Exceptional Friends

14 Mar

So Squiddy and I have been playing a browser game called Fallen London rather obsessively for the last…period of time and have been enjoying it vastly. Its appeal fascinates me on a number of levels.

In a technical sense the Story Nexus mechanics are not exciting. There’s no skill involved. You could try and claim there is some resource management happening, but you are pretty blatantly clicking buttons to make numbers go up.

Okay, but no one is claiming skill is the point. The game part comes in when you make choices and keep going to see the fallout, right? Sort of. FL is basically a choose your own adventure book. There are a number of branching choices and the folks at FL have done a lovely job of making sure there’s a lot of variety, but fundamentally the story you play through is going to be pretty similar no matter what you do. Only Ambitions, the long-form stories you can opt into at the beginning of the game, really make a fundamental difference to your gaming experience. There are four of them, and while they do give you access to a unique story that you can’t (easily) change your mind on, they don’t affect how you interact with the rest of the game. So yes, one of your choices at the beginning gives you access to a unique story arc, but it doesn’t do much to all the others.

**Very mild (we’re talking around level 10 in all base stats) spoilers for Fallen London/Echo Bazaar, in case you’re a purist. If you’ve picked an Ambition, I’m pretty sure this ruins nothing**

Squiddy picked the Nemesis Ambition and has been hunting down the person who murdered her lover for the whole game. I picked the Heart’s Desire Ambition, and have been trying to get into a metaphysical card game where I can gamble my soul against whatever I want most. Super cool, yeah? We conceived of our characters as totally different people and spent our early game time grinding totally different stats — Dangerous and Shadowy for her and Watchful and Persuasive for me. She thinks of her character as a haunted, restless thug and I think of mine as a suave, cavalier anti-hero.

But both of us still go through the same storylines. Her thug became a scholar of The Correspondence and seduced society dames just like mine, and my dandy hunted sorrow spiders and robbed houses just like hers. The FL staff encourages players to rationalized their characters having contradictory qualities such as Austere and Hedonist by saying, “People are complicated creatures and characters are never simply black and white. Perhaps you choose to do different things in different circumstances. Embrace your complexity.”

Which I think is a great answer. I could fill up a whole separate post on how games attempt to boil people down to their essential qualities in order to convert them into statistics, and I probably will at some point. * Forcing players to imagine a character that is both Austere and Hedonistic is interesting and totally possible. However, there is still a fundamental inflexibility in FL character customization. You can’t experience substantively different characters and story arcs if you want to play through the whole game the way Squiddy and I do. At this point, all of my character’s stats are basically equal because that’s the only way to get to all the content. 

None of this is to hate on FL at all — as I said, I intend to play through all of it and think it’s great. I’m merely fascinated by my own fascination with it, given the inherent limitations of the form. I’m a regular RPG-er and a hardcore storygamer. I love me some gazing at imaginary  people’s navels. Strong characterization is very important to me as a gamer. So it’s interesting that the limits to character customization here don’t bother me.

Partly this is because I am an intentionally ingenuous audience (yet another subject to do a whole posting on). But being ingenuous doesn’t mean I like to be bored. I genuinely want to spend my time pressing buttons to make numbers go up in FL’s universe.

I think the major explanation for this is just that FL has really good world-building, flavor, and writing. Storylets are beautifully evocative, cultural phenomena are bizarre and interesting, and characters are fully sketched out with a few short phrases. The FL staff has originality coming out of their ears. Exceptional Hats very much off.

Also it’s a small thing — or perhaps not so small, but certainly not enough to make me like a game all on its own, but pronouns. Sweet, sweet pronouns. When you start the game you can choose male, female, or none of your business. This is a feature of all the major Story Nexus games. And I have never filled out the answer to the gender questions with as much glee as I did when I clicked option three. (Holy dropdown menu, Batman! There’s an option for me?)

