There are several styles of interactive fiction games that can be found on the Internet, and while I’ve spent quite a bit more time with the Choice of Games catalog of adventures (my bias as one of their writers), I’ve also dabbled in a number of other games. Some of them are a bit more like CRPGs (computer/console role playing games) than storytelling, and combine words, pictures, and strategy games with the plot — they’re story heavy, but you as a player don’t really drive what happens next. Others, however, are quite a bit more open-ended, and Fallen London is one of those. In fact, Fallen London‘s greatest strength — the sheer quantity of it’s material and its open-ended paths — is also its greatest challenge.
In Fallen London, you begin as an escapee from new Newgate prison in a Victorian-feeling England that is populated by devils, rubbery men (reminiscent of Lovecraftian horrors or illithids from Dungeons and Dragons), people who have died but haven’t quite given up on moving about, and other strange things. You are, of course, a criminal, but it’s up to you to decide just how much you’ll continue to be one. You choose tasks, in text accompanied by small illustrations, that challenge and improve your basic statistics: watchful, shadowy, dangerous, and persuasive. The punishments for failure can be madness, death (though that’s not as permanent as you’d think), being the center of scandal to such a degree that you have to flee to a “tomb colony,” and suspicion to the point where the police arrest you. Thankfully, it takes quite awhile to build up enough failures to face any of these consequences, and sometimes being in prison or in a tomb colony — or even going mad or dying — can be just as interesting as the rest of the game. The “storylets” (as the folks at Failbetter Games, the company that makes Fallen London and other interactive worlds) help you both explore the world and build your skills, until you become a Person of Consequence (having raised one of your stats to over 100).
What is the point of the game? It’s more of an exploration game than a plot based adventure, and you wander through the world, building your skills and trying to figure out just how Fallen London came to be. A page of “mysteries” helps you as a player to see what the main story — on the assumption there is one — is about. What location in London became the neighborhood known in the game as Veilgarden? And why are there no foxes in the city? The storylets available are vast, and as each costs energy to pursue (and you have only ten units of energy at a time — you can buy more for real-world cash), you can really only play Fallen London in small spurts, making it perfect for fitting in a few bits of imaginative adventure on your lunch break. There’s romance, intrigue, rebellion, or the chance to gain power (so you’re led to believe) with the mysterious Masters who rule the fallen city. There are also chances to interact with your friends — you can send them gifts or invite them to help you out of a jam if your scandal score gets to high, for example. And you can collaborate with your friends — or throw them to the wolves, betraying them instead of offering aid.
As you may have guessed, along with being a text-based gamer, I also play a number of CRPGs. And as role playing goes, Fallen London reminds me a lot of my experience playing Morrowind, one of the Elder Scrolls games put out by Bethesda entertainment. When I first started playing Morrowind I was astonished by the sheer amount of world there was to explore. I could leave the beaten track and travel anywhere on the screen. Hills were there to be climbed rather than walked around on a limited route. There were a seemingly endless number of substories that could be played to build stats. Oh sure there was a main plot… but I ended up forgetting what it was. The joy of the game — and, ultimately, the reason I didn’t finish it — was in the exploration, not in the story. For some gamers, that is the height of success for a game: practically unlimited options for the player to create, effectively, his own version of the story being told — or, if he chooses, to completely ignore the main story and go off and do some other adventure. For me, it’s a little too vague and open ended. I like a story I can sink my teeth into, and I tend to prefer a game that encourages me to replay it for new and different options rather than a game that I can put endless hours into the first time through. So for me, after spending a couple of months playing frequently and spending real-world cash to get extra actions and access to locked parts of the game, Fallen London ends up being a game I return to when a friend sends me a request to divert the attention of the constables, or when a new feature is added and I get an e-mail alert. I like it, but there’s not enough story for me to sink my teeth into without losing track of what it is I’m trying to accomplish.
So why offer it the spotlight? Because I do enjoy dabbling in the game, and I suspect that eventually, I will attain that enviable rank of Person of Some Importance. The world is extremely cool — and eerie — and I’m curious to know what happened to make London fall. (Friends who also play the game have informed me that the Truth Is Out There.) And because it has a social aspect, the game is more fun the more people who you know are playing it. So if you do check it out, feel free to add alanajoli as a friend. I’ll listen to your confessions about your nightmares, and I’d love to finally get into a battle in the Knife and Candle tournament.
And if you figure out why there are no foxes in the city, that’s the one mystery I’m most eager to answer.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels Choice of Kung Fu and Showdown at Willow Creek are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels (one recently funded by Kickstarter), and she will be writing an enhanced e-book version of The Jungle Book with shapeshifters for Noble Beast Classics, currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.