2009: Fallen London
Update: Find out more about the 50 Years of Text Games book and the revised final version of this article!
released as Echo Bazaar
by Failbetter Games
Launched: October 23, 2009
Platform: Web (StoryNexus)
Three decades ago, London was stolen by bats. Dragged deep into the earth by the Echo Bazaar. The sun is gone. All we have is the gas-light of Mr Fires.
But Londoners can get used to anything. And it’s quiet down here with the devils and the darkness and the mushroom wine. Peaceful.
But then YOU arrived.
Welcome. Delicious friend.
“If you are weary of ravensong,” the update noted, “the Bazaar will now purchase any and all raven advisors. ...Gifts of Scorn are limited in their effects,” it continued, because “the Wheel of Affection which gave them was absurdly effective otherwise.” Further paragraphs explained that “Rose-Bearing Maggots may now be fed,” that the Tomb-Colonies had been “substantially expanded; and now include a choice between Hedonism and Austerity,” and that “a punchable moustache, a chess-playing ape, and a voracious dining-club” were also part of the most recently added content.
The updates were for a game which had launched five years previously under the name Echo Bazaar: “a free browser game that only takes a few minutes a day to play.”
Seek your fortune in the city of Fallen London, a mile underground and a boat ride from Hell!
seduce heiresses * hunt sorrow-spiders * track down poisoners * lose your soul at cards * rob museums * christen Jack * avenge murders * visit honey-dens * write penny-dreadfuls * drink mushroom wine * attend executions * assist revolutionaries * decode tattoos * stab your friends: but all in good fun...
Originally requiring a Twitter account to play, Echo Bazaar had arrived amidst a glut of free-to-play games that often took advantage of players’ limited understanding of social media permissions to spam feeds with ads and updates. But this game was more polite. While players could choose to “echo” snippets of game text (tweeting them with the #ebz hashtag) to gain a few extra actions, and some limited multiplayer mechanics encouraged connecting with friends, for the most part the game functioned as a single-player experience. And it had a secret weapon most of its Flash-based competition lacked: while those snippets of shareable content were just text, it was good text. And there was a lot of it.
Except for a map and a few icons and portraits, the game was entirely built on its words, a novelty for a commercial title which helped it stand out in a crowded field—along with its expansive size and original gameplay, which could be a little hard to explain. It’s “a sprawling, constantly evolving, nineteenth-century metropolis made [of] words,” one guide noted; “an unholy combination of casual browser game, choose-your-own-adventure book, and quasi-steampunk MMO,” the creators gamely summarized; “a world where death isn’t permanent, cats can talk, and ominous space-bats are de facto rulers of the city,” Failbetter designer and writer Olivia Wood explained. Launched with around ten thousand words of story, by the time of the update with the chess-playing ape the game had grown to more than a million words, the size of a tall stack of novels. By its tenth anniversary in 2019, when nearly all the other browser games launched alongside it had long since vanished, it had reached nearly triple that number.
The game’s narrative hook is that the city of London has been stolen: Queen Victoria made an unwise deal with dark forces who plunged the city into a strange underworld called the Neath. Now, at the end of the nineteenth century, Hell maintains an embassy there; strange creatures from Clay Men to talking rats have joined the socialites and urchins on the streets; and every alleyway, pub, porter, and governess has a sinister secret or unlikely story. The book Virtual Cities, a videogame urban atlas, praises the way Fallen London “blends Lovecraftian monsters with romantic themes, the literary versatility of Poe, Penny Dreadful aesthetics and a darkly hilarious wit to create an entirely original world that’s familiar yet also utterly strange.” The mixture of surreal humor and dark horror had been foundational to the game from the start. Co-creator Paul Arendt once noted that “the look of Fallen London was more inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Spooky but silly, serious but camp. Gary Oldman in a top hat and sunglasses is never far from my mind.”
“If you were a certain kind of person in 2009,” one gamer recalled, “your life slowly, and then quickly, filled up with mentions of Fallen London.” The game enjoyed a creeping viral longevity, not just because of its unique setting but because of the care put into its writing: “this is a game for people who read and who love to read.” “Bluntly,” another reviewer said, it’s “probably better written than most any game and quite a few books.” Filled up with delicious sentences and images, the game has so many it’s hard to pick just a few to excerpt:
A sorrow-spider the size of a large kitten scuttles across the floor of your lodgings. For reasons best known to itself, it’s carrying a human eyeball.
