This is the second half of our amazing interview with Alexis Kennedy, Creative Director and co-founder of Failbetter Games, the English development studio behind dark, Victorian fantasies Fallen London and Sunless Sea. If you missed Part One, you can read it here – otherwise, brace yourself for a discussion of magic tricks, cannibalism and Civilization.
The Existential Gamer: Given that you started writing the universe 6 years ago, are there any ideas that you wrote near the beginning – which are now hardcoded into the narrative – that you don’t like any more?
Alexis Kennedy: Not so much, because we’ve tended to modulate the ideas over time. As it goes along, one of two things tends to happen when you have something you didn’t like so much… I’ll try to think of an example, I’m not being diplomatic, I’ll think of something we didn’t like…
I’ve got a really good one actually. We can often modulate things over time so they change, or de-emphasize things. But also, put it this way: Norman Hunter was a magician and writer, who’s best known for the Professor Branestawm books. He talks about a trick where you have a lion pre-drawn on a piece of paper. The trick depends on your audience, so when you ask, ‘what animal is it going to be?’ you’re relying on them to pick the right animal. It turns out if you ask for an animal, somebody in the audience will always shout ‘lion’. So Norman Hunter says, ‘what if there’s a guy in the front row who’s shouting “tiger” in a really loud voice? In that circumstance, you look him right in the eye and say “this gentleman wants a lion.” And you go ahead and reveal the drawing.’
And up to a point, and it’s quite a narrow point, you can do that with story. If you say, ‘The Duchess is young, the Duchess is young, the Duchess is young… actually, she’s old,” people will adjust, as long as you provide some figleaf of justification for it. They’re committed to the universe. And nothing’s really hardcoded in our universe, we can always change stuff.
We had a ‘Connect to the Orient’ quality in the game to begin with, and I had something quite specific in mind for this. I wanted to use it to give Victorian flavor. Baghdad does not have much in common with Beijing, but if you were a Victorian explorer and you spoke Arabic, you were much more likely to speak Chinese. If you lived in Victorian London and you spoke Chinese, you were much more likely than English-speakers to have socialized with people who spoke Arabic. I wanted to evoke some of the sense of the alienness of non-European cultures in the 19th Century. But over the years, it pissed people off again and again. There were plenty of Japanese-Americans who were just tired of being confused with Chinese-Americans, and Muslims who were tired of being called Arabs. It was a bit of a poke in the eye for them. And eventually we realized it’s just not that interesting a point to make.
There is a very careful line to be drawn between stuff that offends people and stuff that’s interesting. I am absolutely in favor of free artistic expression and I think a lot of things are said on the internet these days which privilege – and I’m going to choose my words very carefully – ideological soundness at the expense of interesting untidiness. But a lot of stuff isn’t interesting untidiness, it’s just a starting assumption or a preference on the part of its creator. And the creator’s preferences aren’t all paramount, and we took it out. We had to do quite a lot of work to take it out. But it was there to make a point, it wasn’t there for cheap racism, but it wasn’t a very good point and it did come across as upsetting for some people.
So even when there’s things that have really been in there from day one, and are baked into the mechanics, we can always change them.
TEG: You mentioned Lynch as an influence. What other non-game influences were there?
AK: Mervyn Peake – big influence. Jack Vance – he was extraordinarily prolific, extraordinarily intelligent in his creation, and extraordinarily evocative in the detail of whatever he writes. He was a merchant sailor for years, and that sense of somebody who has seen a dozen different cultures before they’re 25 years old, in a world where that was quite unusual, comes through in his work.
Paul [Arendt, fellow co-founder] always quotes Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula as influencing the art style. I suppose it’s spooky but silly, which I think we like. Edward Gorey, that sense of something silly but nasty, is something that we come back to again and again.
TEG: And what about game-related influences for both Fallen London and Sunless Sea?
AK: I think a lot of people who’ve played tabletop roleplaying games have guessed that a lot of the core creative team have played them too. It’s quite hard to identify the individual DNA, but there’s something about the commitment to a consistent world, the negotiation between the player and the game about the details of the narrative. So a whole slew of tabletop games, as much about the approach as the individual systems.
