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You may think of the Uncharted series as a collection of simple games with a simple hero, buoyed by solid action mechanics and a cinematic sense of style. You’re wrong though: in fact it’s a complex literary narrative exploring classic Freudian ideas of subjectivity and delving into the mindset of a narcissistic obsessive in need of some serious time on the analyst’s couch. Seen in the right light, the Uncharted games have the potential to transform the way we think of our own desires.

Each Uncharted game works thanks to a plot with three or four layers. First, there is the search for treasure and gold, embodied by El Dorado in the initial Drake’s Fortune. Drake is first and foremost presented to us as a ‘fortune hunter’ – something of an Indiana Jones figure. Second, there is Drake’s quest for love with journalist Elena, the ultimate love object throughout the series, and one who is not conquered until the end of the third installment. As the Mexican gangsters tell us in that first game, we (and Drake) are after both girl and treasure simultaneously: “The last man alive gets the gold. Oh, and the girl. Of course.”


So far, so typical of most action games or movies. The third layer is the plumbing of the hidden recesses of history in an attempt to unravel the unsolved mysteries of the distant past. A fourth potential layer: it would be easy to argue that the game (and Drake) is more than a little guilty of what postcolonial academics call ‘Orientalism’ – the fetishization of the objects of the East and the desire to plunder the ‘other’.

“Drake does not have one true desire but instead suffers from a medley of confused and overlapping wishes”
So what does our hero, Nathan ‘Nate’ Drake, really want, out of these three or four things he chases throughout the quadrilogy? Is it the girl, the treasure, or the glory of solving the hidden mysteries of the past/Orient? The first answer the game gives us is that his real passion — his obsession even — is with history, and specifically with Sir Francis Drake, the real historical seafaring hero who is (or who is believed to be) Nathan’s distant ancestor. Nate’s desire to follow in the footsteps of Sir Francis seems to overrun any quest for monetary reward (which is what his partner Sully wants) as well as his quest for love, which he seems more than glad to abandon when given the opportunity to plunder more of the past. The fourth game confirms what we already knew: Drake has money and the girl, but cannot resist the desire to unravel the secrets of the past. This, we are told, is his real desire.


At the end (of each game) Drake gets all four. Predictably, getting one leads to the others — and in the final scene of Drake’s Fortune this is given the perfect symbolic representation in the form of Drake’s ring. The ring symbolizes love, money, the Orient and history all together. Given to Drake by his girl, it is a representation of their love, a foreshadowing of their marriage even. Incredibly expensive, it epitomizes the acquisition of wealth. Belonging to Sir Francis Drake, the ring also signifies the discovery of a lost past. Recovered from the depths of the Amazon, it is most definitely a colonial treasure. This is what Freud calls ‘displacement’: when one desire becomes another, or, alternatively, when all desires get organized around one desire which acts as a stand-in for the rest of them. It also involves the Freudian concept of ‘condensation’: when multiple dream-thoughts are combined and amalgamated into a single element such as particular symbol. In this case, a ring. We can say that the ring is Drake’s ultimate object of desire because it displaces and condenses all sorts of other more repressed and unconscious desires that Drake is intent on burying. It is the symbol of an impossible fulfillment, and a symbol for the eradication of anxiety.

“Drake is a subject in desperate need of psychoanalysis”
The root of Drake’s anxiety and his obsession with the past is spectacularly revealed halfway through the third game in what is arguably the single most important scene of the Uncharted quadrilogy and acts as a real twist in the narrative trajectory. In it we learn that Drake is not a Drake at all and that he constructed the narrative that he is the heir of Sir Francis when he was a lost child in an orphanage. Dedicated players may remember that this is in fact foreshadowed from the first scene of the first game, where Elena questions the bloodline that Drake lays claim to. The player forgets about this, and in Uncharted 3 it comes as a genuine surprise. The revelation changes everything: instead of the new version of his ancestor, the modern treasure hunting Indiana Jones/Francis Drake, Nathan is a lost ‘Dickensian’ orphan who has been missing a purpose from a young age. Placed in an orphanage funded by the Sir Francis Drake foundation, he simply developed an obsession with this historical figure. Walking around museums, Nate becomes driven only by this (imaginary) link, which turns him into a lifelong monomaniac: always in manic pursuit of a single thing which promises to displace all other anxieties and insecurities.