Rubbery Men are social outcasts. Their physiognomy is distressing and they lack the wealth necessary for acceptable eccentricity.
The House of Mirrors squats like an ape in a quiet corner of the carnival. Strange mirrors are labelled in a neat, scholarly hand. It is not a popular attraction.
A dozen frost-moths lie in a welter of broken wings on the ground, gradually melting into pools of dirty water.
Mr Chimes glides across the floor and grasps your hand in a spotless white glove. It feels like shaking a branch wound with spider-silk. ‘Most optimate friend!’ it whispers. ‘Welcome to our Chamber of Delicacies!’
The game’s success was not entirely an accident: new studio Failbetter Games conceived it specifically for the strengths of emerging social media conventions. Rather than sit down to play a whole story or chapter at once, players would be encouraged to return for a few minutes a few times each day, much the same way they might browse the social media platforms on which they’d probably discovered it. The hope was that a regular and returning audience could drive a sustainable business model for narrative games, rather than one characterized by a single all-important launch day and diminishing returns ever after, a strategy less and less viable in an overcrowded entertainment landscape. Other games like Kingdom of Loathing had used similar models, but usually with core mechanics based on repetitive combat and grinding. Failbetter hoped they could shift the emphasis more toward story by treating the “flavor text” that usually decorated these mechanics as the real content, not disposable window dressing: players would keep coming back more for the story than the gameplay. The story, of course, is the part that’s not reusable: it would have to keep growing fast enough that players would always have new things to read each time they returned, a daunting proposition. “Industry consultants point and laugh at our bizarre strategy of earning money by making new content,” a company blog post once dryly noted. But the strategy worked. The Failbetter team started writing and never stopped, and the players kept coming.
Exactly how to turn their growing audience into a sustainable business took some time to sort out. At first the sole way to support the game was purchasing a currency called Fate, which could unlock pieces of premium story content or bonus actions. (At launch, the free game provided a ten-action maximum which would slowly recharge throughout the day.) But these one-off purchases didn’t lead to sustained engagement and often proved unsatisfying to players, who had no way to judge the length or potential enjoyment of bits of Fate-locked content. Eventually the game added a subscription option: by becoming an “Exceptional Friend” for a monthly fee, you could double your daily actions and gain access to complete, subscribers-only stories. But the bulk of the game remained free: indeed, the reams of content were the best advertising tool imaginable. The game’s monetization model had its share of detractors: one prominent interactive fiction author called it “detestable” for the way the drawn-out story encouraged players to become addicted and keep spending money, and another lamented the slow pacing which meant stories could be padded out for months between setup and payoff. But it was certainly a far tamer approach to free-to-play than nearly any other game using the model, and in the long term would provide a stable platform for Failbetter: a steady stream of income upon which their game could be improved or new titles developed, leveling out the boom-and-bust release cycle so many traditional game studios suffered through—or failed to.
Beneath the monetization model, though, the game ran on an intriguing original platform—called StoryNexus, in a slightly different incarnation—for delivering an ongoing interactive story. The core idea of StoryNexus was to treat the fiction not as a linear path or branching tree, but as a set of vignettes, each unlocked, shaped, and linked together by the details of the player’s unique history. Again, this was not a wholly new idea—earlier games like King of Dragon Pass had used similar models—but Failbetter streamlined the concept down to a minimalist form that would prove surprisingly versatile. The key simplification was that each facet of the game world that might impact the narrative would be represented as a numeric “quality,” one of an unbounded set of stats a player could accumulate. The studio coined the term “quality-based narrative” to describe this approach.
