Still out there: Failbetter Games talks Sunless Skies and Zubmariner
To the lonely Zee and the sky.
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.
Since my last visit, Failbetter's founder, Alexis Kennedy, has left the company to work on games like Stellaris and his forthcoming Cultist Simulator (disclosure: you may have noticed he writes a Saturday column for Eurogamer). This means Paul Arendt is now the CEO of Failbetter as well as, amongst other things, the creator of that gorgeous Failbetter art. (Mysterious, disturbing, and yet clean and precise, this is clear-headed illustration with a rich inner life.) Fallen London, a game about grim choices and glorious horrors that unfolds in hundreds and thousands of lines of dancing, mocking, evocative text, has been joined by Sunless Sea, which is both a Kickstarter and an Early Access success story, luring fans away from the dripping streets of the city and onto the brittle midnight waves beyond, where bright beasts wallow and crews are eaten.
Failbetter has been busy, in other words, and the team's about to get busier still. Alongside an expansion to Sunless Sea, which we'll get to it in a bit, they're testing the geographic boundaries of Coleridge quotes with a follow-up that they'll be Kickstarting next year: Sunless Skies.
First off: another Kickstarter? Aren't they knackering? "It's not that we're just doing the Kickstarter for marketing," says Hannah Flynn, Failbetter's communications director. "We're doing fine, but we do need the Kickstarter to happen. We need new people to find out about us, we've got to keep building." So the team's prepared for this? "Last time there were four of us; this time there are sixteen of us and I'm here. It's all going to be tweet tweet tweet."
"It was a really difficult decision to make," says Arendt, wry and gentle and vaping, when I ask about the choice of the new project, "so we did what we always do, and we asked our audience." Failbetter does this in-game in Fallen London with a little urchin who wanders around and asks questions. Because the Fallen London audience is so hardcore, there is a distinct skew to the answers it receives - an Urchin Bias that I suspect Failbetter sometimes has to be wary of. This time, though, the urchin had a lot of options, and while it suggested that the players really wanted a tabletop RPG and lore book - "we'd love to do it," says Arendt, "but we're set up to make computer games" - Sunless Skies was also extremely popular. Quite right, urchin: a game in which you explore the world above Fallen London, where the stars are dying and fresh horrors await.
"This was the one we wanted to do," Arendt admits. "We didn't want to do Sunless Sea 2, with bigger ships, say, but at the same time we didn't want to do something totally out there. We're a small company, quite fragile. The idea of Victorians in Space seemed to fit. It's built into the lore quite deeply already." When he speaks, you hear those capital letters, by the way: Victorians in Space. You maybe hear Lore, too.
"You can go there in Sunless Sea with the right end quest," says Chris Gardiner, the company's director of narrative. "You can sail through the gate in the north and end up in the High Wilderness. There are other references to it in both Fallen London and Sunless Sea." So it's a known quantity to the team? "It's still quite an open canvas," laughs Arendt. "This is what appeals about it. We know some things that are out there but there's a lot of unexplored territory too."
The High WIlderness, it transpires, is a place that's in the process of being tamed. Brutally. And not always successfully. "You've got all the crazed industry and go-getting know-how of the Victorians without the pesky stuff like land and gravity to deal with," says Arendt. "The position of the player's a bit different this time. Whereas in Sunless Sea you were pretty much an agent of the establishment, this is going to be much more on the fringes."
All of which means that the High Wilderness has the potential to be weird. "Colossally weird", as Gardiner has it, eyes bright. And that's clearly a good thing. Here's something that didn't make the cut, for example: Classical physics. "The last thing we wanted to do was a traditional Newtonian, Lagrange points space system," says Arendt, physically waving the thought away with a hand. "It's not our strong point, it doesn't play into the sort of storytelling we do, and obviously it's been done a hundred times anyway."
"I think there are other space conventions we're keen to try and avoid as well," says Liam Welton, Failbetter director and lead game developer. "Like libertarians in space. Libertarian space is done to death and runs very counter to the role you play in Fallen London."
So if libertarians and Newtonians are out, what's in? "We're more interested in the idea of space as the Victorians believed it to be," says Arendt. "Combined with our own peculiar weirdnesses. Horrible monsters." Phew!
"Exploring the high wilderness isn't just about physics, it's about theology," says Gardiner, who I think is trying to make things clearer - a tricky thing to do at Failbetter. "The whole Fallen London metaphysics is based around the suns and the stars and the laws that they pass. We're going to have to deal with that stuff when we go out there."
"With the Victorians, it's as much about their reaction to it as anything," agrees Arendt. I sense the Victorians and their cheerful capacity for righteous violence are something of a compass on this project - if not quite a moral compass. "Take Wells' [space stories]. It's all terribly polite and then in the middle of it there's this moment where they say: "What we should really do is come back with guns. And a bigger spaceship. This is horrible! We must come back with more guns immediately." And then there's the C.S. Lewis one. Not quite Victorian, but still: space travel as envisioned by C.S. Lewis where everyone's naked except for a belt with weights. Naked because it's really hot, and the weights keep you on the ground - and in that uniquely Victorian way, nobody bats an eyelid." He laughs. "It's hilarious and terrifying at the same time. It's clearly nuts, but if they ever were to get out there they would have a whale of a time, and everybody else would suffer terribly."