Looking for meaning and purpose in life, little Nathan has latched onto an identity and developed an obsession, becoming fixated on something which, he believes, will provide the fulfillment he lacked as a child and eradicate the anxiety he has long suffered (despite his veneer of bravado). Sully (the missing father) and Elena (the replacement mother), as well as the money from treasure hunting, are all acquired as if accidental symptoms of the more important pursuit of Sir Francis’s secrets, but clearly they have long been sought by Drake’s unconscious. On the surface Drake’s Deception, the game’s title, refers to his deception of others (and of us), but it also subtly refers to the way his own unconscious has deceived him through the processes of displacement and condensation. The game shows that Drake does not have one true desire but instead suffers from a medley of confused and overlapping wishes all repressed and re-organized into a monomaniac love of history.

Drake, then, is a subject in desperate need of psychoanalysis, and someone that warns us to be aware of how our unconscious is structured. He teaches us two classic psychoanalytic lessons. First, that we do not want what we think we want, and second, that there is no true desire buried in our unconscious (something which we really do want which can come to the surface). Instead there are only complex displacements and condensations governed by politics and social norms. We learn that neither his quest for money (capitalism), nor marriage (family values), nor the figure of the ‘other’ (orientalism), nor the past (heroism) are ‘true’ desires, as desire is in fact always inherently political. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it: Drake would make Freud proud.



What are your most frequently used emoji? Presently, mine are the two pink love hearts, the fully bawling face, the awkward grimacing face, and the saxophone. In theory, people can tell a lot about you from the images that appear in this tab. From mine you could perhaps glean that I’m a socially awkward jazz enthusiast with a lot of love to give. Maybe yours tell a different story. But in a technological age where emoji are as ingrained in language as actual words, how accurately can you express yourself when there are huge gaps in the emoji keyboard?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mere presence of emoji has had its effect on the rest of our language, just as ‘text speak’ did years ago. Several abbreviations, originally created to save money when phone tariffs charged per word, have been officially recognised by institutions like the Oxford English Dictionary, which included ‘LOL’ in its 2011 revision. More recently I’ve been in more than one conversation where someone has, ironically or not, verbally hashtagged their speech. It’s not uncommon for somebody to agree with you by saying “one hundred”, or compliment something by saying it’s “fire” – both examples of slang derivative of emoji.

“I’ve been in more than one conversation where someone has, ironically or not, verbally hashtagged their speech.”
New emoji are added throughout the year to keep up-to-date with contemporary culture. The first examples can be traced to 1999 when Shigetaka Kurita designed a selection of 176 pictographs to be used by Japanese telecom company NTT DOCOMO. As such many of the themes and references resonated more with an Eastern audience. As the emoji phenomenon spread across the world, the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee has worked to ensure relevance and sensitivity to a global audience.

With its ominous name, the Unicode Emoji Subcomittee is to emoji what the Académie française is to the French language: a board that regulates the evolution of the language. Although admittedly, the UES insists that emoji are not a language, rather a way for people to “add color and whimsy to their messages, and to help to make up for the lack of gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice [in text].”

Over the years, the emoji keyboard has steadily become more sophisticated, allowing for more detailed visual communication – from the long-awaited egg emoji making its debut in 2016 to the inclusion of gender-neutral characters that appeared in the latest update. But there is one glaringly obvious emotion that is currently impossible to convey with emoji, in any gender or skin tone. I’m talking about humility.

