Fallen London

Behind the sunless scenes

The complex, inside story of Failbetter Games.

A year ago, Fallen London and Sunless Sea developer Failbetter Games successfully pitched Sunless Skies on Kickstarter. The upcoming project was funded in four hours and its crowdfunding campaign concluded with nearly 400 per cent of the money needed to smash its financial target. In September last year, Failbetter won a GamesIndustry.biz award for being one of the best employers in the UK video games industry. The team gave enthusiastic quotes to Eurogamer's sister site about the benefits of working at the tiny, tightknit outfit. Failbetter, seemingly, was on a high.

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.

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 city and the sea: the story of Failbetter Games

"Do you know the way to Shell Beach?"

What's the most important video game location? I think it's Shell Beach, which isn't actually in a video game at all. It's in a movie, Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas and written by Proyas, David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs. And - hold onto something - if we're being completely truthful, Shell Beach isn't really in Dark City either.