Arendt is keen to point out that Sunless Skies players will not be naked and wearing belts - not least because he would have to draw all of this. What emerges, however, is the idea of an exploration game that makes Sunless Sea, an adventure in which you will probably end up eating your crew, look rather gentle. The Victorians in Space are terrifying enough here, and then there's the stuff that was already out there in the dying skies: the stuff the Victorians are going to have to deal with.
"The set-up we came up with is that there is a New Victorian Empire," explains Gardiner by way of a conclusion. "Beyond that is the frontier, and beyond that is the Wilderness. The Victorian Empire is more sinister and authoritarian than it is in Fallen London. So the frontier has become a place where revolutions and outcasts and criminals go. And beyond that is the vast wilderness where there are all these resources that people want to exploit - which include things like the Thrones of the Judgement that decide what the physical laws of the universe are. People can go out there and seize these thrones and then they can remake the laws."
He laughs. "Potentially, anyway. We don't know how much the player will get to do this yet, but that's certainly what some of the powers out there have been doing. You're not just getting this new place to live - you might be getting your hands on the levers of the universe, and that's quite scary when it's Victorians doing the pulling."
Bringing all of this to life, of course, will be text: text that flows through the centre of the game and, in a way, will have to stand in for the work of Newton, setting the planets spinning on their orbits, drawing celestial bodies together and wrenching them apart. And text in Failbetter Games always manages to obscure as much as it reveals. Sleights and feints: these are its greatest powers.
"Things have to seem to make sense, or it's just nonsense," says Gardiner, almost sadly. "But you don't want to give too much away, so there's room left for the player. What we do a lot of the time is we work out the basic plot. We say: this is what's happening, and then we will come up with a brief summation of a mystery or plot, and then we'll hit it with a hammer, smash it into pieces, and then we'll give each of those pieces to a different writer. They can talk about that piece. So you see all these different bits. In Sunless Sea or Zubmariner you'll go to three different islands, and you'll see three different bits that fit together. But they've also been interpreted by three different writers, who like to focus on different things. That helps to create this sense that there is an answer, but the way it reaches you is different. And I think that's how we experience the world."
Zubmariner! Zubmariner is the other main project at Failbetter right now: an expansion for Sunless Sea that will be free to Early Access or Kickstarter players. As we chat, it's already wrapped, and it will be available on the 11th of October.
"This all began life as a Kickstarter stretch goal," says Arendt. "We said if we hit a certain threshold we'd put submarines in. We didn't think we were going to make that threshold, but at the last minute a backer upped their pledge considerably - and incidentally forced Liam and Alexis to get tattoos."
Zubmariner, as you might expect, is an unusual kind of expansion. It reminds me of the way that Firaxis enhances things: expanding your options rather than simply adding more territory. Actually, maybe Zubmariner does both: it allows you to transform your Sunless Sea ship into a sub - a zub? - and explore the watery part of the world beneath the waves.
"It's not an extension of the playing area so much as a game underneath the game," Arendt confirms. "What I mean is that basically anywhere in Sunless Sea, you can press the Zubmarine button and go underneath and see what's there."
What's it like down there? "It's different," says Arendt. "It's a slightly shorter loop than the wider game because you're restricted by oxygen. It's darker. Basically you've got your headlamp and a bit of ambient light and things that are interesting might have a phosphorescent glow. It's scarier and richer - there's more loot down there."
"There's a sense of going out-of-bounds," says Welton. "You know you're not meant to be there. You wouldn't want to play the entire game with that as the baseline, but it's about giving players the opportunity to dive into that."
There's very little to navigate by under the zee. Intentionally so. "There are eleven new cities in the game," says Arendt, "so there's plenty to find, but the meat and potatoes landscape is semi-procedurally generated. In terms of long-term navigation it's not really going to work for you, because you're going to run out of air. It's more of a place to dip into."
Making a game underneath an existing game, incidentally? Not easy. "Paul's painted the underside of lots of these places in Sunless Sea," explains Gardiner. "Like the Sea of Statues, where you see all the hands reaching up, Paul's now painted the rest." Arendt winces. "It turned out to be quite a tricky proposition," he says. "Especially when you haven't given an enormous amount of planning to how you're going to do it when you started. So things like the Sea of Statues, I had to work out what they would like from underneath but from top down. The first problem is where the hell is the camera? We had lots of fun playing around with that. And then the other thing is that the entire seabed has to be full of stuff. It's an expansion but we didn't want to make the entire game again. So we had to work out ways of doing that."
"There's some lovely terrain down there," says Flynn. "Paul had to figure out how to make red hot magma look like it was red hot, but below the water so it was not on fire. Oases, and terrain that's like bubbly skin almost."
Bubbly skin? That does sound lovely - in a very Failbetter sort of way.
"Oh yes," says Arendt, with victory flashing in his eyes. "And you can finally visit Low Barnet."
Everybody laughs. "I'm desperate in Sunless Skies for you to visit Top Barnet," says Gardiner. "We've got this punchline waiting and we've got to build a game to justify that punchline."
Welton nods. "I'm still hoping for Sky Barnet."
Alexis Kennedy, Failbetter's recently-departed founder, now writes a Saturday column for Eurogamer. Rich Cobbett, who has written for Eurogamer, now writes for the studio.