What was the UES thinking when it okayed a floppy disk emoji before anything that could illustrate apology? Currently, in the ‘Smileys and People’ tab on the iOS keyboard there are no fewer than 40 different ways to express positive emotions ranging from happiness to love and laughter – if you include the smiling poop. Sadness, disappointment and anger can be communicated in about 35 nuances. As far as I can tell, the closest to humility represented is what refers to as ‘Flushed Face’. The description reads: “Mosrt [sic] platforms display this emoji with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, which gives an element of shock or surprise. The shame intended to be displayed on this face is not clear in most implementations, and as such this is a difficult emoji to use well.” It is a deer in the headlights, it claims no responsibility and makes no effort to apologise.

Earlier this year, a new feature became available on both iOS and Android keyboards: predictive suggestions for emoji instead of the word you, the user, have just typed out. And so, as an experiment, I took out my iPhone 6s (#humblebrag) and typed in the word ‘sorry’. The predictive feature offered me what calls ‘Neutral Face’. I tried again. ‘Embarrassed’, I wrote. ‘Weary Face’, it suggested. Why does the light embarrassment that comes with apologising for one’s actions need to be so dramatic?

Remember MSN Messenger’s ‘Blushing’ emoticon? Since owning an iPhone, I have searched countless times for something resembling this expression (you could argue that that says a lot about me). With its head turned to a ¾ profile, its cheeks a burning red, eyes sheepishly looking up to the heavens in search of forgiveness, it was as close to a perfect visual depiction of apology as any emoji or emoticon has ever come before it. When MSN Messenger was discontinued in 2014, so, too, was the ‘Blushing’ emoticon.

Without the ability to express genuine, humble apology through digital communication, we seem to have lost the ability to do it IRL, as well. Why admit your mistakes or come clean about your faux-pas – a social skill which relies on empathy – when you can send an upside-down smiley face instead, as if to say, “hehe aren’t I cute, I’m not in control of my own actions, my head’s upside-down.”

Taylor Swift’s recent single, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, is an anthem for the era of shirking responsibility. The chorus consists of the singer repeating the titular phrase eight times, which has led to millions of fans around the globe effortlessly committing to memory the refrain and, in doing so, absorbing the subtext: nothing is my fault, nothing is my fault, nothing is my fault, nothing is my fault.

There are few things with greater power over the public to promote change than celebrities, whether they’re pop stars or the president of the United States. Who’s to say whether Swift’s self-expunging attitude towards the reason she has so many enemies has influenced the countless times Donald Trump has used the phrase “I didn’t know” when confronted by his own inconsistencies? Or vice-versa?

“hehe aren’t I cute, I’m not in control of my own actions, my head’s upside-down.”
When Trump “didn’t know” that any other president before him had ever called the families of fallen soldiers with a message of condolence it was because “that’s what [he] was told”. He rejected that his error was his own fault, and he dismissed the opportunity to apologise for it. When the most powerful man in the world doesn’t have to own up to his actions, why should its citizens? Or, is it possible that this unapologetic epidemic had spread long before he reached office and could serve as an explanation as to why he got voted in in the first place? Maybe he truly is a shining example of the modern every-person. Somewhere along the line we lost our ability to admit our flaws and, like it or not, Trump is the tertiary result of our collective maturity.

While the vast majority of us have nothing to do with the development of the emoji keyboard, it’s nonetheless shaped the way we communicate verbally, and to some extent how we interact. On episode 201 of the Comedian’s Comedian podcast, Russell Brand said: “Only things that there are words for are being said”. Following that logic, if there is no emoji for ‘sorry’, how can we be expected to emote it? How necessary is it to include a non-binary, tanned merperson on the emoji keyboard when the most basic of human emotions is lacking from the selection?


It’s safe to say that the format of the ‘decision-based narrative adventure game’ is now safely established. Telltale might be sucking up intellectual property with an avaricious glee to rival that of Disney, but the basic premise of its games remains largely static.