Consequently, not surprisingly, CRPGs were obviously a really big influence as well. It was very obscure when we first started talking about it, but I’m very glad to say it’s broken into the mainstream since, King of Dragon Pass was a big influence. It was a PC game back in the days when these didn’t really exist, and it totally failed to achieve any kind of commercial success, and then the creator ported it to iOS a few years ago and it took off and did really well and has enjoyed a lot of success. It was a monstrous, rather untidy hybrid of different systems where you’re guiding the fortunes of a clan of Celtic-style warrior-herders in a world called Glorantha. The specific thing about it that plays into Fallen London is the way that the individual chunks of story are tightly constrained, atomic but loosely connected. So having a story chunk that affects state, and affects which stories come up, rather than the traditional ‘choose your own adventure’ branch of ‘you start here, you get there, there’ll be a web that you advance through.’
It’s a compromise between the worldbuilding approach of traditional fiction and ‘choose your own adventure.’ You get the sense of being able to navigate, choose the general direction in which you’re going, without it being a big simulated environment, and still get this constraint on your individual choices. So that’s the thing that we took, above all, from King of Dragon Pass.
TEG: When it came to Sunless Sea, where there any particular roguelike games–
AK: FTL. FTL was by far the biggest influence, and we’ve acknowledged this. Have you come across A House of Many Doors?
AK: We have an incubation scheme, and one of the guys we have in the incubation scheme now, Harry Tuffs, is making a game called A House of Many Doors. And the relationship between Sunless Sea and A House of Many Doors is rather like the relationship between Sunless Sea and FTL, except more so. He acknowledges it as a really specific influence, and we’re not formally publishing it because it looks so similar, we were worried people would mistake one for the other.
But FTL was by far the biggest because of the sense of exploration, and I think roguelikes which have a fundamental ‘hunger’ mechanic, which have some sort of survival element to them – and obviously a lot of the venerable ones do – those are the branch of the roguelike medium we’re in. Don’t Starve is another influence.
TEG: There’s a lot of humor in the writing of both games. Do you think that kind of humor is essential in a narrative game to hold player attention, or can a narrative-heavy game work well without any humor?
AK: Absolutely, yeah. A narrative-heavy game can work well without humor. I think the humor in Fallen London serves a very particular purpose – it fundamentally serves the purpose of making people giggle. It functions rather like syrup in a cocktail. There are cocktails that’d be undrinkable without the addition of a little bit of sucrose, and there’s some extremely nasty shit in those games. There’s bees that harvest memories through your eyes, there’s routine cannibalism, there is an owl that splits open and harvests your thoughts using the maggots that writhe inside it.
The thing I mentioned earlier with Gorey is it’s nasty, but funny. Like with cannibalism. Eating people is wrong. But when you say, ‘eating people is wrong’, you smile. I think it allows you to explore darker, more challenging or more exotic themes, without going into it for the shock value. You know, I think a lot of games, if they use madness, or cannibalism, or despair, or insects that burrow into your eyes as a theme, it’d be hard to interact with anything else around them, except for the gross-out value. But humor sweetens things.
But absolutely, there are lots of extremely fine narratives that are… not humorless, but not intentionally funny.
TEG: What would you say are the best and worst things about writing across the games industry at the moment?
AK: So first of all, let me say I’m in many respects very badly qualified to say that. I’ve never worked in a traditional game studio, and Failbetter is really unusual, and privileged, in writing as much as we do. Writers often tend to be lower down in the production order.
The best thing about it is the explosion of maturity that we’ve seen. And by maturity I mean craft maturity, I don’t mean mature themes. I mean the fact that the awareness of the complexities and affordances of choice-and-consequence narrative has just exploded over the last few years. People used to think that choice-and-consequence narrative meant ‘choose your own adventure’, or meant that you got different bonuses depending on whether you’d chosen to kill the elf or kill the goblin. And now the kind of things that people are doing with it, from big name AAA games, to Twine games, to indie games, to immersion narrative in roguelikes, to immersion narrative in simulations, lots and lots of really thoughtful, brilliant stuff. An awful lot of bollocks as well, but this is Sturgeon’s law, 90% of everything is shit. So the big thing is just the general growth of craft and awareness, at every level from fans all the way through to AAA writers.
