Video Game Reviews

Just One More: On Virtual Addiction in Fallen London

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I’m no stranger to virtual addictions. When I was a young, starry-eyed girl stumbling around the internet, before I’d been told “TITS OR GTFO” hundreds of times, I found Neopets. I spent long evenings sneaking downstairs to the shared family desktop, eager to play the multitude of mini games, buy new things for my pets, or dream shared dreams with strangers on the text roleplaying forums. I’ve bounced from site to site ever since, seeking validation in virtual rewards. Hell, as I type this, I have a window open for Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress, and I’m compulsively checking each to see if I have any new notifications. After a while, I move on and each profile fades into cyberspace limbo (or at least I hope they do. Otherwise I may have some emaciated Neopets to answer to). Objectively, I can see that many of these obsessions were the result Skinner Box priming, especially the gaming sites. It’s exciting when your actions produce a reward, however inconsequential it may be.

I was seduced by the sweet song of another siren during finals week my sophmore year of college (I always pick a helluva a time to get addicted to things). The siren in question was a browser game that went by the name Echo Bazaar, and is now known as  Fallen London. The game promised me a subterranean Victorian London populated by clever devils, decadent Bohemians, rough-and-tumble Zailors (who sail the Unterzee), and squidlike- Rubbery men. I was sucked in from the beginning fascinated by the steampunk aesthetic and gothic stories, but I expected that this too would pass.

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Game play is fairly simple. You create a character with 4 main attributes, Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous, and Persuasive, and are sent out into the world. You receive a Candle, which contains your Actions. Most of the interactions in the game burn through an Action, forcing players to carefully consider what Actions take precedence (though an Action is renewed every 10 minutes). With Actions, you can play Opportunity cards which are stored in your hand (the standard hand has 3 cards, but you can buy more through various venues), or you can visit the various locations on the map to play Storylets. Having different attributes unlocks different stories, ensuring that each person’s story will be a little different. There is no goal, no endgame, or ultimate reward to seek. It’s up to the player to decide what things are intriguing enough to explore and what is better left untouched.

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Three years later, I’m not only still playing, but I’m perched on the edge of my seat, feverishly waiting for my Actions to refresh so that I can keep downing Prisoner’s Honey, an in-game drug that grants the user hallucinogenic dreams. I’m neglecting other parts of the game just to keep dreaming: I’ve neglected my Profession, and haven’t collected my Professional Perks this week. My dig in the Forgotten Quarter has run out of supplies, but I haven’t gotten more. There’s an incomplete poem in the Shuttered Palace I haven’t thought of in a few days. I tell myself that this will be the last drop and dream of a man in a spotted coat.

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I’m drawn to this moment in my play because it has captivated me in a way that only a few other storylines have. I was playing not for experience or objects needed to progress, but for the descriptions of the dreams themselves. Fallen London is more like a “choose your own adventure” book than a video game, where the illustrations and user interface are clearly secondary to the words themselves. The game boasts “40,000 words” to describe its content, rather than levels or play time. For a book lover and prose nerd, this game is heaven.

Since I’ve started my life below the Surface, I’ve smuggled jade at the docks, been a courier for revolutionaries, dueled with a dead man, lost my soul, bought someone else’s, and impressed a duchess with my wit. I’ve also been stabbed in the back by a person I’ve never met, and had my breath taken away by a beautiful work of art that I’ve never seen, because all of this is in my head.

There are no flashy effects or groundbreaking mechanics here. But as a writer, and a lover of poetry, I applaud a game that can hold its player’s attention with the power of the written word. Judging by their more 20,000 fans on Facebook, 40,000 fans on Twitter, and their successfully funded Kickstarter, I think I’m not the only one. In a time when gaming consoles are defined by their graphical capabilities and game trailers resemble movies rather than game play, there is something beautiful about a game that can speak for itself.

I’ll leave you with the voice of game, some text from one of my Honey dreams. It is hard to explain exactly why this passage is so beautiful, but it is in part because the price paid for Fallen London was sunlight, and few characters ever return to the sunlit surface once they’re in the Neath:

“A lawn by a river; a breakfast table with toast and tea; an elegant sort in morning-dress of marigold silk, quirkily spotted with black….There is a sun here – low in the sky, swollen, a peculiar orange hue, but the sunlight is warm. When you return, it is the light that lingers in your memory.

“Retain what you may,” he told you. “It will protect you, although not against serpents.”

If you’re in the Bazaar, come find me. I’d be pleased to make your Acquaintance, delicious friend.

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