Failbetter Games make dark, twisted games set in the Fallen London universe, an alternate universe in which Victorian London has been carried underneath the earth’s crust by a swarm of bats. Yup, bats. Fallen London itself is a text-heavy browser-based roleplaying game, soon arriving on smartphones, while Sunless Sea is a decidedly moody naval roguelike in which a band of explorers attempt to survive their journey across dark, underground oceans. Both games bear the mark of CEO and Creative Director Alexis Kennedy, a man who wields words with elegance and precision. I dragged him out of Failbetter’s London office, a place teeming with handmade gifts from the studio’s fervent fans, for a conversation that spanned gender identity, Twin Peaks and cheap racism. He had plenty to say, so we’ve split the interview into two parts – read the first half here, and stay tuned for part two.
The Existential Gamer: You’ve been working primarily in the Fallen London universe for six or so years now. How would you say the universe has developed in that time, in terms of storytelling and narrative?
Alexis Kennedy: What started to make sense of it is also the direction that we developed it in, so we kind of did this from the start, but we became more explicit about it and more sophisticated about how we do it. What ‘it’ is is a focus on theme at every level. By every level I mean the prose, the narrative design, the choices, the art… In the case of Sunless Sea, the sound design and the music and the gameplay as well. Fallen London itself, notoriously, does have gameplay, but only fucking just.
The theme of Fallen London is ‘love and desire, and what price you’re prepared to pay for them’. The theme of Sunless Sea is ‘loneliness, exploration and survival’. And the underlying aesthetic theme of both is ‘pinpricks of light in the dark’. All of those things are not points that can easily generate polemic. No, let me re-phrase that: you could generate polemic, but we’re not interested in generating polemic. So we could, for example, make Fallen London a game about how love is always worth any price or desire is not worth the price you pay for it. We don’t. One of the important things about interactive narrative is that players bring their own experience and their own viewpoint to it, to an even greater degree than we do in everyday literature or drama.
The same thing is true of Sunless Sea. When we say ‘loneliness, exploration and survival’, the thing that brings that together is ‘home’. It’d be very easy to say ‘there’s no place like home’, or ‘home is where the heart is’ or ‘you can’t go home’. And all those things are in individual stories or individual threads, but there’s no one position statement, you want to explicitly come at it from multiple angles.
When I first put together Fallen London, one of the influences was Lynch, obviously, and I am old enough that I saw Twin Peaks the first time round. And Lynch was an influence in a bunch of good ways, but also an inverse, or a negative influence as well. Have you seen Twin Peaks?
AK: So you know how very obvious it became by the second season that he was making this shit up as he went along. And it just turned out painfully so. I was determined that if we had a world where secrets and slow revelations were important, we didn’t visibly punt. This was even more important in 2009 than it was when Lynch was working on Twin Peaks. It’s even more important in 2015 than it was in 2009. What we’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years is Lost, the growth of the fan forum, the growth of the fan theory, the instantaneous speed of feedback on the internet, the accessibility of creators. And there’s no way you can put something out there, hide in your high castle, and have people argue about whether or not you actually meant anything. If you are shitting your fans, they can tell. They can tell. They’re very highly trained at sniffing stuff out.
So from the very beginning, we always said that we needed an answer for every mystery in the game. But if you set all your answers at the very beginning, you privilege the work you’re doing and the ideas you’re having at the beginning of a project above the ideas you have later on. And if you are working on something for six years, you’ll have a lot of good thoughts in those six years, and over the course of those six years you’ll get better and better at doing it, because you’ve had experience working in that space and you ran into exactly those problems getting feedback from your players. So you want to leave space to expand, and you want to leave space to change. I think it’s kosher, as long as you always have an answer, and as long as you keep the continuity straight, to change some of the underlying principles, or engines, or secrets as you go.
The Bazaar in Fallen London, when I first started writing about it, was basically an Adam Smith-powered space probe, it was a sentient machine that understood other civilizations through economic contraction and negotiation. It’s not a bad idea, but it doesn’t really resonate with the other themes of the story. But as soon as we said, “In the deepest matters of the Bazaar, always look to love. Always,” as soon as we decide that it was – and this is now pretty much public knowledge – that the Bazaar is a messenger which suffers unrequited love, and is serving an employer who also suffers unrequited love, and this is the event that sets the whole game in motion. As soon as we did that, it started to resonate with the declared theme, with the backstory and with the individual intentions of player characters and non-player characters. Everybody has wanted something they can’t have. They might not have been in love, but everybody has suffered some heartbreak.
So I think, to back out to a more general point for a bit, games and interactive stories are game mechanics. You can have game mechanics which imply or exemplify or elaborate or explore integral, intense, passionate human experiences, but because they are mechanics, they can also be quite sterile things. They tend to draw our attention to certain kinds of interaction which are not intense or passionate, things like economic acquisition, or the tradeoff of risk vs. reward. All those things are interesting and very good sources of tension, but there is more to life and more to literature than them.
One of the things I think we’re getting the hang of as a studio, and it took us a while to get there and I want to keep pushing this in our next project, is finding ways to use game mechanics to focus explicitly on the kind of human experiences I’ve just been talking about. The things that have an emotional basis, or a basis in everyday experience, and also eschew some of the traditional foci for game mechanics, around powers struggles and economic transactions and all that.
TEG: Are there specific examples of mechanics that might work in that way, or are there games that you think get it right?
AK: Yes. In Sunless Sea you have the option of hooking up with a sweetheart while you’re in port. So we’ve got a really simple mechanic there. You can meet somebody, and then you decide to maintain that connection, not when you meet them, but after you go out to sea. So we’re using a game mechanic there to provide a space for reflection, and then to surprise you by coming back with a choice where you decide to keep their locket or throw their locket away. So that’s a game mechanic element in itself, where you have a physical object represented in the game, the locket, which actually stands for a choice you’re making in the story. We could have represented it with an entirely arbitrary variable, but by making it a physical object we’re bringing the physicality to the fore and we bring out the resonances around the way people use lockets.
