The Victorian Gothic city of Fallen London is rife with politicking, the currencies it mostly dabbles in being heady secrets, ghastly scandals and incriminating documents. In this underground metropolis, mere mortals and enigmatic beings alike are occasionally purged from public memory, while devils, ravenous for refined human souls, mingle freely among polite company. Haughty heiresses cut secretive deals with street urchins and seedy dealers wrangle valuables from desperate paupers. Such are the circumstances when you arrive at Fallen London as a newcomer, as you find your place in this otherworldly city.
As a text-driven browser game, these details are buoyed by its impeccably delicious writing, which inspires otherworldly and uncanny scenes in your head. Consider this titbit about the gothic city’s lighthouse: “Observe the zee-mark buoy that indicates the channel’s edge. Listen to its mournful toll: the bell is the tongue of the waves! And consider the lives of the phosphorescent beetle-colonies that serve to light them. They live and die as inhabitants of sovereign nations.”
Fallen London’s dense language may seem like a whole lot to digest. But unlike other text-based genres like Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), which can leave new players overwhelmed by their sheer array of choices, this browser game offers a more deliberate pacing. While this translates to a glacially slow start at first, the game eventually unveils a headier experience than it initially lets on. You begin your adventure by choosing your gender: male, female, or a third option that vehemently questions the game’s motivations to learn about what that is (“. . . And yet you waste our time asking me trifling and impertinent questions about mine? It is my own business, sir, and I bid you good day.”). It’s all very animated in the most peculiar way.
So you begin your new life, a free individual fresh out of prison. Your first task is to find proper lodgings, which affects the number of Opportunity Cards – essentially narrative options for snooping about and unraveling the myriad stories of Fallen London – you can hold on hand. You also possess qualities like watchful, dangerous, persuasive and shadowy, which affect your ability to complete these stories and unlock more of the game’s narrative. I had, for instance, found spare lodgings with a soft-hearted widow, who hosts weekly but boisterous hymns-singing sessions in her parlor, after increasing my persuasive quality. As you navigate through the labyrinthine stories of Fallen London, you are free to carve your own path, be it refining your skills as an unscrupulous master thief among downtrodden outcasts, or edging your way towards the upper echelons of British society.
And more stories like these are still being written and produced. To mark the festivities around the 10th anniversary of Fallen London in January, Failbetter Games introduced a bevy of new content and system upgrades – including a substantial overhaul of Fallen London’s map. Rather than a flat, top-down view of Victorian London, the new version contains 3D renderings of the city’s iconic buildings and locations. These updates breathe new life into a game that can feel dated at times, with its look and feel largely remaining the same since it began ten years ago. Meanwhile, new streams of storylets, which are the branching narratives that open up more paths and adventures for players, have turned Fallen London into a sprawling, 2.5-million-word epic. By continuously painting vibrant, multi-faceted scenes through expressive prose, Failbetter Games has kept the Fallen London universe alive for over a decade.
Khee Hoon Chan is a freelance writer and copywriter from Singapore. They daydream about being a professional Street Fighter player. Ask them about the weather on Twitter at @crapstacular.