Devils and Dirigibles
Our own Joe Köller sat down with Chris Gardiner of Failbetter Games for a chat about his current projects, tabletop RPGs and writing choice.
Haywire: Many browsergames tend to focus on resource management, creating huge armies and throwing them against fellow players for off-screen battles. Not so in the world Failbetter Games’ Fallen London, where one might spend their time seducing artists, hunting secrets and picking sides in the game’s various conflicts.
This unusual, thematically rich formula has proven a massive success. The game continues to grow, recently Failbetter added the spin-off prequel The Silver Tree and launched StoryNexus, a platform for people to build their own interactive narratives. With me today to discuss all these exciting developments is Chris Gardiner, former lead writer of Failbetter, who’s currently working on a new game, Below.
Chris Gardiner: Hello! I have pre-prepared a list of long words, which I intend to deploy strategically to help me sound intelligent. Now watch me try and squeeze the word ‘thrombogenesis’ into this interview.
HW: Nice of you to join us. Now, despite interesting side projects like Machine Cares, the one thing people immediately associate with Failbetter Games is still Fallen London. Could you tell us a little about the beginning of that project? How did the idea of a Steampunk Victorian London come to be?
CG: Fallen London is the product of Alexis Kennedy’s brilliant, alarming, occasionally terrifying imagination. There’s a lot of weird stuff in Alexis’ head (Bifurcated Owls!), and we should all be very glad he’s got a harmless outlet for it. He lives in London and has a keen eye for the city’s history, plus a gift for both the chthonic and the comedic.
He first started work on the game in 2009, writing and coding the whole thing himself. He quickly partnered with Paul Arendt, who provided the art that has come to be a huge part of Fallen London’s success. Things snowballed from there.
HW: How much content does the game have at this point, if you could give us an educated guess?
CG: I believe it’s well over half a million words, now. Or most of a Bible. It’ll take a new player months of play time to reach the level cap.
HW: What’s it like to contribute to such a beast? How do you keep things consistent between multiple writers?
CG: Consistency is a constant challenge. Fallen London uses a rigorous system of sub-editing and review to make sure all content has been thoroughly checked by several pairs of eyes. There are shared documents recording the setting’s major plotlines and secrets, and solid search tools so contributors can find other references to whatever they’re writing about.
At the same time, the setting is broad enough to allow room for stylistic differences. The dreams are tonally very different from the slapstick of Shroom-hopping, which is different from the two-fisted exploration of the Unterzee. There are key principles writers all adhere to, but beyond them there’s plenty of room for variety.
There have been many conversations about whether something is too bawdy, too contemporary, or too grisly. Occasionally these are heated.
HW: Speaking of the width of the setting, you were not content to just have all this content but also include numerous exclusive, character-defining choices. What does the writing process for those look like?
CG: It looks very careful, like someone poking a tiger with a stick. We try to avoid incurring too much content debt – if a choice locks off a significant amount of content, we need to write more content to replace it. This is the traditional problem with branching narrative, if each branch is exclusive, the amount of content you have to write multiplies fast, and the player only sees a fraction of it.
HW: So, ideally, you’re looking for self-contained choices?
CG: Partly. Let’s break down your phrase “character-defining choices” for a second. Alexis likes to talk about choice as consisting of three elements: choice, complicity and consequence. Choice is the decision you’re faced with – do you save this person, or damn them. Complicity is the player’s engagement with the decision – this is where good, provocative writing helps the player invest in the decision and treat it as significant. Consequence is how the game respects the decision that was made.
Consequence is where it can get expensive. But a little can go a long way in that regard. You don’t need to be sent off on a whole unique path to feel your decision has consequences, if the game finds other ways to make it matter. Often, opening new options is just as engaging and more fun – there’s an early quest in Fallen London called the Case of the Comtessa, which ends with such a tough decision. Whatever choice you make, you’ll later have the opportunity to think back on your decision and say how you feel about it now.
That recalls the event, acknowledges that it happened, and grants meaningful rewards, but it requires only a modest amount of new content.
Other times, of course, you do want dramatic consequences. If you pursue academia it’s possible to get thrown out of the University for taking a stand. And if that happens access to the area is lost until you can reopen it. But that’s still just one area out of the – Thirty? Forty? – in the game.
HW: How many of these binary, either/or decisions are currently in the game?
CG: It’s the minority, partly because being able to go back on them makes for a good story. You’ve been thrown out of the University, now are you going to accept that, or are you going to fight against it? Really interesting decisions are ones that you keep making, day after day. Decisions like fidelity, or not touching drugs, or working in a job you find objectionable. Choice is rarely final.
That also makes the choices that are final all the more powerful.