It’s usually at this point in a genre’s genesis that a second generation of games arrives to challenge the status quo. Enter stage-right Life is Strange. Dontnod’s five part ludo-drama about a time-travelling teen was a self-reflexive comment on the genre as well as being a tale well told. We caught up with Game Director Michel Koch and Executive Producer Luc Baghadoust to discuss teenage girls, episodic development, and whether Life is Strange is actually a game at all.

Existential Gamer: Why choose a teenage girl as the central protagonist?

Michel Koch: That’s a good question. We didn’t start working on the game by having this checklist of saying ‘we need a female character’ or ‘we need two female characters’. Basically we really started with a blank slate just knowing that we wanted to make a game about choice and consequences using the rewind ability. That was the basis of our thinking – if choices are involved, rewinding makes it interesting. So then we started to brainstorm about what would be the best stories and best characters, what can we do with that? In the first phase of brainstorming you can go in a lot of different directions thinking ‘do we do a story with a male character?’ Or ‘how about someone coming back from a war or something?’ And we said ‘Okay, a teenage story is interesting because high school is a time of life where most of your decisions will affect what you will become later as an adult and I think every one of us would love to change some of the things we did in high school, go back to this time maybe, try other stuff.’ We were also fans of American shows, teenage dramas and shows like Buffy or Friday Night Lights, these were shows that we really like and we said ‘okay, this could be a good setting.’ And then quite quickly we had this idea of Max, of this quiet, shy, introverted girl who is having a hard time going forward in her life; she is always questioning herself, she always has a lot of difficulties making decisions. We thought that if a character like that had rewind, it’s even more interesting because she already has these issues of going forward and if you give people the ability to go backward and change everything it’s compelling because the principle gameplay mechanic also becomes the main storytelling device and resonates with the character. So I guess Max happened like that.

EG: Yeah, I never felt like Max was sure of her decisions, even when she had rolled back time and tried again. That indecision was so important for me as a player.

Luc Baghadoust: In some other games you have to pick between two options and just instinctively choose one, here you have the rewind power and many players told us they had a hard time choosing because it makes the decision more important, it’s not just pressing a button within a limited time. You have to be sure this is the decision you want to make and move forward with this choice.


EG: Telltale’s decision making mechanic is the antithesis of what you just described. Did you look at it and think, ‘something here is broken here’?

MK: It makes sense sometimes, especially in The Walking Dead, or in Game of Thrones if you are, let’s say, under pressure to answer questions.

LB: I think The Walking Dead is a wonderful game, their short timing makes perfect sense, with the setting and with the choices available. It works really well in this game because it’s completely integrated into this universe where you have to make these kind of decisions in a split second and bad things can happen anyway. But it was interesting for us to go the complete opposite direction, not because it was ‘not good’ but because it was interesting to do something else and one of the main aspects of Life is Strange is that it is a slow-paced game and the rewind adds even more to this slow pacing because when you can rewind you basically have all the time in the world. So we wanted to add more and more to this idea of taking your time. That’s why we included options like sitting on your couch and playing guitar and continuing to do it for as long as you want before quitting the scene, or sitting on the fountain and just looking around, being lost in your thoughts and looking at the people passing by. Those are all the kinds of elements that we thought were important for this kind of game, to create this bubble where you have a lot of time. We never wanted to put pressure on the player and rush them.

MK: I remember when the game was introduced the first time at Gamescom the reaction from the press that knew The Walking Dead and enjoyed it was that if you can rewind your decision it means that your decision is not important at all. But when we explained that they could understand the short-term consequences but not the long-term ones it started to click and people started to understand the point of the game.


EG: Speaking of those decisions and scenarios, the subject matter of each is pretty serious: domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide. Why was it important to include those in Life is Strange?

