Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cleft for Thee Hide in Me. The Walls Are Wrong. The Walls Are Wrong.

It's mini-update-about-games-time! Let's kick off with a kickstarter: the brilliant chaps at Failbetter Games have begun a Kickstarter for "The Silver Tree", a companion game to their amazing Fallen London. The Silver Tree will be more of a stand-alone game - I don't believe that it has the social actions and such that you can get in Fallen London - but it promises to tie in interesting ways to Fallen London's broader mythos. I don't want to inadvertently spoil anything, but if you're at all interested, I do highly recommend checking out the Kickstarter. It looks like there's a lot of good flavor in there.

Like Failbetter's other games, The Silver Tree will be free, so the standard Kickstarter game model of "pay 15 bucks and get a DRM-free downloadable copy" doesn't really work here. Instead, they're creating exclusive content at various tiers that will unlock special storylines, items, etc. for you to explore and enjoy. Intriguingly, some of the tiers also include rewards that will unlock for Fallen London players (like me!) and, judging from the backers, those are the most popular. The upper tiers have some really cool bespoke rewards: creation of purely custom stories that only you can play; making an avatar for yourself; and one lucky person has already paid $500 to become the first mortal ever to sip Hesperidean Cider.

The video for the Silver Tree… isn't as impressive as other Kickstarter videos, in all honesty. But I've still been loving the updates, in particular the recent interview with Yasmeen Khan, the Silver Tree's writer and the mind behind some of Fallen London's best stories.

Speaking of Fallen London: after spending an inordinate amount of time and attention on the game - it's literally the first thing I do after waking up and one of the last things I do before falling asleep - I finally was able to justify to myself spending some money on it. It was as much to support the game's awesome creators for all the great stuff they've done as to reward myself. I'm not at all used to the "free to play" model of casual games, and so it's been interesting to see the "all of the above" model that Fallen London takes to try and make money.

You don't need to pay anything at any level to play, which I think is a brilliant design on their part. Many comparable games will let you play for free up to, say, level 20 or something, and require you to subscribe to go beyond that. I imagine that there's a pretty hard drop-off after reaching that limit where people decide they've had enough and move on. In contrast, Fallen London has no cap at all, but offers the benefits of paid content at any level. You could pay from Day One and get access to some new stories and benefits; or be like me and wait two months and get a character close to level 100 before deciding to do it, and still get useful benefits at that point as well.

Most free-to-play games out there seem to follow one of two models, the subscription model and the microtransaction model. In a subscription model, you pay a certain amount of money for a certain period of time (typically per month) in order to get full access to the game; you can continue playing without subscribing, but in a reduced state (unable to raise your level above a certain amount, or unable to participate in certain activities, etc.). In a microtransaction, the skeleton of the game is entirely playable, but the developers encourage you to spend small sums of money in order to get discrete benefits. Angry Birds is a very successful example of this type of approach: you can pay some money to get a special bird that helps you beat a challenging level, or pay to get access to a new set of levels.

Like I said above, Failbetter uses an all-of-the-above strategy. You purchase an in-game currency using real dollars. (It used to be called Fate when it was just used in Fallen London. Now that they're opening up a wider network of storytelling games using their StoryNexus platform, they're using a new currency called Nex.) You can also earn a few points of Fate here or there by finishing certain plots within the game. You can then use Fate/Nex to either subscribe to the game by becoming an Exceptional Friend, or use it for any of a wide variety of microtransactions. Becoming an Exceptional Friend gives you slightly more Actions, letting you do a little more each day, and also gives you access to an exclusive area, the House of Chimes. I was utterly delighted to see that this subscription is NOT auto-renewing, which makes me extremely happy and very likely to continue supporting it.

A bunch of other stuff can be done with Fate/Nex. One of the most obvious but least helpful is to purchase more Actions, which lets you do stuff without waiting for your Candle to recharge. That's the sort of thing that most free-to-play games would strongly encourage people to do, but Failbetter seems to have deliberately made it so expensive that few players would do it. On the other extreme, there are several long-running, somewhat stand-alone stories that each contain about a dozen storylets and provides some unique rewards. I did one of these, "A Long-Lost Daughter," and was quite impressed. The quality of writing is definitely up to par with the rest of Fallen London, and the story moved along at an especially nice clip. (I imagine that if I'd started it earlier, it would have taken me longer to complete it, but it still felt worth doing at my high level.) Finally, there are several cases where you receive a Storylet or Opportunity card, and some of the specific options to play require spending a small amount of Fate/Nex. I haven't done any of these yet, but it seems like in some cases it opens up another plot thread for you, and in other cases it provides a specific in-game benefit like completely healing your Wounds or letting you more quickly advance in a particular story.

I still haven't made any social connections in the game, but haven't found that playing it solo significantly impairs my progress. I did recently cheese out a little and created a second account specifically for social interactions so I can lower my Menace qualities when they get too high. I'm now participating in a certain… uh, I guess you could call it a form of multiplayer combat, although as experienced in Fallen London it's VERY different from what you might think about when you read those words.

Okay, it's been a little while since I've talked about Fallen London, so here are some of that game's


I really wanted to announce this out loud in this blog post's title: I've become A Person of Some Importance! I'm weirdly, giddily, unexplainably happy about this. It's been a visible goal for a long time, and only arrived yesterday after fairly involved (but mostly entertaining) encounters with the Ambitious Barrister.

