Towards the end of the 19th Century, London became the fifth city to be stolen by the underground Bazaar. The city exists now in the dark Neath, having little contact with the surface. So goes the story behind Fallen London, a single-player browser-based RPG.
The game uses Twitter or Facebook for authentication, so you’ll need an account with one of these to play. After choosing a name, gender (lady, gentleman, or ‘an individual of mysterious and indistinct gender’) and a silhouette portrait for your character, you begin the game incarcerated in New Newgate Prison, which acts as a tutorial level. After you break out, the city is yours.
It’s lovely to see a game so inclusive right off the bat – many games don’t let you play as a woman, let alone a non-binary person. You’ll also find that your character’s gender doesn’t lock you out of any possible romances with NPCs, or from wearing any type of clothes. The use of silhouettes for representation is also a nice touch, stylistically suitable for the time period and a way of letting you know that your character’s appearance is none of the game’s business.
Mechanically, the game isn’t exciting. All the gameplay involves clicking on multiple-choice paths; you’ll never have to react fast, or type anything except for numbers of objects you want to buy or sell. The hook of Fallen London is the progression of your character from penniless prison escapee to whatever you choose. Become a master thief. Join the University, and maybe get kicked out for being too radical. Become a sailor (sorry, a zailor) and explore the hidden islands of the Unterzee. The game also eases you into its backstory this way, gradually revealing the shocking secrets of the history of London and the Bazaar.
The Neath is a gripping playground for the mind. It’s a warped version of the real London, with its place names hauntingly familiar – Watchmaker’s Hill is an obvious expy of Greenwich, for example. Its subterranean location brings with it Lovecraftian horrors (anachronism, but there you go), and a different way of life from the surface. Mushrooms are harvested for wine, and London’s new proximity to Hell means devils walk the streets alongside the humans and zombies (who come in two flavours: the drownies and the bandaged tomb-colonists). There’s the odd zeppelin too, and you can buy goggles, but thankfully the game has hardly any steampunk wankerypop.
The user interface is themed like a card deck, with two pools of possible actions called opportunity cards and storylets. Storylets are location-dependent, and lock and unlock as your character grows. You opportunity card deck is the same wherever in the city you travel (unless you visit some really weird locations, which take some effort to get to). Every six minutes you receive another opportunity card to draw (from a maximum deck size of six), and you can then play it or discard it. At the start of the game you can hold only one drawn card in your hand at a time, but as you progress to better lodgings you can hold more. Playing a storylet or an opportunity card costs an action (discarding or drawing a card is free), of which you get at least 40 a day – more on that later.
Your character has four main stats, which you’ll spend most of the game grinding in order to unlock more storylets: dangerous (strength), watchful (intelligence), shadowy (stealth/agility), and persuasive (charisma). You can build up any combination that suits you, and there’s nothing stopping you maxing out all four. Each characteristic comes with a corresponding menace, should you attempt to bite off more than you can chew – trying to be too dangerous will get you wounded, failing to be stealthy enough will increase your suspicion, and so on. There’s no permanent penalty for dying, going mad, being re-incarcerated in New Newgate, or being exiled across the Zee, but it’s inconvenient.
As well as the four main stats, your choices in the game will result in you acquiring and losing characteristics such as ruthlessness, austerity, magnanimity, and hedonism. You can also make or break alliances, which tend to come in pairs that lock you out of (or greatly impede progress with) the other. Increasing your connections with Hell, for example, makes it harder to get friendly with the Church, and being a constables’ pet makes you distrusted by criminals. These connections are presented as equal and viable alternatives, with nothing inherently better about each. This all makes it much easier to play your character exactly as you want to play them; the game will rarely if ever force you to do something out of character just to move things along. Progress with all of these connections and quirks nets you – you guessed it – more storylets and cards.
Fallen London is an allegedly free game – around 90% of the content is free to play, with a few storylines and one location unlockable with real money. You can also spend money on an in-game currency called fate, which can sometimes buy you sneakier choices in storylets. For 35 fate (about £5.50) a month you can buy Exceptional Friend status, which will give you 80 actions a day instead of the usual 40. You can boost your actions once a day by ‘echoing’ a snippet of exposition on Twitter or Facebook, which will give you an extra 10 (for free players) or 20 actions (for exceptional friends). Doing this also records the snippet in your character’s journal, which gives you another bit of character development to play with – if you wish, you can echo (and edit) only the snippets most relevant to your Fallen Londoner’s interests, instead of just picking the first one available.
Though single-player, the game allows some minor interaction with your Twitter and Facebook contacts. Sometimes you and your friends will be able to give each other presents, give each other a little stat boost or help chip away at a debuff.
There is also an opt-in subgame called Knife and Candle, in which players attempt to murder each other in a polite and genteel fashion. Knife and Candle is periodically taken down for gameplay balance purposes – as of writing this, it’s still down with no indication of when it’ll be back.
Fallen London is a charming and immersive little world, and gently funny in its own way. It’s easy to pick up, and is very compelling – you’ll probably find yourself watching the timer until your next action refresh. It’s worth creating a Twitter account just to try it.
Originally published July 2011 (when the game was called Echo Bazaar).
Updates: the information about action refreshes is now incorrect. The bad news is that actions refresh every ten minutes, not every six. The good news is that everyone now has unlimited actions per day, Exceptional or not! Exceptional Friend status also costs 25 fate/nex, rather than 35. Nex has largely replaced fate, and the part about echoing snippets to Twitter appears to have been removed.