MK: I think what we had in mind for Life is Strange is to be quite close to reality, it’s a modern day game with realistic settings and characters. We thought that if we had a realistic setting in a high school nowadays, it would make sense to show all the difficulties that teenagers can face in real life. For instance, the rise of social media which can lead to cyberbullying like we have in Episode Two. Also, this relates to why the game is called Life is Strange, because even if it includes rewind, which is a sci-fi element that gives the game a supernatural vibe, basically it’s really a realistic game about characters and the difficulties they might face in the real world.

EG: Do you think that games have a responsibility to tackle social issues like that?

MK: I don’t think that games as a whole have a responsibility to do that, but they can do. More and more games are doing it. We tried to do it in Life is Strange but there are also games like Papers Please, or That Dragon, Cancer, or even in big AAA games like Spec Ops: The Line, which is a shooter still.

LB: A lot of these topics were taboo in big games, and the indie scene is so creative, so many great ideas, great games, great themes. For us it’s kind of our brief in the world to make sure that these kinds of topics are dealt with in games. I’m sure we’re going to see more and more of this in the coming years with games taking risks.

MK: I also don’t think that all games should take those risks. There is not just space for one kind of game, so, I don’t want to see every game being really topical, I think we need the fun games, sometimes you just need to play some Street Fighter. It’s an interesting time in that there are a lot of different genres like you see in movies where you can go to a cinema and see a really broad range of movies and we’re starting to go there with videogames.

EG: As you were episodic, I’m guessing that your players became your guides as you received feedback between episodes? How did that shift what your were doing during the development process?

MK: After Episode 1 we were already working on the next episode and laying the groundwork for Episode 3 – the game wasn’t split artificially after being completed. The main story was there from the beginning and we wouldn’t have changed the main story arc because of feedback from the players; we were really confident with the story we had, but sometimes we would have the opportunity to add things.

EG: What sort of things? Cues for players? Mechanical stuff?

MK: Sometimes it was just adding a few more lines of dialogue to a character that the community really liked or even sometimes just making some small nods to the community by adding some easter eggs. Making each episode is like making five small games in a row, so we learned from mistakes in each one and how to improve things in the next episode like the design of a puzzle or adding scenes based on what worked well previously.


EG: Moving sideways slightly – I’ve wanted to grab someone in your genre for ages to talk about form. Feel free to answer this question how you will: how do you feel about the term ‘interactive film’?

MK: I don’t mind it that much because there is still the word ‘interactive’ inside which is good. I know that there are people who like to say that Telltale games or Quantic Dream games or our games are interactive movies. I know that some people like to say that because they think that these are less ‘game’ than other games because they don’t require skills, but I disagree, because to me, ‘game’ doesn’t mean that you require skills, a game is something with rules and interactivity. I would say that in a game like Her Story for instance, there is still interactivity and there are still rules, as simple as they might be. You don’t have to have all the boxes ticked to make something a game as long as you have control or interactivity or something that connects your brain to what you’re playing and you’re still affecting it and not just watching passively, I think that it’s a game. For me there is a lot of space for different ways to interact with games.

EG: Playing devil’s advocate here – some would say that it’s the loss of win/lose scenarios, the principle defining aspect of a game, which puts works like Life is Strange in a different category.

LB: Well if you think about old point-and-click games you had puzzles, you would choose dialogue options ,some of which had deadly consequences, but most didn’t.

MK: Maybe the word ‘game’ isn’t actually the best word for the kind of media we’re talking about today. I guess I’d have to look at the exact definition of what a game is, but a lot of people might relate it still to a toy, to fun, to rules, whereas not all videogames or interactive experiences need be like this.

LB: It is something you see a lot in design discretion, sometimes the fun factor is the principle aspect of your game, sometimes not.

