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Alexis Kennedy

Alexis Kennedy founded Failbetter Games, and made Fallen London and Sunless Sea. He now does freelance work and narrative experiments at www.weatherfactory.biz

Featured articles

How things end

Alexis Kennedy on the progress of progress.

Punching Nazis

How do you fight an ideology?

Royal blood

Gods, war, and the Queen Sacrifice.

The importance of games in difficult times

Alexis Kennedy on games, empathy and happiness.

Blood in the gutter

What players bring to the games they play.

The space that isn't

Even the limits of simulation are interesting.

In Greg Egan's Permutation City, a copy of a human mind wakes to find itself trapped in a simulation of his apartment. He fixes his gaze on a copy of the painting that hangs on a copy of his wall, and the simulation renders the colours into the copy of his brain, so he sees the painting, or close enough for government work. But he knows that when he turns away, the simulation won't bother to render the painting. It'll just assume it as a flat monocolour rectangle and calculate how light would be reflected from it to affect lighting conditions on what he's looking at. It freaks him out. He has to resist the temptation to whip round and try to catch the simulation not simulating the painting.

I'm writing this a couple of days after the release of No Man's Sky. The incandescent vapour of Internet opinion is coalescing around a cooling core of critical consensus. I imagine that by the time you read this there will have been magmatic eruptions of violent dissent, an orbit of backlash and counter-backlash. The world's telescopes will have been trained on Sean Murray as he explains in defiant, melancholy interviews and blog posts why No Man's Sky is only exactly what everyone knew it would be: the world's most ambitious, expensive and beautiful walking simulator. Except you fly, of course. I'll come back to that.

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.

The first fandom

The Mage of Reason.

The human intellect! It's an omnivorous Thing Engine that chews up anything fed to it and spits out the useful and the beautiful. You plug a disease in one end, you get a cure; you plug in ideas, you get a story; you plug in the universe and you get physics, smartphones, lasers. Everyone loves lasers.

The war on the floor

H. G. Wells: gaming pioneer.

H.G. Wells left quite a mark. He destroyed civilisation half a dozen times. He infested Woking with Martians. He took us to the end of time and back again. He pretty much co-founded science fiction as a genre. That stuff is well-known, but I hadn't been aware that he also invented the 4X strategy game. Here he is describing its exploration phase.

Alexis Kennedy on: Redemption

Trust and a donkey.

In 1096, a small, grubby, angry man on a donkey led twenty thousand men and women - most of them half-armed peasants - over the Straits of Bosphorus into Anatolia. The angry man, Peter the Hermit, had led this rabble across Europe. He'd blagged transport across the Straits from the Emperor of Constantinople. He and his mob were the vanguard of the First Crusade.

Alexis Kennedy on: Gravity

Notes from a moderate-intake consumer of manshooters.

What's a popular verb in games? I'm guessing a lot of you thought 'shooting', even though it's not that common, in the same way that if I asked you to name an animal, a lot of people would say 'a lion'. Shooting's not universal, but it is endemic. It's what non-gamers think games are about. It's what news outlets use to illustrate headlines about how the games industry is making more than Hollywood, again. It's the mechanic at the heart of Bioshock, Half-Life, Call of Duty.

Alexis Kennedy on: Building the frontier

The map really is the territory.

There was once a virtual world called LambdaMOO. It began when a researcher named Pavel Curtis recreated his Californian house inside a virtual space in a Californian computer, but the space was open to other players connecting from around the world. You could connect with a named avatar, chat, walk around and punch things by typing text commands -

Alexis Kennedy on: The Labyrinth

Left, right, straight on.

What's the difference between a labyrinth and a maze? The original, primal Labyrinth - the first in human history - the one from which all others derive - is of course Jim Henson's 1986 David Bowie vehicle. That labyrinth had a thousand paths - that labyrinth was all about choices. But, confusingly, most reference works will tell you that that this is the difference between the two: a maze has choices and many paths, while a labyrinth is unicursal, with a single choiceless path to the centre.

Alexis Kennedy on: How it happened to happen

What if Dungeons and Dragons hadn't taken off?

Jack Cohen is a reproductive biologist who gives talks on speculative xenobiology. I once heard him explain how we had happened to evolve from a species of fish that kept its reproductive organs next to the pipes it used to eliminate waste from its body. Here are the things, he suggested, that this gave the world: our whole attitude to sex; the sense that it was something filthy (pleasantly or unpleasantly); the design of toilets. We might have evolved into creatures with our genitals in our heads, which would make hats more complicated, toilets simpler and, more significantly, would have completely transformed our attitude to procreation. But it happened to happen the way it did.