There's an ongoing theme in most successful multiplayer games: the nature of the game changes dramatically the farther you advance. Playing Star Wars: The Old Republic at Level 50 is a completely different experience than playing it at level 10 or 40. Something similar is at play in Fallen London. The underlying mechanics are still familiar - you're spending Action points to pursue Storylets or Opportunities - but the number of options available to you literally double. Crafting becomes much more important in this phase of the game, making me extremely glad that I had barely sold anything during my climb up to level 100. Entirely new areas open up as well, and the rhythms of those places are still different and unique from one another, even as The University is very different from Ladybones Road.

Anyways. I think I'm getting closer to the "end" of the game, as least as far as stat advancement goes. According to their FAQ, the major Qualities currently cap out at around 130 points; I now have a "natural" 104 in Persuasive, and am sitting just below 100 without any equipment in the other major Qualities (but rated up to 110 in Watchful when outfitted in my incredibly stylish ensemble of Luminous Neathglass Goggles and an Academic Gown, while carrying a Patent Scrutinizer and accompanied by my faithful Haunted-looking Dog). I'm increasingly getting the feeling, though, that Fallen London is something that I'll just enjoy inhabiting, rather than focus on "beating". I imagine that my playtime will drop off once I reach the cap, but probably not stop altogether, and I'll likely ramp it back up as they continue to expand the game in the future. (The Relickers' Opportunity cards currently list some crazily high-level items like a Rumormonger's Network that would require stats of 200 to acquire, so I imagine that, years from now, that's around where the game will end up.)

All fun, interesting, well-told stuff. They do a great job at parceling out enough goals for you to always have interesting stuff to do, without ever feeling overwhelmed. Color me impressed.


In other game news: my exceedingly awesome brother Andrew gave me a bunch of games for my birthday. The most impressive of these is Skyrim; I'd vaguely been planning on waiting until more mods were out before trying it, but I'm delighted to be playing it now. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my PC can play it at high graphics settings without any slowdown. My computer is several years old, and I'd been worried that I would need another major upgrade cycle in order to make it run.

Amusingly, though, the game from Andrew that I've been pouring most of my time into lately isn't the $60 AAA title, but the $5 indie game The Binding of Isaac. I'd first heard about this game at the AV Club's Gameological Society, where it has developed an intense fan base among the regular commentators.

The game is really well done, and quite addictive, in a matter entirely opposite to that of Fallen London. Fallen London's appeal is based on its longevity: you're taking part in a vast, sprawling, ever-growing story. Each decision you make now has ramifications that will ripple outward and affect the future of your story. You patiently play over time in order to accumulate the wealth, power, and influence to succeed. In contrast, The Binding of Isaac is a short, brutal game. You can't save: once you die, you're dead, and need to start again from the beginning. In Fallen London, you can't die; in The Binding of Isaac, death comes incredibly easily. Over time, you'll come to acquire pretty much every item that Fallen London has to offer. The Binding of Isaac also has hundreds of items, but in any given game you'll only encounter perhaps a half-dozen or so of them.

The mood of the game is very dark and macabre. The story is a loose modern adaptation of Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac. In this version, Isaac's Mom watches Christian television all day long, starts hearing messages from God, begins punishing Isaac, and eventually is ordered to destroy him. Pretty dark, huh! Yeah, it is.

The actual gameplay is pretty retro and fun. It's most accurate to describe it as a clone of the dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda. The rooms, the bombs, the keys, the monsters, the items, the bosses… it's all here. The major changes are, first of all, the theme: while Legend of Zelda's dungeons were darker than its overworld, Isaac's dungeons are vastly more dark. The game is pulling from some pretty twisted psychology here, and there's a bit of an obsession with various bodily fluids, death, sickness, and not a little demonic imagery. The second major change is the use of items. Zelda had just a handful: a boomerang, a bow, a raft. The items you get in Isaac will completely change the game, at least until you die. Many items are power-ups that increase your damage or speed, but there are tons of dramatic transformations as well: companions that protect you from damage, or mimic your shots, or chase down your enemies; wings that let you fly over pits, boulders, and spikes; a kamikaze vest that blows up to damage you and nearby enemies; items that swap around your bombs and keys, or let you see through walls, or magnets that pull nearby items toward you. I've probably played a half-dozen games, and no two games have felt alike.

I have yet to beat the game - it looks like there are six levels, and the farthest I've made it so far is the fifth - but there's a pretty good unlock system that helps me feel like I'm making progress even when I fail. I've unlocked two new characters, "Eve" and "Magdalene", who have different starting stats and items. More importantly, I'm getting a better feel for the game, and in particular getting better at beating the bosses. Annoyingly, I now usually die in the "regular" rooms on the lower levels, which are filled with multiple enemies who hop or shoot in patterns that are difficult to dodge in the closed-in environment.

I'm sure these games will keep me very busy for a while. In an embarrassment of riches, still more awesome games loom on the horizon. One is "Divinity II", which I haven't played yet, but sounds very much up my alley: an open-world fantasy RPG. The other is "Analogue: A Hate Story," a paid follow-up to the phenomenal free "Digital: A Love Story," which I so loved playing years ago. I played the demo for Analogue a few months ago and was pretty impressed. The setting and style are pretty different from Digital, but it has a similar combination of strong personalities, implicit storytelling, and a really innovative way to derive a plot from data-mining activities. I can't wait to plumb a little deeper and see where it leads.

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