Some thirty years ago, London was stolen by bats. In its new subterranean home, the city’s customary overcast skies are now cast in a pale green glow, and despite the appearance of devils and rubber men, the citizens have continued on, business as usual. Or at least they’ve tried to. This is the setting of Failbetter Games’s debut text-based adventure game of the same name.
Since 2009, London-based Failbetter Games has been gaining attention for its spectacular writing and peerless world building. They’ve been pushing the expectations for stories in video games for years, and with the success of games like Sunless Sea and the upcoming Sunless Skies, there’re no signs of them stopping anytime soon. Inverse spoke with Failbetter’s Director of Narrative, Chris Gardiner about how the team crafts these weird and wonderful stories, and the best ways to build a game with a “soul”.
I read that Fallen London right now has upward of 1.5 million words, while Sunless Sea has around 300,000, but when you’re playing these games, you’re not barraged with text. So how do you strike that balance while painting such a rich literary picture?
We worked quite hard to keep our text into bite-sized chunks, and we’ve actually sought technical solutions to this because it’s quite hard to tell when you’re writing how far you’ve gone for. We’ve found that what works best is if you put a little number in the corner of each text box that counts down every time you add a word, and when you’ve put more than 100 words it turns bright red. And this triggers fierce impulses in our little tiny brains, and we stop writing immediately and go and try to take some words out. But we have quite strict word limits. Writing to those limits is very hard, but it’s worth it.
Did it take you a while to get used to writing within those limits?
We are never used to writing in those limits. Every single piece of work we have when it goes through review or QA, almost always someone says, “Get this within the word limits!” and what seems like an impossible task when you first wrote it, when you go back and revisit it, you always find you can trim this, trim that, and rework it.
One of the biggest draws of the Fallen London universe is its sense of humor. How do you incorporate that subtle humor into such a dark, fantasy world?
I think humor and darkness go quite well together. And I think a lot of the British comedy, that many of us were brought up on, is very much about those two things going hand in hand, and contrasting the one with the other. I think a moment’s levity deployed in the right place can make horror feel much darker. Something horrific can add an edge to the humor that can make it a little more surprising and therefore, a little more genuine.
And I think the basic kind of framework of the game — it has a certain amount of silliness encoded into it. It’s got talking rats and a hat with teeth that you can wear. Some of the very earliest prose that Alexis, who founded Failbetter, wrote was this excerpt from a newspaper reporting on the day London was stolen by bats and taken beneath the Earth. And the headline — “London Stolen by Bats” is innately silly.
Back to the earliest days, it had humor as part of its DNA. It’s always there for us to work with. We have all of these things that lend themselves to humor that we can pick up whenever we fancy.
At the same time, the writing has this sort of mysterious air that also makes the games stand out. How do you think that sense of mystery and the deliberate ambiguity lend to the gameplay? Or does the gameplay lend to that sort of writing?
We tend to write our lore in a way that stages its release. So if we think of a new character, in our lore documents we’ll write a number of increasingly specific bits of information about them. And then we’ll start by releasing the first ones, and then we’ll hide the later ones behind later, tougher, or less obvious content.
We write them in this staged way. Our players have always responded very strongly to the mystery. Where possible, we try not to just give answers to mysteries. We’ll repeat the same piece of information in different ways, contexts, and in different places.
I think our earliest big mystery was London is the fifth city to be stolen, and there’s a big question of what were the previous four cities. It never says in the game exactly what they were, but there’s lots of little clues that people would find and piece together, and our fans were very efficient at putting those pieces together and doing the research to find out what it was. We’re always amazed at how little it takes for the dedicated fans to work something out.
How does artwork coincide with the story you’re trying to tell? Do you think they inform each other, or does the artwork come directly from the writing?
We have quite a collaborative process on the art. Normally, we’ll write a pitch for a bit of content, and then based on that we’ll put in a number of art requests. Then Paul, our CEO and entire art department, will draw them. He’s an exceptional artist, and receiving a bit of art is always like a present. It’s always really exciting for the writers. It is very, very common that we then go back and change or add to some of the writing.
