Failbetter’s Sunless Skies Kickstarter takes flight

Failbetter Games has launched the for Sunless Skies, its latest, star-faring addition to the steampunk fantasy universe of Fallen London. There’s a new trailer, too.

The developer is asking for £100,000 by 3rd March, out of an estimated total development cost of £330,000. £59,954 has been pledged by 1090 backers at the time of writing. Looks like it’s a goer, then.

Running on a mixture of Unity and Failbetter’s own StoryNexus narrative platform, the game is broadly comparable to Sunless Sea, the studio’s hit naval exploration game. Set 10 years later, it casts you as the captain of a star-faring locomotive, battling alien leviathans, privateers and other, more esoteric hazards as you travel through a decidedly windy vision of interplanetary space, in which sentient stars are mysteriously dying.

Still out there: Failbetter Games talks Sunless Skies and Zubmariner

Let’s write it up as the perils of psychogeography. If you were visiting Failbetter Games for the first time – and if you were paying attention to your surroundings on the way – you might easily conclude, as you closed in on the wayward district where the studio is based, that you were moving through the kind of mindscape that created this singular developer in the first place. Lean in and watch the world go by! The stops on the DLR steadily move from the twee to the darkly ridiculous, Island Gardens and Mudchute hinting respectively at hidden archipelagos and Gormenghastly toil. And then Greenwich announces itself with a sinister curved building with a misted dome that claims to house a staircase leading to a tunnel that will take you under the river. Sure it will. Speaking of the river, the last leg of the journey is the Thames Path, where London suddenly draws in close, brown brick terraces pulled tight around cobbled streets, easing back only briefly to offer a glimpse of swift grey water with ancient machinery suspended ominously above. Finally, a church, and inside it the developer of Fallen London. Of course this is where they have been hiding.

All of this would be a neat story to tell yourself, certainly, but it would also be completely misleading. The church, it turns out, is relatively fresh digs. Worse yet, Failbetter originally came to life across the river in a gleaming straight-edged skyscraper surrounded by mini-marts and chain restaurants. Confusing stuff! When I used to go to visit the team at the old building, which is also, playfully, the much newer building, I would often read over my notes sat comfortably in a nearby Starbucks, while, just down the way, an empty Frankie and Benny’s sang to itself.

The message, I think, is that oddness can take root anywhere, and so sometimes it will. Now, at least Failbetter has moved to a suitably odd location – that church, powdery paint on the outside and bleached Grand Designs sheen inside: an old building recently done up as a luxury apartment and now serving as a design studio. Odd on odd, it is pleasantly unpleasant. At the far end of the main hall there’s an echoey Vegas bathroom where PC parts and heavy stacks of books have been interred in a vast sunken tub. The spiral staircase to the upper storey wobbles as you take your first steps on it, and by the time you’ve reached the halfway point you will have noticed the duct tape breezily applied at seemingly crucial locations. Finally, all of this is watched over by a red E-Type Jaguar, peering in from a glassed-in garage by the front door. It belongs to the landlord, apparently, and only he may access it. That bathroom suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Spoiler alert: Game endings are harder than you think

Fallen London’s an oddity. More than a million and a half words of sort-of-multiplayer online interactive fiction, free-to-play but polite about it, kinda grindy but absolutely crammed with story: a videogame with no moving pictures at all[1]. I originally built it, and I founded Failbetter Games, who still run FL. Yesterday I left Failbetter, so I can finally use Fallen London to illustrate a point without feeling like I’m plugging it. I don’t want to talk about Fallen London, exactly: I want to talk about endings.

For years (FL has been running for seven) people asked: how the hell is it going to end? It’s a story-based game, and one of the defining qualities of stories is that they have an end as well as a beginning and a middle. There are exceptions, but one of the defining qualities of a horse is that there’s a leg at each corner, even though some horses have three legs. Stories, basically, end.

How do you do that with a free-to-play game where players want to keep going forever? If a player can still play, their story isn’t over; if they can’t still play, they’re upset (and, candidly, they won’t make a free-to-play game any more money). This is a problem that (eg) MMOs face, too, but the story in MMOs is generally an afterthought. Fallen London, notoriously, has almost no gameplay. It’s all story.