MK: Yeah and if you look at movies, they can be fun, but if you look at a great like, let’s say, Schindler’s List, it’s a great movie, but nobody would say that it’s a fun movie. In the end, games don’t have to be fun, they need to be ‘entertaining’ if that’s even the right word. You should get something from an interactive experience, you should experience emotion – it might be fun, it might be scary, it might be sad, but I think that reducing this to ‘fun’ and win/loss and rules, tends to create a bad image of interactive experiences. A lot of games that are great, but it’s easy for some people to say that it’s not a game because of A, B or C.

LB: It’s funny, many videogame players are arguing about what is a game and what is not but if you don’t like a genre don’t play it and don’t bother those who do. Same with sports where people criticize things like cycling.

EG: I agree, I don’t think that games have to induce a dopamine rush every five seconds. Not at all.

MK: The genre needs to grow up  – there is space for everything.

LB: I remember when we were working on Life is Strange and Gone Home was released, it was an indie game but it reached a big audience and we were really happy to see that there was room for these kinds of games – narrative storytelling, discovering the story bit by bit by exploring your apartment. It was really a good thing for us to see that people might enjoy our game after all.

MK: I think that the success of Her Story shows that the industry and its audience is evolving by accepting a different kind of gameplay. If you look at Her Story it’s basically just typing words and looking at videos, but to me this includes the heart of interactivity and game design. It’s about what has to happen in your brain, how you put the pieces together. With this simple game plan he managed to make what I think is even better than the really big investigation games out there, where everything is designed for you to find the clues – your brain doesn’t have to make these jumps, but in Her Story the game pushes you to make these leaps like a real detective.

Sinister PR watchdog: We’re actually kind of running out of time now.


EG: One more serious, bigger question: I’m pretty bored with AAA storytelling, frankly, and have been for some time. A lot of the more experimental, interesting stories seem to be coming from smaller studios or the indie scene. Do you agree? If so why?

LB: Didn’t you enjoy The Last of Us? I think that game was a good example of a big studio designing a game with a similar process to an indie company – they really cared about the story and characters. Michel usually hates shooter games on console but he managed to enjoy the shooting sequences, which is an incredible achievement. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are big studios that still do really well with storytelling though.

MK: The Last of Us is definitely one of my favourite AAA games of recent years because the player experience is really cohesive – they blend the gameplay and the storytelling in a way which works for me. Even though I really like the Uncharted games, you have a story sequence, then shooter sequence, then story, and then shooter, whereas in The Last of Us I think that it makes sense when you’re in a shooting sequence; you still make a story in your head that you need to protect Ellie and that the guys who attack you are really a threat and you need to put them down. I was never out of the story, out of the experience, everything made sense and I didn’t have the feeling of a patchwork of different dynamics. Which was great. I kind of see what you mean about narrative in bigger games, though I think that Rockstar is doing a great job with its storytelling; Red Dead Redemption and GTA V were really good in their characters and story even though it’s so big that you can sometimes drift away.

Last thing: what IP would you most like to make a Life is Strange-esque game for?

MK: Hmm, I think that there is great stuff that could be made in the Deus Ex universe – I’m looking at you [gesturing toward the man from Square Enix]. And if I had to pick another to give the Life is Strange treatment then I would pick The X-Files. For a narrative-based game this would be interesting.

LB: Yes, especially for the psychological horror element.


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?


TEG: Yeah.

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.

You can read part 2 of the interview over here.

You can play Fallen London for free in your browser right now and buy Sunless Sea for PC or Mac.


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?

TEG: No.

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!

You can play Fallen London for free in your browser right now and buy Sunless Sea for PC or Mac.


It’s been nearly three years since I last played GTA V. It doesn’t seem like a long time, and yet I think that it took too long for me to play it again, this time on PS4. As soon as the opening credits started rolling, I was in familiar territory. I felt – and feel, because I have not finished the game yet – welcome. At home.

