The Joy of Text

Richard Cobbett at

In Fallen London, any fate can be yours at the flip of a card.

Fallen London creator Alexis Kennedy is one of the biggest advocates for pure text, though did ultimately yield and permit a few graphics to sneak into both that world, and his company's latest big project, the world creation tool StoryNexus that lets anyone make games in the same style.

“There isn’t the kind of limit that there is with a graphical interface,” he explains. “We haven’t gone as far as I’d like – we keep drifting back to the relatively comfortable tropes of you being an antihero in an exotic place, but things we like doing in Fallen London are things like what happens when your Scandal gets too high. You get exiled from the city and spend an indeterminate amount of time in a story told in purely epistolary mode – writing home to win support. That would be impossible to do if you were representing it graphically, in a game that also had to do other things.”

Graphics have a lure of course, and even Kennedy wouldn’t necessarily say no to seeing a big budget game set in his universe of Dickensian subterfuge. (“I’m not going to lie, I’d love that. That would be a thrill,” he admits.) Yet it’s hard to imagine the result ever meeting his narrative approval.

“Most of the things you’d end up doing in a traditional Fallen London RPG would be the things you’d end up doing in any other RPG, because that’s what their engines are designed for. It’d look very interesting, but you’d spend your time there beating up demons for experience points, not spending a week in a sado-masochistic romance with one.”

Fallen London is relatively unusual, not just in setting, but in being one of the few text-based games that supports its creators. Kennedy was willing to share that it currently gets around 20,000 monthly players, adding “By the standards of a social game, that’s microscopic. For an indie game, it’s pretty good.”

And the audience for text games in general?

“On a bad day, I’d describe it as 'niche'. On a good day, I’d say 'cult'. As far as I know, we’re the biggest of the current breed of text-based narrative platforms, but I don’t think we’re orders of magnitude bigger. As far as I can tell, most of us have an audience in the thousands.”

The yearly IFComp serves up all kinds of experiences you'd never find anywhere else.

This meshes with IFComp’s stats, as shared by Granade. Despite being the most visible part of the modern IF community, it’s a relatively small scale affair. “You’ve got about 30 games, played by around a thousand people. Of those, about 150 vote.”

These numbers make up a devoted community though, whose members are often drawn to the creative side of things. “A huge proportion of our players have had a go at writing a novel, or a blog, or would like to be a writer,” says Kennedy, whose StoryNexus creation tools are new on the scene, but likely to benefit from being just one click away for players of Fallen London and other games built on it.

No complex scripting, no language to learn. If you can read and type, you can make a game in Inklewriter.

Unless you’re John Carmack, the relative ease of creating text-based games is obviously going to be a big attraction. Although as Carmack once infamously described story in games as being “like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important,” he probably wouldn’t be that interested anyway. For the rest of us mortals, writing an all-text game, especially alone, is always going to be a more realistic goal than creating even a basic platformer in GameMaker and similar.

“We chose to make a tool for writers because, you know, writers write well,” says Ingold of Inklewriter. “That meant no learning curve, no programming, and no requirement to hold a map in your head of how the story branches. And I think we’ve been successful – Inklewriter is being used in schools with kids as young as 8 and 9.”

Kennedy himself ascribes at least part of the creative interest to the mindset needed to appreciate IF in the first place. “When a game is mostly text, it requires a level of focus and investment that a graphical game doesn’t necessarily demand. For people willing to give that commitment, the next obvious step is to try it themselves, especially when they’re already in a creative space like StoryNexus.”