There’s a particular example in Fallen London, a quest for knowledge called Seeking the Name. Every step along its path is painful, awful and costly, and the further you go, the worse it gets. There is no big reward at the end of it, only the promise of more suffering.
It is incredibly popular. But to pursue it you have to choice to do so over and over again, even when the game is begging you to turn back.
HW: Interesting. That does sound diametrically opposed to the way choice is used in triple A titles, where it’s usually confined to these few, dramatic moments.
CG: I think that’s another effect of branching narrative. You reach a decision point and have to choose option A, B or C. Which lends itself well to drama. But often, our choices are the result of a dozen smaller decisions that led us to that point, and it turns out we’ve been making the choice for a long time.
Another technique Fallen London uses is Quality Based Narrative – rather than being binary, each choice affects one or more qualities that exist on a scale. So if you choose to help a Revolutionary, you gain points in a quality called Connected: Revolutionaries, rather than going down the You Are Now Allied to Revolutionaries branch. Multiple decisions can increase (or decrease) that quality. And at different levels, the quality opens new options. Maybe you can learn bomb-making from them, or trade for one of their mysterious projects.
Now, your relationship with the revolutionaries isn’t the result of a single choice anymore, but the cumulative effect of multiple decisions, each made in its own context. Maybe you help them out when it’s a question of freedom of the press, but stand against them when it comes to planting bombs.
HW: How do you differentiate between players who see them as an ambivalent force and those who just haven’t been raising the quality though?
CG: A number of ways. Maybe the quality can’t rise above, say, ten unless you’ve been more committed in your support. Maybe helping the Revolutionaries print pamphlets will let you get the quality to 10, but not beyond. To get past that point you might have to take more drastic action. Attending rallies. Providing alibis. Making bombs.
Now you know anyone with the quality at ten or more is more committed to the cause.
Or you can track the player’s allegiance separately. Once you get Connected: Revolutionaries to a certain level, perhaps they ask you to become a full member. If you agree you gain a new quality to represent that. We call this a lateral, and the key thing about laterals is that they can change. So you can choose to betray or leave the Revolutionaries in the future, and the lateral reflects that. But even afterwards you might still have friends on the inside, or knowledge about them you can use – that’s what your Connected quality represents.
HW: We’ve been speaking at length about how to render consequences while keeping most of the game accessible. I’m curious how your spinoff tale The Silver Tree fits into this. What are the benefits of disconnecting it from the main game?
CG: Firstly, scope. Tales of Fallen London: The Silver Tree is a prequel to Fallen London, and if we’d done it as a flashback within Fallen London it would have had to be the Cliffs notes version. Treating it as a separate game let us delve into the personalities and relationships that drive its story.
Secondly, freedom. I don’t want to give anything away, but some of the endings you can achieve in The Silver Tree don’t just violate Fallen London continuity, they slaughter it, butcher it and render its fat into tallow. It was important to us that the player’s choices radically affect the outcome. There’s something empowering about being able to break history.
HW: I suppose you might also have wanted to try the Kickstarter model.
CG: We were very keen to experiment with Kickstarter. But when we talked about the initial ideas for the Silver Tree it was clear it would work best as a separate game. The story drove the shape of it, there.
HW: Offering personalized narratives for donations still seems like a slight modification of your previous approach. What has the experience of writing those been like?
CG: Weird. Scary! There were a couple of tiers of kickstarter rewards that offered bespoke content. One was us creating new non-player characters based on backers, who anyone can meet in Fallen London. That was lots of fun. The backers provided little self-descriptions, we provided three Fallen London-style titles for them to choose from (like the Reclusive Turophile and the Bawdy Cardsharp), then wrote a story card about the one they chose.
The other involved crafting bespoke stories that only the backers who pledged at that level get to see. We filled those stories with revelations and secrets. There are a couple of people walking around Fallen London who know the truths behind some of the setting’s darkest mysteries. Stuff that no-one else knows.
It was intimidating writing for patrons. Like drawing a caricature. You’re always thinking “Will they think this is funny? Or are we going to get punched?”
HW: So you’re not yet planning to exclusively write one-of-a-kind stories for the very affluent?
CG: Nnnnno. Not a risk.
HW: I imagine doubling your intended goal in under two days was still a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately your new project, Below, has not achieved similar momentum and you had to cancel its Kickstarter. What do you think went wrong?
CG: I’ve speculated extensively about why the Kickstarter didn’t make it at the Below site. Ultimately, I think it was three key things:
The timing. We launched this Kickstarter hot on the heels of the old one, and in the month before Christmas too.
It’s a poor match to our core audience. Below isn’t part of the Fallen London franchise, and that makes it a harder sell.