I don’t usually re-play games – apart from sports games, as it’s easy for one trade to ruin a whole season or career – but this felt… different. I missed these guys. I love Trevor, although at a safe distance, and Franklin too. Quentin Tarantino described Rio Bravo as a “hangout movie,” meaning it is highly re-watchable, because the viewer wants to spend the time with the characters again and again. I also have my favorite hangout movies – Goodfellas and The Damned United are two that come to mind – but GTA V is hands down my favorite hangout game. The first time around I just liked spending time with Trevor and Franklin, doing all the stuff a GTA player enjoys. Those two were cool. But Michael…


“In a way, life just passes him by”
The man wasn’t relatable for me. He had two kids, a wife, and lots of money, and I didn’t have any of that stuff. His problems were not my problems, his frustrations either. His missions were fine, but the idea of spending more time with him never appealed to me. Which is why I was so surprised that when I returned to the game this year I started to sympathize with him. In fact, now I kind of understand, and maybe even like him. These surprising emotions have nothing to do with me growing up (well, a little at least), getting married, and “fathering” two dogs – let’s leave money out of this – but are in a way connected with the main idea of Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism.


Blinded by the idea of ‘the good life’, instilled by capitalism, we tell ourselves stories in order for our lives to make sense: I wake up an hour earlier to jog before work, because my mind will work better during the day and make me more efficient; I take a course on communication to become a better leader at the office; etc. These are all optimistic assumptions about activities supposed to benefit us in the long run. The goal is to reach the object of our desire, whatever that might be. When obtaining that object, we will finally achieve happiness, as “the proximity to this object means proximity to the cluster of things that the object promises.” Of course, most of these assumptions are basically lies that we tell ourselves in order to persevere, but we internalize them to the point that we actually start to believe them.

While cruel in its own right, this is not what Berlant means by cruel optimism. For her, “optimism is cruel when it takes shape as an affectively stunning double bind: a binding to fantasies that block the satisfactions they offer, and a binding to the promise of optimism as such that the fantasies have come to represent.” What I’m pursuing may not always be what is best for me, yet I continue to pursue it because that is what is expected of me, in both objective and activity. I am supposed to want a bigger apartment, as then I’ll have more space for more stuff. In this new apartment I will be truly happy, I will have a bigger bed and a bigger TV. But to earn enough money to buy it I must first go to a well-paid job and stick to it, no matter how miserable it makes me feel and how many extra hours I must spend there. My boss is probably gonna be a dick too. My assumptions are optimistic, because I think this misery will eventually lead to an explosion of happiness. I guess you know how the story ends.


In the case of Michael Townley/De Santa, what is holding him back is his idea of ‘the good life’. Granted, he was in a way forced into it, as it was this life or prison, but the game eventually reveals that there is a way for him to avoid it. Before he meets Franklin, Michael spends his days drinking by the pool or in front of the television set. Michael is retired and rich, but he doesn’t do anything constructive with his time and resources. In the meantime, his ex-stripper wife cheats on him with her tennis coach and yoga instructor, his daughter parties with porn producers, and his son is the stereotypical lazy, aggressive teen playing brutal video games all day. In a way, life just passes him by.


“I think this misery will eventually lead to an explosion of happiness”
If Michael’s backstory is that of a man crippled by cruel optimism, his arc in the game itself hints at a way forward. Meeting Franklin jump starts him. While his assumptions that he may regain his family and sustain his happiness are also optimistic, they are not of the cruel kind, because he is actually enjoying himself and doing what he does best. “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” and this is the exact opposite of that. With each mission Michael consequently purifies himself of his frustrations.

I really feel for Michael. He’s constantly struggling to balance his personal happiness with societal expectations. His whole family hates him, but that doesn’t stop him from loving them. He takes his wife shopping, plays tennis with her and wants to impress her by learning yoga. He tries to be a father figure to people who perceive him as nothing more than a meal ticket. Even though he fails, he doesn’t stop trying. He’s a videogame character, overconfident and overdrawn, yet I have nothing but respect for him. I know where his anger comes from, and… I like him.

Author: Lukasz Muniowski

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