Friday, November 09, 2012

All Shall Find the Light at Last / Silver on the Tree

I've finished The Silver Tree, Failbetter Games' latest contribution to their StoryNexus platform. It's the first StoryNexus game that I've actually finished: I lost interest in Cabinet Noir (though I may revisit it sometime), and they haven't finished all the storylines in Fallen London yet. It was cool to see what an entire Failbetter narrative arc feels like, and I was pretty impressed with the result.

Failbetter seems to take a page from Bioware's philosophy towards game design. Stories matter, choices matter, characters matter. You're given a few decisions early on that help shape your conception of your character. As you play the game, you get a better understanding of the world you're in, what plots are unfolding, what's at stake. And, at the end, you make decisions that affect the outcome of that world. It isn't a totally wide-open world - you can't kill Lord British - but it is a much richer and more involved narrative than most games can offer.

MINI SPOILERS for THE SILVER TREE (includes game mechanics for this and Fallen London but no plot information):

The system for The Silver Tree has the same major components as Fallen London, but they are far simpler, mostly because there are far fewer of them. Fallen London has four primary qualities, probably over a hundred secondary qualities, four main menaces, and over a hundred types of items; it also has many locations and long storylines. The Silver Tree has three primary qualities; the secondary qualities mostly just track your progress in each of the half-dozen plots; there's just one menace; and there are only three important types of items (but another three for Kickstarter backers and/or Nex customers). So, it's much easier to understand what's going on, and to track your progress through the game.

Even though the two games both use the same components of qualities and items, the way they're used are quite different. For starters, instead of increasing your primary qualities by using them, you increase them by collecting and spending items. The opportunity deck is pretty different, too: in Fallen London, cards are free to draw but cost actions to play; in The Silver Tree, it costs an action to draw, but the cards are free to play.

The biggest change is probably in how story progression works. Fallen London has many different systems throughout the game, but most often, you'll raise a minor quality to a certain level, then learn the next story beat; this will often reset that minor quality or give you a new one, which you then need to raise again to learn the next plot point; and so on. So, you tend to follow a more or less linear progression within any given plot; sometimes you can choose between multiple paths, or decide in which order to do things. The Silver Tree works the opposite way: you can do the story beats at any time, in any order, and doing so raises the story's minor quality. Once it gets high enough (typically 20, sometimes 30), that plot is done, and you need to make a decision. From a plot perspective, the idea is that you're gradually investigating and learning things, and once you've learned enough, you decide what to do with your knowledge; it's an aggregating process, not a linear progression.

It was an interesting variation, but I think I prefer the Fallen London style. My biggest problem is that, with something like six different plots, each of which have many story beats, some from your deck and some from "pinned cards" (which seems to be the new nomenclature for storylets), it's extremely difficult to keep track of what stories you've already played, and which are new. I'm pretty sure that there are fewer than 20 for each of them, so you'll probably eventually repeat some, which is fine; but the game would also let you play the same plot 20 times, in which case you'd never get to see the other options. I can remember whether some of the result text I'm reading is a duplicate, but the prompts are brief enough that it's really hard to recall whether or not it goes with an already-explored result. I think the game would benefit immensely from some sort of icon indicating whether or not you've previously taken a particular choice.

One or two plots do work somewhat differently, which I appreciated... I think either The Sculptor's Story or A Sip of Immortality. Unlike the other plots, whose only requirement is a plot value between 1 and 20, this one broke down the stories differently: some for levels 1-5, then 6-10, 11-15, etc. This helped immensely, since I'm much more likely to remember whether I took an option in the near past than remember whether I ever did it. It also lets the story feel more like a Fallen London progression, with you actually digging deeper and learning more secret stuff, instead of just additional stuff.

As for strategy: as far as I can tell, it looks like the best plan is to use the opportunity deck for almost all of your actions. This lets you essentially triple your progress, since you're spending 1 action for 3 moves; as a bonus, many of the options give you better results, or let you raise your major quality more cheaply. Use pinned cards to kick off each plot; use to play each plot option once (assuming you're a story-hound like me); if you have the Place of Whispers, play those stories if you like; and once you raise your story qualities to 20 or 30, play the pinned cards to end the plots. Otherwise, cards for everything.

That said, I believe that the quickest way to end the game might be to exclusively play the pinned cards. The flow of a deck-based game is that you gradually acquire more Trusted stats for the three characters; then, when you advance a story, that Trusted is converted to an equal number of items; and, periodically, you'll cash in many items for a boost in a primary quality. However, with the repeatable pinned cards, you can skip challenges altogether and simply advance stories by converting between Trusted and items. For example, one story might require 20 Trusted by the Khan and reward you with 20 Gifts; another will require 20 Gifts and return you 20 Trusted by the Khan. Playing this way will never advance your stat, and you'll miss many of the unique stories, but I think you could finish the game in just about 40 actions this way. If I re-play the game, I may try that, just to quickly check out some of the alternate endings.

