking it out, and if you decide to stay in the streets of Fallen London for a while, do stop by my place for a cup of tea.

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