A World in Your Browser
As modern gamers, we’ve become used to thinking of gaming as a visual experience. So text-
based games can face an uphill battle when it comes to competing for attention against their
flashier cousins. It would be a mistake to think of the format as a handicap, however. The
restrictions that come with a word-based format come with benefits. Consuming the game
through text can allow the creation of setting that wouldn’t necessarily be possible to create
graphically. While interactive fiction’s heyday was in the 80s, in recent years a shift to a
heavier focus on narrative has opened up new possibilities for the genre. Combined with a
surge in artistic experimentation, this has created an environment that allows off-beat indie
games to flourish and rewards creators that bend the traditional rules of the medium.
A browser-based game may not be the first place you’d expect to find an innovative, story-
rich game, but that’s exactly what Fallen London is. According to designer Failbetter Games,
there’s around 1.5 million words in the game. It shows. The game describes itself as a “dark
and hilarious Gothic underworld”, and it’s gloriously realized. The writing is wry, at times
downright humorous or spine-chilling (occasionally both), and always compelling.
The game begins with you trapped in Newgate Prison. Your mission: escape. There are
several ways to do so, which introduces the game’s skills-based system, although you aren’t
locked into anything. Indeed, you’re restricted a little when it comes to Fallen London’s
world. The only clue you’re given as to your purpose is that you’ve come seeking something.
The details of that are left for you to decide, which you do through selecting an “Ambition”-
an epic-length quest pursued over the course of the game.
The majority of the game’s stories are more self-contained and designed to be consumed in
smaller chunks. The action system of the game lends itself to this; you have 20 actions to
spend and every ten minutes one is restored. The game fits neatly into the quiet spaces in
your day; the ‘storylets’ are of varying sizes and can be picked up and continued as it suits
Within the game is what feels like a vital and fully-realized world. Fallen London has the
various strata of society represented; from urchins ranging the lowest of its streets and
aristocrats at the debauched upper levels. There’s even a devilish presence in the form of the
Brass Embassy – Hell is a very real presence in this world. The devils make up just one
faction of the game that you can involve yourself with. But they feel more like actual political
forces in the game’s world rather than just a way to obtain different quests. The commitment
to developing a detailed and unique lore is clear in every line of the game: the ‘Neath has its
own temptations; prisoner’s honey is a dangerous favourite in London and at the docks,
you’ll meet ‘zailors’ who traverse the ‘Unterzee’, a place that is the setting of Sunless Sea.
There’s paid elements to the game – as is standard in a free-to-play game – and they’re both
sensitively integrated and unobtrusive. The game’s currency is called “Fate”, which fits in
neatly with the atmosphere of the game. You can unlock different paths within stories by
spending it, but the developers emphasize that you aren’t at a disadvantage by not taking
these paths. It’s mostly a different way to experience the game. Progress isn’t dependent on
it; the game isn’t affected by the pace you go. You can purchase action refreshes, but the only
thing motivating that is your need to press on with the next story.
That’s likely to be a hard need to resist at times. Fallen London is an impressive creation and
a fabulous example of the free-to-play genre. It’s entirely possible never to spend a penny and
yet benefit all the same from an absorbing and expansive creation. The game features plenty
of art that contributes to its unique style. And it takes place entirely within your browser. As
each year brings more powerful technology in terms of hardware and software, we’ve become
used to thinking that the bigger and flashier something is, the better it is. Fallen London
shows that isn’t necessarily true.