Thursday, November 15, 2012

Low, Low, Low

Here's another quickie Kickstarter post. You remember The Silver Tree? The Kickstarter that Failbetter did a while back? Well, they're at it again! Up next is Below, a "dungeon-delving RPG card game."

One thing that's really nice about this project is that, in addition to the requisite inspirational video and gushing description of the end product, they actually include a playable prototype of the game. It's built on their StoryNexus platform, so, as they point out in their "Risks & Challenges" section, they aren't really creating any new technology for this project. The funding is all for the art, the story, and other aspects of content. They are quick to point out that it's an early prototype with placeholder art, but I actually think it looks really good. I was kind of expecting them to recycle prior art from Fallen London and/or The Silver Tree, but so far all the cards share a nifty, unique aesthetic... it fits in very nicely with the subterranean mood of the setting.

I've only played a bit of the game so far, but I'm cautiously optimistic. As they say, the feel of the game is quite different from other Failbetter projects that they've done. This is kind of an homage to or emulation of classic dungeon crawls, so instead of progressing through a choose-your-own-adventure tale, it'll be a bit more of a game approach: explore a level of the dungeon, find equipment and improve your stats, then descend to the next level and take on more difficult challenges. But, it'll still have a very strong overarching narrative that will get into your character's motivations and the life they were leading on the surface.

So far, I think my favorite aspect of the game is the writing. It sounds very anglo-saxon, like something from a lost section of Beowulf. Take this sentence from the introduction: "Each year the Sea-Kings come in greater numbers, with their dawn-winking swords, their tall ships serpent-prowed." I love it! The setting is excellent as well, kind of dark and atmospheric without being macabre. It's kind of hard to describe, but it's very different from Fallen London's atmosphere, despite the fact that both games are set almost entirely underground. The Kickstarter page references classic literary dungeon settings like Moria and the Tombs of Atuan. I still vividly remember my impressions of Moria when I first encountered it as a child, and I retain that same sensation of fascination mixed with dread when I think of these sorts of cave settings. (Of course, from a gaming perspective, the best analogy is probably something like Rogue/NetHack... but I think BELOW is aiming more at literary predecessors.)

It is pretty cool to see how flexible StoryNexus is... I'd initially assumed that it would be for people to make games like Fallen London, just in different genre settings, but I'm increasingly impressed by the very distinct types of games that they've been able to construct out of the same building blocks (multiple card decks, a hand, pinned cards, qualities, and items). It should help spur adoption, since people can start playing different games with a system that has familiar elements, but still expresses a lot of variety from one creator to the next. (In other words, it looks like building a StoryNexus game isn't just a matter of providing content: it's also designing a gaming system. Personally, I think that sounds like at least as much fun!)

The only downside so far is that the rewards don't have too much to offer Fallen London players. The Silver Tree kickstarter had some nifty perks like access to a new location, multiple items, and new storylines. As far as I can tell, the only Fallen London perk for this project is a single item that's available at 30 pounds (roughly $45). Well, there was also a second bottle of Hesperidean Cider, but it was snapped up very quickly; and also some bespoke characters/stories, which sound AWESOME, but are all rather pricey at 150-1000 pounds.

Still, for just doing Below stuff, all the rewards are extremely well-priced: you're essentially pre-ordering some unique content and getting a discount. If my experiences with The Silver Tree are to be relied upon, it would be money very well spent!

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