The key benefit of Qualities was flexibility. They didn’t need to all be defined in advance, like stats in a traditional game: authors could write (and players could acquire) new ones at any time. Qualities could represent nearly anything imaginable about a player character’s identity or relationship to the game world. Some mirrored the more traditional stats of roleplaying games, like Fallen London’s core qualities of Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous, and Persuasive. Others might represent currency held, temporary conditions, progress through a mission, ranks or titles earned, relationships with other characters, faction standing, locations granted access to, or even which ending to resolved storylines the player had chosen. A player’s set of qualities could unlock narrative opportunities or be tested for a chance at overcoming a challenge. The Hall of Mirrors might require two Carnival Tickets to enter; a rooftop highway for criminals is only accessible to players with at least 60 Shadowy; collecting enough Memories of Distant Shores might trigger a dream or a revelation; a random roll based on Nightmares decides whether you succumb to a mind-numbing revelation or shrug it off. The beauty of the system lay in collapsing previously disjoint aspects of a simulated story world—stats, inventory, statuses, location, history—into a single, fungible economy. A quest might just as well reward you with rostygold as with Cryptic Secrets; and by the time those Secrets resolved a further mystery, it no longer mattered which stories you'd first learned them from.
Narrative opportunities, called “storylets,” each offer a small self-contained situation pivoting on a challenge or decision for the player. Storylets might be assigned to specific locations—Fallen London has various neighborhoods which you can move between—or be drawn from a “hand” of opportunity cards, stocked with storylets unlocked by your current set of qualities.
A libraryette for Mr Pages
Mr Pages has announced a campaign to recover and sequester what he describes as ‘pestilent and obstacudent’ literature. Whether for destruction or private reading is not made explicit.
You need 100 Proscribed Materials even to see this card.
Each storylet offers selectable options for resolution, some of which in turn might be gated on having enough of a certain quality, or require a “test” against a quality to successfully invoke: the higher the quality, the better the odds of passing.
An assortment of pamphlets
If your reserves of seditious literature are not voluminous, you could still make a small donation. Mr Pages would probably be grateful.
A matter of luck: how can you fail?
Your Luck quality gives you a 90% chance of success.
[You unlocked this with 140 Proscribed Materials (you needed 100)]
The special books
Perhaps you have some rarer works you could part with.
This is a reliable but very expensive way to gain a little Connected: the Masters.
[You need 20 Volumes of Collated Research]
[You need 80 Touching Love Stories]
[You need 5 Uncanny Incunabula]
[You need 5 Blackmail Materials]
Playing a storylet inevitably changes the player’s qualities. Failing a test might raise the quality being tested, akin to learning from mistakes; success might raise some other desirable quality; in either case all manner of other side effects might be triggered. In one Fallen London storylet, the authorities offer you payment to investigate a possibly seditious poet, and the player’s choices include warning him off, turning him in, or even doing both:
But when the Constables came, he wasn’t there
You turn in your dossier. The constables march off to arrest the Poet, but by the time they get there he’s long gone. The constables pay you your fee, but they’re bitter about the lack of a collar. The Poet’s friends toast your discretion.
* Watchful has increased to 34 - Observant!
* You now have 1 x Bottle of Strangling Willow Absinthe.
* You’ve gained 200 x Piece of Rostygold (new total 814).
* Magnanimous has increased to 5!
* The Starving Poet escaped... for now, at least.
* Suspicion is increasing... [7 → 8]
* You’ve gained 1 x Favours: Bohemians (new total 3)
Altered qualities might in turn change the set of storylets available to play or the choices offered on others. Having a Bottle of Absinthe might unlock a way to entertain a useful acquaintance; increased Suspicion could lead to your arrest; your popularity with the Bohemians might open up a new story about a vagabond musician; rostygold might be traded at the Echo Bazaar for a new pet you’ve long hoped to buy. Each storylet perturbs your story in sometimes predictable but often surprising ways, sending each player on a unique pathway through a narrative possibility space defined by your qualities and told via the pool of authored storylets.
Conscious that its bite-sized pieces might fail to cohere into a satisfying larger story, the Failbetter team became deeply interested in discovering what narrative structures could be built within the StoryNexus engine. As more and more content was added, a complex design vocabulary began to emerge: less than a year after launch, the team had already identified sixty distinct narrative patterns that could be created within their system. Some of these encoded simple ideas, like the “Faust”: letting the player gamble some of one quality for a chance to improve another (taking Laudanum in the hopes of reducing Nightmares, for instance). More elaborate structures might unfold across multiple turns or multiple linked storylets. The “Midnight Staircase” described a replayable storylet that increased a particular tracking quality, with each increase unlocking more and more appealing ways of resolving it but also an increased risk of failure. The pattern could be used, say, for a pickpocket casing a busy street and finding more and more potential marks, while facing the rising tension of whether to keep hunting and risk getting caught or “cash out” with a visible target. Another pattern called the “Carousel” might advance a quality like “time of day” through a set of fixed alternatives like “morning”, “evening”, and “night”; each change could alter the available storylets and responses in a related context, such as a social club with different members arriving and leaving as time went by. StoryNexus, in short, was atomic enough that it could become a foundation for a huge variety of bespoke narrative engines. With a bit of practice, writers could even learn to bootstrap their own.
