Number of Reviews: 9
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Great atmosphere, bad story, detestable design, December 17, 2014
Fallen London is a game specifically designed to get you playing it in bite-sized bits throughout the day, every day. It accomplishes this by limiting the number of turns you are allowed to play, and then replenishing this resource by one whenever ten minutes of real time pass. When you log into the game, you can play the maximum of 20 turns; after that, you will be allowed to play a new turn every 10 minutes. This means that optimal play requires you to log in every 200 minutes (slightly over 3 hours), while the temptation to get back to their website and play one more turn will re-arise every 10 minutes. (Probably while you are trying to do productive work.)
There is -- of course -- another way in which you can replenish your turns, which is by paying real money. You can restore 20 actions by paying $2.50. Tempting you to spend real money on replenishing turns is in fact the only reason that Fallen London uses a real-time limited number of turns; for the rest it is just a frustration-creating device that has no advantages for the player.
Of course, getting people to pay real money for more turns almost requires an in-game economy where turns can be exchanged for in-game benefits. In order to supply this, Fallen London sets up a core game system that revolves entirely around grinding. You'll have to increase four main stats, dozens of story stats, and dozens of ingredients in order to unlock new stories... and of course in order to improve your ability to grind and increase your main stats, story stats and ingredients, which can then be used to ... well, you know how this works.
Many of the game's grinding loops are based on trading time for security. You might, for instance, decide to become a great writer. You'll need to increase your "Potential" to do that, which you do by writing stories. If you try to write an easy story, you'll have a high chance of success, but your Potential will increase only a little. If you write a hard story, you have a low probability of success, but the potential reward is great. You can, however, increase your probability of success by writing more pages of draft material. This costs turns. So you will be spending dozens of turns clicking just the same few links again and again in order to create draft material, always wondering whether the time has already come to hazard your investment on the roll of the dice, or whether you should spend a few more turns in order to increase the chance of success.
This design is not just terrible, it is detestable. Fallen London wants to seduce you into logging in again and again, every couple of hours, or even every ten minutes, so you can engage in meaningless grinding that will allow you to improve some numbers on the screen, the prime use of which is that they'll help you in grinding more to improve them even further. While it may not quite be the interactive fiction equivalent of World of Warcraft, it certainly tries to get close. If you value your time and have even the slightest tendency to lose yourself to addicting game mechanics, you'll want to stay as far away from Fallen London as possible.
So why do people spend time with this game, and why do they even enjoy it? This has much to do with the game's primary strength, which is its writing and atmosphere. A Gothic, Victorian, subterranean London may sound trite, but Failbetter Games manages to make Fallen London feel fresh and engaging by taking the material in all kinds of weird and mysterious directions. The player is thrown into the deep, and is left to construct a coherent vision of the world from the many tiny fragments that he or she is given. Combined with the generally very good prose, this makes Fallen London a world that one is eager to explore and learn more about.
What is ultimately disappointing, though, is the quality of the story that arises. Fallen London feeds you many "storylets", but they rarely come together to form a "story", a greater narrative in which your character develops, acts, and changes the world. Two phenomena that show this problem vividly are the infinite repeatability of storylets -- you can just go to the same person again and again and play through the same story involving them again and again -- and the utter abstraction of most of what happens. For instance: you follow someone through town, and as a result you get... 10 whispered secrets. Not 10 actual secrets, with actual content, but the value "10" next to a piece of in-game currency called "whispered secrets". Or you spend dozens of your turns writing a literary tale, and when it is finished... the game doesn't even tell you what the tale is about. Of course, limitless grinding requires repeatability and abstraction, but it is here in particular that we see how the basic game design of Fallen London, while it might lead to money being made, is incompatible with achieving excellence in what ought to really matter to a story game, namely, story. The game continually promises to give you a great narrative, and it consistently fails to deliver.
Fallen London is a game on which a lot of creativity and obvious talent has been spent and, I'm afraid, wasted. Reactions to the game vary wildly, though, so you might want to try it out for yourself -- if, that is, you think you can resist the lure of a game that always wants to tempt you into wasting your time grinding to increase meaningless numbers.