So recently, for the Sunless Skies Kickstarter, we talked about one of the monsters in Sunless Skies. It was the Scrive-Spinsters, which are these survivors of an ancient library that was lost. They wear the pages that they managed to salvage from the library before it was destroyed. And I gave this quite vague art request to Paul, and then he drew them up.
The way he drew them, they looked like they were made out of wood. They looked like mannequins, and that wasn’t something that was in the original art pitch at all. But it was a really great, striking image. So then we went back and expanded their lore to fit that. We said that they were made from these bronzewood trees by a certain individual who then gave them as a gift to the ruler of this library. We then added bronzewood trees into the lore of Sunless Skies, which we’ve now written into other places and has now become a trade good that you’ll be able to trade in Sunless Skies. So that wouldn’t have happened without that particular piece of art looking like it did. So yeah, the art kind of feeds the content and the other way around, I think.
Are there times when the mechanics influence the story? That might apply more to a game like Sunless Sea but . . .
Yeah, but I think it applies a lot to Fallen London as well. I think it’s perhaps not always as obvious in Fallen London, because quite a lot of the mechanics are hidden behind the process of reading a situation and then making a decision based on it. It’s not always obvious that there’s gameplay in there. But all of our writers are designers as well, and they have to design the structures that the stories fit in, and the little loops of gameplay that you have to play through.
We wrote a story in Fallen London recently about helping a struggling theater put on a show while there was strange stuff happening in the basement. To do that, Olivia, the writer, had to design a little kind of mini game where you’re doing stuff to help out around the theater, and by doing that you build up enough trust with the stage manager to advance the plot. But all of that design, of what sort of things do you have to do to increase this trust, what are the consequences of failing, what are the risks to it, all that kind of stuff is something that the writers do. The story and the mechanics very much go hand-in-hand for us.
So Fallen London was this already well-established universe before you started making Sunless Skies. How did you bring that universe over to a totally different genre. Were there any challenges in making that shift?
Yes. And there still are, I think. We still talk about this a lot. We knew we wanted it to be a separate game. We knew some quite drastic changes in the setup, and that kind of mandated a time jump to justify them.
We want enough familiar things that fans can recognize — characters, places, and events — but not so much that it’s hostile to newcomers. And we also wanted to create — we’d been exploring the mysteries and setting of Fallen London for eight years now — and we wanted to establish a whole new series of mysteries, locations, and forces to explore.
As Director of Narrative, is there anything you’re looking forward to exploring in crafting Sunless Skies?
A lot. It’s really exciting being on a game from the ground up, from its first moments, its inception. A few weeks ago, we all pitched ideas for various ports in the first region of Sunless Skies. All the ideas were fantastic. It was actually quite annoying [laughs] because we can’t do it all. I was hoping that, sort of, 30 percent of them would be a bit rubbish. They weren’t. So, I had to kind of rule out some really good stuff already. But every single one of those ports, we’re excited about getting a chance to write, explore, and dig into. I think that’s the really exciting thing for me, suddenly, is having this blank map to populate and gradually filling that out.
What are you excited about in game writing in general? Things have improved a lot in say, the past 10 or so years. What do you see changing in the future?
I think there is more awareness of the importance of writing, and that it’s not just something anyone can do. You can’t just hand it to someone whose job is something else, and expect them to do an amazing job. There seems to be a gradual, slow, but perceptible shift to involving writing earlier in the process rather than making a game and then slapping the writing on over at the end to pull it all together. And that’s what I want to see more of, really —more of seeing writers involved at the earliest point.
And I think it’s not just about writing in terms of dialogue, plot, and prose. It’s in terms of understanding what the soul of a game is. What its heart is. What its point is. And elucidating that to everyone who’s going to be working on it, so everyone’s working towards the same goal. And that’s something that we work very hard at in Failbetter. We have a bunch of documents about what the themes of Sunless Skies are, and those aren’t hoarded by the content team. Those are documents that everyone sees, is aware of, and has read, and informs everybody’s work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.