Create Manuscript Pages to write your story. When you have at least 10, rework your story to improve its Potential. Improve your piece to 30 Potential to continue making your name. For this short story, you’ll need no more than 10 Pages and 30 Potential...
The accumulating design wisdom helped Failbetter build stories that unfolded on larger scales than single storylets. Watchful characters, for instance, could take on detective cases which granted an “Investigating” quality, unlocking storylets across London for interviewing accomplices, breaking into garrets, or trailing suspects. Resolving each would increase Investigating until it opened a storylet that solved the original case—which might in turn be only part of an even bigger mystery. The intermediate investigation storylets didn’t need to connect to the details of the larger case. The business of detective work could be abstracted away from its greater significance: the system could build an extended story out of reusable, interchangeable pieces.
In fact any two pieces of content might be indirectly connected through a player’s natural tendency to see cause and effect in their actions. IF author Emily Short (who would become a frequent guest contributor and eventually Failbetter’s Creative Director) once noted that she’d resolved a story about raising funds for a pious bishop’s church by doing odd jobs for devils, “a bit of player-implemented irony that is implicitly possible in the system but left totally open-ended. ...There’s a lot of cool potential here, potential that replicates some of the fun of procedural narrative but puts the control in the player’s hands rather than in the hands of an algorithm.” Failbetter would characterize this approach to storytelling with the metaphor of campfires in a darkened desert, seen from above. The major storylets provided the bright central lights of a plot, but players found their own unique pathways between them.
Make Your Name: Getting to the Ball
The Ambassador’s ball is a highlight of the season. You are tired of gate-crashing: this time you’re getting an invitation.
Calling in favours
You know enough important people. You’re becoming well-known yourself. You can do this.
You can get Favours: Society through some cards in your Opportunity Deck. Shroom-hopping provides chances to earn Society’s approbation.
A chancy challenge
Your Persuasive quality gives you a 56% chance of success.
Spend a Confident Smile to ensure a second chance...
Unlocked with 1 x Favours: Society, 5 x Scrap of Incendiary Gossip, 500 x Silk Scrap
Hinting at one or two things you know
You hear things. Things about important persons and vaulted institutions.
You can get Whispered Hints from many cards around Veilgarden and Ladybones Road.
A chancy challenge
Your Persuasive quality gives you a 56% chance of success.
Spend a Confident Smile to ensure a second chance...
Unlocked with 200 x Whispered Hint, 5 x Scrap of Incendiary Gossip, 500 x Silk Scrap
As the game’s content continued to expand, those pathways could get wildly convoluted. “Every time I swear that I will concentrate on my ambition (a long-term story line with great rewards if you can complete it), I see something that I simply must find out more about,” one blogger wrote. “If I saved up for the right companion, could I win at the weasel fights? Is it worth a fortune of glim and jade to find out the way to Wolfstack Docks?” Failbetter’s writers constantly added to the library of available storylets, both in the broad strokes of epic interconnected questlines but also in single opportunity cards or tiny situational details. When a player once complained on Reddit that they’d accidentally purchased 500 weasels, a dev replied: “Unfortunately we can’t correct misclicks. Sorry about that. However... I used my lunch hour to do a Small Thing. People with 400 or more weasels in their inventory may want to draw from the opportunity deck.” Accidents or bugs became story hooks more than once in the game’s development. And the game continued to grow. One fan wiki documenting Fallen London’s content grew to nearly twenty-five thousand pages.
