A real-time exploration of the exquisite world created in Fallen London

The world of Fallen London has been captivating players for the past four years.  The browser-based choose-your-own-adventure takes place in a Victorian-era version of London that has been stolen by a bat-run Bazaar near Hell, and now exists in a tremendous underground cavern known as the Neath.  The immersive fiction weavers behind Fallen London, Failbetter Games, are planning to expand their richly bizarre steampunk world beyond words and still images with the upcoming survival-strategy game, Sunless Sea.  Gamezebo spoke with Paul Arendt, co-founder and Director of Failbetter Games, about Fallen London, Sunless Sea, and why you should not feed the monkeys in either.

Sunless Sea

Having nearly perfected the art of interactive storytelling on their extensive StoryNexus engine, Failbetter’s jump to real-time, visual gaming may come as a shock—except to their fans.  “We’ve been working on Fallen London for four years, and we still have all these stories that we want to tell,” Arendt told Gamezebo.  “So we’ve been thinking about ways to extend this world we’ve made beyond the browser-based, text game space. We asked our players what they would like to see, and the most popular choices by far were a comic and a 2D exploration game. We’ve made a start on the comic here and well, the 2D game is Sunless Sea.”

That 2D game will place players in the role of a ship captain, exploring the waters surrounding Fallen London in search of treasure, fame, or some other weird, personal ambition.  While Sunless Sea will still focus heavily on player choice, detailed narrative, and branching storylines, the experience will vary greatly from its inspiration.  “The biggest difference is that it all happens graphically, in real time,” Arendt said.  “You’ve got your steam ship, and you sail around the Unterzee looking for treasure and trouble, and trying not to die too often. There’s no action counter as in Fallen London. We use the StoryNexus tech as a means to deliver stories and interesting choices within this environment, but the core experience is exploration.”

This exploration will take players to some recognizable areas from Fallen London, as well as many new haunts exclusive to Sunless Sea.  “The stories are all new,” Arendt said, “but you can expect to see some recurring characters and locations from the Fallen London universe, like Polythreme, where the Clay Men come from, and the Quiet Devilless. You’ll be able to hire some Fallen London characters as officers on your ship. But one of our guiding principles for Sunless Sea is you don’t have to know Fallen London to enjoy it. “

Whether you’re an experienced Fallen Londonite or new to the Neath entirely, one aspect that remains unchanged is the quirky tone that sets the stage for the dark and strange happenings underground.  “The boundary between comedy and horror is where we work best, I think,” Arendt said.  “Our influences are a mix of the literary—CS Lewis, Dickens and Daphne Du Maurier are touchstones—and old school gaming. We’re all big fans of Planescape Torment and Elite, lately we’ve been playing a lot of Don’t Starve and Rogue Legacy.”

Sunless Sea should feel right at home amidst those gaming influences; its survival-exploration gameplay features a roguelike system of perma-death that is inevitable for any would-be “zee” captain.  Each shove-off places players at risk of mustachioed “Behemoustache” fish monsters, crewmen driven mad by nightmares, or simply running out of fuel and ending up stranded in oblivion.  According to Arendt, these are only the tip of the deadly iceberg: “Soooo many ways to die. I’m very fond of the Giant Angler Crab, which is the first monster I designed, and the Tree of Ages, a giant octomaran steered by a disgusting Cronenbergy agglomeration of sorrow spiders.”  Co-founder and Chief Narrative Officer Alexis Kennedy also shared his favorite way to die in Sunless Sea: “It’s being hollowed out and filled with wax and left to haunt a clifftop chapel.  Or being worn by monkeys.”

Although death is almost always the end of one captain’s run, Sunless Sea will feature a legacy system that allows new characters to continue on as the children, protégés, or random acquaintances of past profiles, retaining some of their knowledge and honoring—or besmirching—their memory.  A set of victory conditions also provides a small chance of escaping the eternal darkness of being forgotten.  Kennedy commented: “They’re victory conditions in the way that finding the Amulet of Yendor in various roguelikes is a goal: that is, you’ll die most of the time, but glory in your achievements, and occasionally you’ll win through to the end. We’ll also offer a ‘retire’ semi-victory condition, if only so players can wish they’d taken it when they end up being worn by monkeys.”

Sunless Sea

Those monkeys really like wearing people.  This macabre humor, and spooky yet surreal world is the overarching theme of Fallen London, and Failbetter is working to keep this tone alive in the visuals of Sunless Sea.  “This one is a particular challenge for me,” Arendt said, “since Sunless Sea is so much more art heavy than Fallen London. I’ve been working on evolving the art style we’ve established into something that works in a moving, top-down environment. Hopefully it has the feel of the existing universe while still feeling individual.”             

Maintaining this feeling has resulted in a game that relies heavily on the contrast of light and dark, requiring players to pay just as much attention to the strength of their prow-light as they do to the giant crabs suggestively pinching just off shore.  Running out of fuel is a serious danger, since your lights illuminate both landmasses and monsters in the deep.  “In combat, you’ll see an enemy approaching and your lights may determine when they see you, as well as the starting conditions of the combat,” Arendt said.  “The combat itself is real time but happens in a separate window. The closest analogue to it is something like FTL. But we’ll be revealing more about that in a future Kickstarter update. “

The Sunless Sea Kickstarter is currently live and full of delicious content that should delight citizens of Fallen London as well as any newcomers with a penchant for gothic derring-do.  Keep an eye on its page, and Gamezebo, for updates on this Bazaar-bound world we can’t help but get lost in.