So that’s a really embryonic game mechanic, but a much more complex one is that you can have affairs with the officers. If you have an affair with an officer, it has the benefit that you get a little bit of sexy writing, one of the fucking 13 sex scenes I had to fucking write, all for gender non-specific protagonists. So you get the bedroom and interaction with the character and the emotion. You also get a reduction to ‘Terror’. It’s quite a cosmetic reduction, it’s not a big deal, you get a little bit of a reduction. You also get a risk, which is that the more dalliances you enjoy while at sea, the more the chance that your spouse will find out and leave you when you get home.
So this is a risk/reward dynamic, and the risk/reward provides the basic tension. But it’s a pretty deliberately sloppy risk/reward mechanic, it’s something most likely you’ll explore early on, and then make a roleplaying position about, because if you really want to keep the ‘Terror’ down, there are better ways to do it, and if you really want to keep your spouse, you’ll never dally, for purely game mechanical reasons. You might because of curiosity, you might because of boredom, and these are all of course reasons that people are unfaithful in real life. People are not often unfaithful in real life because they feel the need to reduce their terror. They can be unfaithful in real life because they are feeling stressed and do something foolish. So the game mechanical underpinnings there provide texture and solidity for the choice that people are making primarily for reasons of roleplaying or prurient curiosity. We could just remove the ‘Terror’ mechanic altogether, and say that you decide you want to do it out of prurient curiosity or roleplaying reasons, but by providing that basic game mechanic, it underlines the larger theme of working against the odds for survival, you are clinging to another bit of human warmth, out there in this rocky ship on the cold, vast sea. It isn’t focusing on gameplay for that reason, but it is a real gameplay decision, it does provide an accessible mechanic.
TEG: How do you think that compares to the way some BioWare games keep romance completely separate from the gameplay?
AK: I don’t think that’s true. BioWare’s model for romance is what it is because they have a long tradition of doing it that way, and a fanbase who go absolutely fucking spare parts if they deviate more than a couple of micrometers from established gameplay. But what they usually have is something actually not too dissimilar from what I’ve just described. You generally get some sort of notional bonus from completing a subquest. And I think if there’s something to be said about traditional CRPG romances, and it is something that is very frequently said, which is that the quest is usually ‘hook up with’, and then after that you don’t necessarily stay. If you look at the way in which romantic plotlines work in almost any other context, there is usually boy meets girl, boy misunderstands girl, girl breaks up with boy, girl is driving off to a new job when she hears the schmaltzy tune on the radio that reminds her… So you get an arc, and you get an escalation, and you get a development.
Games often don’t do that. Some do, some do it really well and there are good examples of games that do exactly this, but most games don’t do that. 1) Because there’s not a tradition of doing it; 2) because most games are fantasies of power, and if you give somebody an in-game squeeze, especially if you give somebody an in-game squeeze that has some sort of in-game bonus, and you take it away because of the plot, you generate forum rage. So there’s always this balance between giving the players what they ask for, and giving them what they’ll enjoy. One of the truisms of game development is that you have to make decisions that will help the game, with the short-term penalty to immediate player experience. And one of the other truisms is that the players do not ask for the things that would make them happier, they ask for the things that they think would make them happier, and that’s why they’re not game designers, that’s the whole point. I think romances in games show that in miniature.
TEG: Going back to something you mentioned, the non-specific protagonist gender, both games let you pick male, female or neither. Why was that important to include?
AK: The reason that’s the case is because my name is Alexis. The reason I’m called Alexis is because my parents thought I was going to be a girl, and when I wasn’t, they just picked the first name they liked that could be used for a boy or a girl. I spent a lot of time being teased when I was growing up, having a girl’s name, and then I spent a lot of time on the internet, having people not really being sure if I was a boy or a girl. And I’m uncomplicatedly het and cis, but I did like the ability to sidestep people making assumptions about me. And because I was aware that it was just nice not to be bothered by all that stuff, I put in a ‘none of your business’ option on the set-up screen – which allowed me to make a joke about squid, which was great.
This happened just as the idea of being genderqueer, or non-traditional gender binary, became a ‘thing’ on the internet. So I wasn’t aware, except in a very peripheral way, that that was the case. It came out of my personal experience, and a very sort of primitive awareness that some people are more complicated than just boy or girl.
TEG: So it was a happy accident?
AK: Yes, very much so. And it’s made a big difference to a lot of people in the years since, which is great, and I love that, but I don’t want to claim the credit for having foreseen a sort of significant sociological development years in advance.
Originally, in Fallen London you could choose male, female or neither. And we had male portraits, female portraits and ‘neither’ portraits. We had a really hard time, because people are hardcoded to look for gender differences in faces. We had a really hard time drawing characters that didn’t obviously look like men or like women. And this annoyed some of our players, who felt that they were being forced to play characters who looked unusual, or monstrous.
When we came to do Sunless Sea we wanted to take the same approach, and we realized that actually there’s no reason to restrict male-looking portraits to people who’ve chosen a male gender, and then we realized that there’s no actual reason to specify a gender. Why not just specify a term of address and a portrait? Because you don’t often see people using a relevant pronoun to describe the second-person protagonist in a game, and if you do, there’s ways to write round it. So I did this, and then in a stroke of what I can only describe as errant idiocy, I put an option in the game that you can have a kid. I then had to write circumstances where you could have a child with a man or with a woman, without it being clear whether you were a man, or a woman, or neither. So next time I’m gonna think more carefully about how all that works.