Fallen London’s creator on why free-to-play could be the future of storytelling
Writing and storytelling in games is often seen as a bit of a joke – window-dressing for bigger explosions, or weak justification for increasingly lavish bloodshed. Even indie developers are reluctant to place script at the centre of their games, because it’s tough to sell story in an industry with such disregard for it. One notable exception, however, is Alexis Kennedy from Failbetter Games, the UK studio behind Fallen London.
For those who haven’t tried it, Fallen London is a choose your own adventure game with a difference – part RPG, part text adventure, part parlour game, part social experience. The New Yorker says it’s “far and away the best browser game of today”. You can play it in your browser during coffee breaks, and it gently uses the free-to-play model to keep its creators in virtual ink. Fallen London is built using creation tools called Storynexus, which let anyone have a go at creating, writing and monetising their own interactive story. Many digital writers are already making enough money to supplement their incomes.
To Kennedy, writing in games is important, and he thinks that free-to-play content delivery is not only a powerful future for videogames, but also for storytelling in general. Publishing giant Random House agrees with him, which is why they’ve teamed up with Kennedy and a brand new author to create the world’s first exclusively interactive novel: Black Crown Project. We caught up with Kennedy to discuss his thoughts on interactive stories, social gaming, and dressing up as Darth Vader
Clearly writing is the key component in games like Fallen London, but how important do you think it is to the medium as a whole?
I think it’s easy to be cynical about writing in games. To the bitter chagrin of writers, it’s often only one of the finishing touches. It’s polish, but people notice polish. And I think the great thing about great writing – and especially great dialogue – is that it gets quoted. From Raymond Chandler, through to Alien, through to Portal 2 – you get memes and tropes and quotes developing that feed back into society. Portal was exceptional for many reasons, and the great writing was a relatively minor part – but it’s still in there. It’ll never be the major, motivating aspect of a big, high production value game but it’s always a vital polish aspect. For some people it’s more important – if you’re Valve or Double Fine – because writing is one of the first things people think of when they talk about their games.
Why did you personally decide to create interactive fiction as opposed to a traditional novel?
I’m a gamer, and I’m more interested in the idea of content that’s delivered in more appropriate ways for the digital environment. The novel is a tremendously successful and powerful form, but it’s 200 years old. Technology has changed out of all recognition in that time, and now there’s no need for the kind of distribution and payment mechanisms that used to be fundamental. So there’s no need for a story to be 200 pages long before you can charge money for it, and I think that free-to-play, as a model for publishing many types of content, makes a lot of sense. People want to see the whole story – they don’t just want part of it – so if you give them something for free and they absolutely love it, then they’re going to pay for the rest. It seems like a natural fit.
So, do you think that the ability to publish your own novels on places like Kindle Marketplace feel like old ideas being forced onto new technology, when it could be so much more?
I think it could be so much more, but I also think it could be so much less. At the moment people generally write a whole novel, then try to publish it, then they self-publish because they can’t get a publishing deal. But digital technology offers other models that just make more sense. What we decided to do with Fallen London was launch early and launch often. Fallen London has nearly 1,000,000 words now, which is the equivalent of about five to six good-sized novels. When I launched, it had around 8,000 words. And we’ve just iterated it over the years. We’ve had some stuff that worked, so we did more of that; and we did stuff that didn’t work, so we stopped doing it. That’s not something you can do with a traditional novel, or any kind of long-form narrative, but it makes a lot of sense for this kind of project.