I’ve been playing a ton of Fallen London lately, and I’m going to take a little bit of time to gush about it.
Fallen London is a browser-based resource-collection adventure game. There are a bunch of little mini-stories (they call them “storylets”) that generate and consume various resources you collect as you progress through them and discover mysteries, explore, socialize, etc. The whole thing is set on the backdrop of London, having been swallowed by the earth and existing in a dark, supernatural underground. It’s very dark steampunk Victoriana, and is absolutely jam-packed with flavorful little bits throughout.
It reminds me of Crusader Kings 2, a game I spent a bunch of time in. Broadly, Crusader Kings 2 is a pseudo-historical game like Civ, where you’re the ruler of some nation and you manage that nation as it spreads, as your dynasty evolves, and so on. It’s an absolutely overwhelming game at first, and the tutorials only really serve to expose the dizzying depths of the game’s systems, which interact in extremely complicated, somewhat unpredictable ways. It’s fascinating in that the death of your ruler is not the end of the game– provided you have an heir, you’ll continue your game as your heir, though progressing through a lineage can have its own pitfalls.
What I love about both games is that your interactions with them are fairly simple and relatively straightforward; gameplay is about choosing what to do next, generally from a list. The ramifications of doing so, however, drop inputs into these complicated systems whose outputs alter your experience. Essentially, they’re storytelling engines, all of the interlocking systems working together to generate (often surprising) outcomes that make for good stories.
In Crusader Kings 2, I had a well-loved and powerful king in a patrilineal kingdom. In the previous generation, my king had had a conniving and clever older brother who was ultimately unfit to rule– my king had taken power with the backing of most of the nobility and the love of the commoners over the elder brother, something that left the elder brother seething.
To appease the brother and prevent him from fomenting rebellion, I wound up making him my spymaster, because I lacked a suitable candidate and the scheming brother was an excellent fit for the role… provided he could be kept happy. Maintaining this happiness (particularly as a war broke out on my kingdom’s borders) meant allowing my brother to be the tutor for my king’s eldest daughter and only child, who learned extremely well from her uncle and became a highly skilled spy (and ultimately assassin). She was in line to inherit the throne and had both her uncle’s skill at spycraft and her father’s gift for oratory, making her both supremely capable and well-loved.
I’d thought I’d made the best of a tricky situation… until my king and queen bore a son, who (due to the patrilineal lineage) immediately became next in line for the throne. Conniving brother and suddenly-spurned daughter immediately began plotting against my king, in the midst of an invasion from the south. In trying to repair the rapidly deteriorating situation, the king’s daughter was married off to a (faraway) kingdom, the seventh in line for rulership and, while politically good for the daughter, also neatly got her out of the kingdom. In the meantime, my king was pulled into the war and, while able to deliver a crushing blow and put the enemy in retreat, wound up dying in battle… leaving a two-year-old heir.
My play transferred to the two-year-old, and the game’s systems started using my two-year-old’s stats to work out what I knew and could find out… which was very little. For fifteen years, my child-king recieved updates like “you are no longer being mentored by your mother, but your uncle instead, but you’re not sure why” and “you hear arguments but don’t understand what they’re about”. As my child-king came of age, his uncle had slowly poisoned the nation against him and wound up taking over the kingdom, doing such a poor job that the older sister wound up intervening, assassinating her younger brother and taking her claim to the throne… after she had carefully engineered herself as the queen of the faraway kingdom by carefully arranging “accidents” for everyone in line ahead of her.
This is a small slice of the story, but it all played out through these complex systems, and the story is a result of me playing through these systems and seeing the various outcomes, and then (this is important) being able to attach my own narrative to them.
It’s kind of like the stories people come up with in the Sims, and I’m a big fan of the sort of thing people come up with when faced with a complicated but narratively shallow experience– an evocative-enough setup allows some great emergent storytelling.
I need to return to my spy-queen in Crusader Kings, and my “captivating and insightful” gentleman in Fallen London, and see what new stories unfold.