MEGA SPOILERS (includes plot and an ending for The Silver Tree, and some minor references to Fallen London):

I was initially attracted to The Silver Tree by the promise of a tie-in to Fallen London, and it didn't disappoint. This doesn't exactly feel like a prequel, but there are some nice thematic nods towards future events and settings in London, and lots of nifty little hidden gems that will catch the attention of London veterans. Most of these are associated with The Cloaked Emissary's story, which sheds a lot of light on the process by which a city falls, but there are many intriguing nuggets scattered throughout. The story of Discovering Another Place has some things to say about Parabola, of which I've also heard a few whispers in London. The Princess's peach brandy explains a lot about The Gracious Widow. And the silver tree itself, of course, is a future fixture in the Forgotten Quarter.

The Silver Tree doesn't try to answer all the questions, which may disappoint some people but I personally enjoyed. I love ambiguity in my fiction, and really enjoy the lingering sense of wonder and mystery that remains when the story is done. I know of the love of the Princess and William; how do I reconcile their story with her eventual identity as The Gracious Widow? Specifically, how was she widowed? I currently am imagining a wedding between the two of them, but what next? Was William killed when Cathay invaded? Did both of them descend to the Neath, in which case, did the Princess's brandy work for herself and not for him? (The brandy itself is pretty fascinating - she developed it herself, without aid from the Bazaar, so it makes sense that, while it would behave somewhat similarly to Hesperidean Cider, it may not be as reliable, or may have other effects.)

One of the benefits and risks of a Bioware-style approach is reconciling continuity and canon with varying player choice. Within the frame of the story, we know that, no matter what, Karakorum will come under attack, and we know that, eventually, it will be a decayed ruin underneath Fallen London. But the question of HOW it falls remain up in the air; and furthermore, your choices will help decide WHY it falls. I'd be curious to re-try the endings sometime and see how other stories finish. In my case, I chose to confront the Cloaked Emissary. This turned out to be a perfect option for a Fallen London player like me, since this way I learned that this wasn't just any master, but Mr Wines, probably the favorite among them all. I spirited him away from the city and set him up in Rome, presumably under the watchful eye of the Pope. And, who knows, maybe he was one of the first Masters to have cast an eye upon London.

I was pretty tempted to pick one of the Princess's endings - I had "Sympathetic to the Princess" at 3 by the story's end - but none of the options sounded quite right for my character.

Oh, speaking of which: this game doesn't have quite the same degree of customization as what you can get in Fallen London - there's no stats like Subtle or Heartless - and the stories you play within the game don't really make a difference, but the way you start and end those stories does let you construct a good vision of who you are. So: in my case, I was Seberin Cirion, an emissary from the Pope, officially there to learn about the Mongol culture, but secretly to discover the capabilities of the Mongol army and provide that information to the leaders of Europe. I was strong in my faith, naming my falcon Iohannes after Saint John; over time, I became more and more intrigued by what I learned of Mongol culture (drinking airag, dreaming strange dreams of another place), and ended up embracing much of what I had learned. I was intrigued by the quiet struggle between Khan, Princess, and Sculptor; I liked the Princess and wanted her to find happiness, but worried about the Sculptor's ulterior motives. Specifically, I learned that he was there on orders from Europe, whose leaders had somehow learned of the Bazaar, and wanted to make sure that the Masters took Karakorum instead of one of their own cities. His love of the Princess seemed genuine, but less important than his devotion to the nations of Europe. I never quite figured out what the Interpreter was up to.

After I had completed my official and secret missions, and all of my other plots, I confessed my actions to the Khan and offered to help him. This led to the very final part of the game, where you can choose your own ending. I had something like ten options; the choices you make with each of the other stories (The Cloaked Emissary, The Sculptor's Tale, The Silver Tree, The Khan and His Daughter, Seeking Another Place) will each unlock one or two possible endings, either directly (as with the Cloaked Emissary) or by providing another stat (The Sculptor's Tale and The Khan and His Daughter can each provide Sympathetic to the Princess). I think I unlocked everything except for the Interpreter's ending.

At the end of the Cloaked Emissary's story, I had two choices: agree to save Karakorum by letting the city be sold, or to ensure that the city was destroyed by Cathay. Neither choice was too appealing, but I understand that the fate of the city is sealed, so I went with the first choice. When it came to the end of the game, though, I chose not to facilitate the sale. Instead, as noted above, I absconded with the Emissary. I do hope that the Princess came to a happy end. Well... she hasn't ended yet, but you know what I mean.


The Silver Tree was a really fun game, and I think it could be a great gateway game for people who might feel overwhelmed by Fallen London's scope. I loved the atmosphere, the writing, the characters (those brief sentences add up to really rich and nuanced portraits of a half-dozen enigmatic people), and the gorgeous artwork. Best of all, the game is a great exemplar of the "choices matter" philosophy of game design, and if you're like me, you'll be thinking long and hard before you click that final button.

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