Compounding the above, we didn’t post enough updates or reach out enough to other potential audiences.
There were other factors, too, but I think those were the most significant. It’s heartbreaking to see a Kickstarter struggle, but even with its problems, Below attracted enough interest that it’s worth me completing it. It might not make sense as a Failbetter project, but as a personal one it’s well worth it and I’m very happy to be able to see it through.
HW: So you’re looking to pursue it on your own time and funding? Or what exactly does freelancing for Failbetter entail compared to full employment?
CG: Mainly, it means fewer bug emails. But it also means I’ll be concentrating on design and content for specific projects, rather than the mix of writing, project management, community wrangling, support and other duties from before, while also pursuing my own projects and doing freelance work for other folks.
HW: Since you are so personally committed to seeing Below through, how would you summarize its appeal?
CG: Below takes the common fantasy conceit of delving into a dungeon and asks a very obvious question: Why on earth would you do this? It looks to the roots of the genre – Beowulf, Theseus and the Labyrinth, Moria – and grounds its heroes in a society, giving them friends, loves, duties, mistakes and ambitions.
As you explore the dungeon you sustain yourself with memories of your life above. But the more you draw on them, the more tangled and drastic your reasons for venturing into the dungeon are revealed to be. Ultimately, your home might be at stake, or your mother’s happiness, or your chance at a future with the person you love.
So when you’re lost in the dark, hounded by terrible creatures that have never been seen in the world above, you’re doing it for a bloody good reason. It’s a narrative Rogue-like, essentially.
I also wanted to make something that was more folkloric than traditionally fantastic, and something more ‘game-y’ than Fallen London.
HW: Digital narratives changing into more complex ludic systems – games have already been through this development once in their early days. Are you going to follow it much further or where is the drop-off point for how gamelike you want to be?
CG: That’s a good question. I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs, particularly ones that have strong, driving connections between their mechanics and their fiction (like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World). The games I enjoy most are ones where the mechanics serve the creation of a story. You can still get pretty damn ludic and achieve that, as long as the mechanics follow from, and generate, the fiction, everything begins and ends there.
I don’t think that there needs to be a trade-off between story and game. They enable each other. The challenge is in making them fit.
The biggest restriction on how fiddly and complex Below can get is the StoryNexus UI. Try to track or fiddle too much and things can get very busy. This is basically a good thing, it helps rein in the temptation to over-complicate.
HW: But it is still aiming for a different audience than Fallen London? Recently you’ve begun polling its players whether they see themselves more as readers or gamers.
CG: Yes, Failbetter conducted a short survey of Fallen London players – you can see the results here. I think Below’s intended audience overlaps with Fallen London’s in some regards (it’s very texty, for example) except that, as already mentioned, it’s more game-y than Fallen London. You’re managing your resources more, and there are clear terms of success and failure. Then there’s the aesthetic. Fallen London’s weird Victoriana is a big part of its appeal. Below’s setting is very Dark Ages, and its feel more folkloric than gothic. Its inspirations are fairly obviously in Dungeons and Dragons and similar games, although it took the earliest and sharpest left turn it could. In some ways it’s a reaction to those games as much as a descendant of them. But I hope it’ll appeal to gamers who’ve played D&D, rogue-likes and other dungeon-delving games, as well as fans of folklore and classic fantasy.
HW: And on top of all that, Failbetter is also establishing StoryNexus, a platform for people to create their own interactive narratives. How has it worked out so far?
CG: Good! Just take a look at the StoryNexus site and see the variety of games already on offer, and the number’s growing all the time. Particular high points for me are Winterstrike – a beautifully-written, lush planetary romance (a tragically unexplored genre, these days) – and Zero Summer – a weird western packed with vibrant detail.
StoryNexus is a ridiculously powerful set of tools, with new functionality added regularly. It doesn’t require any programming knowledge, so it’s a very accessible platform. That means it’s seeing lots of imaginative content: educational games, interactive poems, groundhog-day style stories. It’s exciting to see all these new things appearing!
The games you make on it can be played in a web browser and are easily shared via social networks, so players don’t need to download or install anything, and can play anywhere they’ve got a net connection. And, of course, StoryNexus has built-in tools to let you monetize your game. It lets anyone make games and earn from them.
I think it’ll be a great way for new game designers and writers to make samples of their work to demonstrate to prospective employers. Just as the best way to break into comics is to make a damn comic, the best way to break into games is to make them and prove you understand what’s involved. I can’t wait to see how people continue to push the platform and medium.
HW: Nor can I. These are all very interesting projects we’ve covered. I want to wish you good luck for Below, and thanks for joining us and providing these wonderful insights. It was a pleasure.
CG: This has been fab. Thanks!