They are unobtrusively punctilious about this. The occasional player survey always lets you pick the none of your business option. The genders on the romance cards are not dictated by the gender of your character — you can sleep with the Struggling Artist (male) and/or the Struggling Artist’s Model (female) no matter what gender you defined your character as. Your scandalous liaisons in-game are not treated as scandalous for being hetero-, homo-, or ambiguo- sexual.

This is not to say that the world of FL is totally gender blind — you’re in 19th century London, of a sort — and ladies will often do lady-things in storylets while gentlemen do gentle-men things. But sometimes they don’t. Gender doesn’t toe a hard line;  FL does the equivalent of a tasteful fade to black when needed. Saying this is okay by me is an understatement. The option to ignore gender and gender roles where convenient is all but necessary for me to feel comfortable in a game, but I am also a huge 19th century history buff and a total lack of verisimilitude can ruin my party too.

Intentional fuzziness regarding gender and other things that would have been problematic about the 19th century are optimal for my gaming experience. This and this are the official FL line on the matter, though they are dealing more with race than with gender, and I was pretty happy with it.

I don’t have a more exciting answer as to why FL is good than ‘it’s a well-crafted story and the ethos is welcoming’, but I do have directions for further research.

Squiddy and I like to console game together, but we do it in an offbeat way. Mostly she does the actual playing of long-form RPG-style games like the Zelda or Silent Hill franchises and I watch. This sounds like the single most boring thing ever to a lot of people when I say it, but it’s a good division of labor for us. She likes pushing buttons more than I do and is better at it, and we both like being totally immersed as an actor in a story. I can always take a crack at the game if I want a turn, but usually I don’t.

However, people are right in one sense — our method of gaming actually is pretty boring with most console games that currently exist. Even the Bioshock games, which are the pinnacle of the first-person shooter form in my opinion, got old for us really fast. So far only the SH and Zelda franchises have been able to reliably hit our console gaming sweet spot.

SH definitely has the phenomena that FL does of player choices shaping the game — there are also usually only about four outcomes in SH, just like there are four Ambitions in FL, but apparently this is enough to make things interesting for us. It also has the incredibly crunchy flavor thing going. In a lot of SH games, you can action-button most random pieces of scenery and get details that do nothing more than flesh out the world. There are tasks you can perform that do exactly nothing to advance the plot.

Too many games, no matter the medium, have the mechanical goal oriented-ness of a porno or a kung fu movie — get the pizza delivery guy/young grasshopper/space marine/bold adventurer to the sexy co-ed/evil ninja/faceless alien/treasure-filled dungeon and deliver the payload of this form of entertainment. Oh yeah. Baby.

I say this as someone who really likes kung fu movies.

But that’s the point — as a martial arts enthusiast, I like watching Jackie Chan punch his way through half of Hong Kong with about a shoestring of plot to tie it all together. If I didn’t like watching punching, it would have no redeeming qualities. It’s certainly not the only way to make movies.

I’m not really a faceless-alien-shooting aficionado and even if I were, I would sometimes be in the mood for other things or want to shoot my aliens in an exquisitely fashioned and complex context. My kvetching about the medium of console-gaming not having reached artistic fulfillment isn’t groundbreaking. But I think games like Fallen London (and for that matter Silent Hill!) provide good examples of ways to start catering to more varied and complex appetites.

If you want me to get really optimistic, I’ll note that Story Nexus has made its engine freely available to anyone who wants to construct their own game using its system. There has been a delightful explosion of games along FL lines as a result. Most aren’t as polished or rich, but some are and nearly all of them are being written but one person who is doing this with their spare time.

What do you think we could do on the console gaming end if it were easier for random for-the-love-of-the-game developers to spend their spare hours creating console games that catered to their tastes?

I present the Ouya. Have fun.


There was a somewhat abortive effort at one point to convert FL into an Apocalypse World-like RPG – my theory is that the gods are too cruel to ever allow me that much joy.


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