Some of the game’s stories became truly tremendous. The path known as “Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name” is a dark tale which asks the player to slowly sacrifice more and more of their hard-won qualities in the hopes of learning a terrible secret. “The road ahead leads only to misery and damnation and woe and personal loss,” the game warns players before they begin: “You can’t say we didn’t warn you.” The full story can take more than a real-world year to complete, and involves sacrificing qualities it might have taken far longer to build up. Other long-term goals in the game might include becoming a ship captain and sailing the Unterzee, taking part in the Wars of Illusion, breeding monsters in the Labyrinth of Tigers, or constructing a railway line to Hell. Some content takes players to distant shores and other realms entirely:
A dream washes over you like a tide coming into shore.
You are standing in a grove tangled with roses, red and gold. The gentle rotten scent of flowers fills the air with drowsy sweetness. Before you, city walls rise; the colour of sunset. Bronze gates gleam in a somnolent amber light.
A woman wearing vast rubies in her ears approaches. “London’s Ambassador requested that we permit you within Arbor’s walls,” she says with a lazy smile. “Enjoy your stay. Do feast your eyes on our city of marvels.” She turns away, leaving you to make your own way into the City of Roses.
In 2012, Failbetter hoped to bring even more worlds to StoryNexus, opening up the platform to outside creators. Fascinating new experiments began to appear. Winterstrike by Yoon Ha Lee (on his way to becoming a bestselling novelist) used abstract qualities like Ice to tell a haunting story about the survivors of a planetary apocalypse. Black Crown by Rob Sherman was an epic parable of diseased bodies and blurred identity, marrying message and mechanics by conflating the player’s limited daily action pool to a weakened protagonist’s loss of power and control. And Failbetter debuted StoryNexus games licensed from existing properties, including one to promote Erin Morgenstern’s whimsical novel The Night Circus and another that tied into the lore of BioWare’s Dragon Age. But the experiment in maintaining a service for both creating and hosting online games proved a financial drain on Failbetter, who quietly shuttered it after eighteen months of underperformance. Authors who had worried about entrusting their game to an online-only platform saw their fears justified: none of the games mentioned above could still be played as of late 2020. The same may one day be true for Fallen London itself. [Ed: some of the StoryNexus titles appear to be working again.]
Impossible to binge, unable to be archived, frustrating for some while delicious to others, Fallen London has grown into one of the most expansive text-based games ever written. Thousands of new sentences in many hundreds of storylets are added each year. Echo Bazaar—originally conceived of as a game where Twitter users could make bets on unusual phrases that might appear in future tweets—would evolve into an efficient engine for generating its own, as seen in some of the titles of posts to the Failbetter forums:
“A Practical Cat Question, And An Ideological One”
“Fighting The Carnivorous Aurochs - Is There An End”
“A Side Effect Of The Hellicon House Scrip Carousal”
“Artisan Of The Red Science Question”
“Does The Oracular Toadbeast Do Anything?”
”Viscountess Still In Parabolan Warfare”
“Fallen London is the story of a city,” co-designer Chris Gardiner said in 2017, “and a city doesn’t stop. There are definitely stories that will conclude, but London won’t.” He fondly related a favorite scene wherein players have a chance to learn one of the terrible secrets of Queen Victoria’s fallen court. Instructed to keep their backs to a royal banquet visible only in a mirror, the game describes sounds far more horrible than any human lords and ladies at table could make. “Three times we ask the player if they want to turn around,” Gardiner recalls, “and warn that the consequences will be terrible. It’s entirely their choice.
“And because they’re our players, they generally turn. Bless them.”
Next week: A love story set five minutes into the future of 1988.
Fallen London can be played online. Failbetter’s latest project is Mask of the Rose. Thanks to the fan wiki (as well as The Fifth City, a second wiki focusing on lore) for their exhaustive documentation, vital for researching a game with no save points or open access to content!
Failbetter co-founder Alexis Kennedy, who left the company in 2016, has been accused by multiple game industry professionals of inappropriate behavior during his time there, including sexual harassment and patterns of intimidation. Some accounts can be found here and here. Kennedy has denied the accusations. I believe the people who have spoken out. It’s hard not to when Kennedy has continued to publicly intimidate his former coworkers and employees, most recently in a blog post where he threatened the entire Failbetter board with a two-year prison sentence. I chose not to address this sad part of the story in the piece itself to help celebrate the work of the many other writers, designers, and fans who have contributed and continue to contribute to Fallen London. The omission is not an endorsement of Kennedy or his behavior.