The worst thing is the continued equation of size with quality. We do this, because it’s a very easy bullet point for the box. But it’s hard to draw back from. Fallen London’s got a million words, I think. It’s not a thousand times as good as it would have been with a thousand words. It’s better, but not a thousand times as good. And whenever you see something that says, ‘X choices, Y endings, Z NPCs,’ my heart sinks a little bit. Because it’s kind of not the point. How fucking good are those individual things? Are those endings ones that you will care about? Are those choices things that will – my co-founder has this phrase ‘fag break choice’ – you know, a choice that actually will be enough of a personal impact that if you are a smoker you’ll go outside and have a cigarette while you think about it. But no, instead we get numbers.
TEG: It’s a curiously gaming-specific problem. You don’t see the new Star Wars advertising that it’s 30 minutes longer than The Phantom Menace as a selling point.
AK: You’re right, and I think that’s actually for almost a worthy reason. I think it’s because it is very hard to distil the essence of a gaming experience, and it is very easy to feel like you’re distilling the essence of a gaming experience. If you sum up a big narrative franchise, you can say, ‘It’s a boy wizard whose parents have been killed, who’s going to a boarding school for wizards.’ Or you can say, ‘It’s a girl competing in lethal murder games while trapped in a love triangle.’ OK, there we go, you know what kind of thing it is very quickly.
You talk about games, and now we’ve got a language of genre to describe the whole thing by saying, you know, ‘It’s a MOBA meets an MMO.’ That means something. Ten years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. Ten years ago people didn’t have the critical language to explore this stuff, so we got in the habit of saying, ‘box point, box point, box point, box point.’ And we are still left with that legacy, that’s the way the marketing of games developed, that’s the way that we were taught.
TEG: What game have you personally played the most hours of in your life?
AK: Civilization. Specifically, the Fall from Heaven dark fantasy mod for Civilization. I mean, I spent thousands of hours in Civilization’s various flavors. My first experience of sleep deprivation was the direct result of 16 hours straight playing Civilization. I didn’t get past Civilization IV but it is such a rich bed for the generation of narratives, coupled with being slow as all fuck, that means that it’s very easy to sink hours into it. It’s a positive master class of game design.
TEG: Are there any games you love that Failbetter fans might be surprised that you love?
AK: Probably not is the answer. I have very clear preferences that come out in our output. But Starcraft, actually, is an example. I was never of a remotely pro or even serious standard, but I put a lot of hours into Starcraft back in the day. I really enjoyed it. These days, I’m getting on, my reflexes are slower, and the number of hours you have to put in just to make the Bronze league, there’s no chance. I have a child and a business, it’s not gonna happen.
TEG: When, and how, do you think the world will end?
AK: Uh… I think… It won’t end. I think the question will cease to be relevant. Do you want more?
TEG: Yeah, I’m curious.
AK: I mean that we always tend to see tomorrow’s solutions in terms of today’s problems. And I think the problem will not be that robots will take over the world, I think the problem will be that we will have sufficiently divested ourselves of the need or the desire to make decisions that all the decisions will be made for us. I think the problem will not be that we are all uploaded into computers and leave our bodies to rot, I think that we will become so diffuse as a species, because we will have tragic underclasses with life expectancies measured in three decades, and expert systems that are forecasts from people’s mind states and classed as individuals, and senile people who are running on implanted apps, that we will be a diaspora of bewildering varieties.
And so I think at that point, at some point we’ll end up with seas full of sewage, and a big mainframe in the earth’s crust running on solar and geothermal power, and wars in what used to be cities, and asking when the world will end will be missing the point.
TEG: You’ve given that a lot of thought.
AK: I haven’t actually, that was mostly off the top of my head! But I realized I had been thinking about a number of related things in the background for some time, and recognized them. So thank you for that!