It’s hard to know just how to describe Echo Bazaar. Set in the world of Fallen London, it combines elements of tabletop gaming, Victorian England, RPGs, and social networking. Sporting a cheeky sense of humor and a Lovecraftian vibe, the game combines the addictiveness of grinding with an unusual and compelling story elements. While its browser-based gameplay is certainly quite entertaining, Echo Bazaar‘s real appeal lies in its robust mythology and surprisingly deep backstory, which you discover bit by tiny bit as you play. The world of Fallen London is a joy to explore, a weird and wonderful playground where clay men wrestle in pubs and you pay for your lodgings with cryptic secrets.
To find out more about this intriguing and addictive browser game, we spoke with the duo behind its creation: Alexis Kennedy, Chief Narrative Officer, who built the site, wrote the bulk of the content and “did the original vision thing”; and Paul Arendt, Creative Director, who designed the site and does the artwork. (And before you ask, no, we’re not related, at least as far as I know.)
Part of what makes Echo Bazaar so enjoyable is its rich mythology. How did you decide upon the location of Fallen London? Which came first, the setting or the gameplay?
Alexis Kennedy: The gameplay. Echo Bazaar was originally a much smaller, very different game – a sort of predictive market in guessing what phrases people might use on Twitter (market=Bazaar, Twitter=Echo). It was basically intended to fund and get press for Prisoner’s Honey, our next project.
I added some flavor about a subterranean market and asked Paul to draw some icons in his spare time. But the game was turning out very dry, so I kept adding narrative elements and eventually we went the social RPG route, and then it all got rather out of hand.
Paul Arendt: It wasn’t even London, originally. It was this very unspecified place and time deep under the earth. But Alexis would explain it to people, and they would just go, ‘Wot?’
AK: So we thought, well, we’ve stolen the flavor of Victorian London, why not steal the whole city? I’m glad we did.
Echo Bazaar feels very much like a tabletop game. Were they an influence on its creation?
AK: You’ve uncovered my sordid past. Twenty-five years behind the GM screen, man and boy. I stopped when I realized I was never going to finish any other projects when all my energy was going into running games. Nigel Evans and Chris Gardiner, who’ve contributed content, are also veteran tabletop gamers.
PA: A tablewhat game?
AK: Paul is a grown-up.
What were some of the inspirations for the art style or storytelling style? (Books, movies, other games, etc.)
AK: Mervyn Peake, Lemony Snicket, Tim Burton, Kipling, Machen, Wilde, Moorcock, Gaiman…
PA: I bloody hate Tim Burton! You just can’t do cartoon-Gothic-horror-with-period-stylings any more without someone yelling “Tim Burton!” at you. If anything, the look of Fallen London was more inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Spooky but silly, serious but camp. Gary Oldman in a top hat and sunglasses is never far from my mind. I’ll second Peake as well: his drawings are amazing. The big Echo Bazaar banners were more than a little influenced by Braid.
AK: People keep bringing up China Mieville, but I always think he’d despise us for being so very far from gritty.
PA: We get a lot of people name-checking Lovecraft too, but we’re more comic horror than cosmic horror really.
AK: I can’t properly deny either of those though. Paul and I also both play a lot of CRPGs. Planescape: Torment is a long-time inspiration, of course. I realized a week before launch that I’d accidentally stolen one of the better jokes from there, and hastily took it out before anyone noticed.
Q: The game is surprisingly intricate for a browser game and as such, is somewhat difficult to explain to people. Or at least I find it to be. I usually just shove the URL at them and say “go play it.” How would you describe the gameplay of Echo Bazaar?
AK: We have the same problem, actually. The basis is the mission, level, new mission gameplay of a lot of social networking games – the mafia and vampires and spy ones – but then we keep on adding choices and layers and story. That’s very vague, so let me give an example.
You open a mission to track down a card game where you can gamble your soul against your heart’s desire. To complete that you need to travel to the Forgotten Quarter. But no-one in the city remembers where the Forgotten Quarter is. One of the ways to find it involves scrawling half-crazed notes on the walls of your lodgings, trying to work out the location, and when you’ve written enough mad graffiti on your walls then you find the way in.
But all this messing around with dark secrets has started increasing your Nightmares, and you’re getting increasingly sinister recurring dreams and if your Nightmares rise too high you may lose your mind. So there’s another mission where you invite another player to hear your Confession of Fears, which means your Nightmares drop a lot but theirs rise a bit, because, you know, you’ve just told them horrible stories. Or if you don’t know other players, you might buy laudanum to help you sleep, but that causes its own difficulties. And so on.
That’s a very small taste of the way the story side works. Then there’s the Game of Knife-and-Candle, which is much more straightforward. You stalk and murder your friends. Everyone likes stalking and murdering their friends.
What’s been the biggest obstacle in creating the game thus far?
AK: Scaling. In my old day job I built and ran bigger sites, but I can’t afford to spend more than a couple of hours a day on the technical side at the moment. And content. The game is a giant sink for content. There are around 110,000 words of content in there, and I think it’ll be nearer half a million when we’ve done. It’s hard work to keep it all coherent, especially as we bring other contributors in.
PA: Not enough hours in the day. There are only two of us on this full-time, and we don’t even have an office.
What’s your favorite part of Fallen London?
AK: The Royal Bethlehem Hotel, which is where you go when it all gets too much for you. The Royal Beth is very different from the rest of the game, which made it a lot of fun to write.
PA: I’ve just finished subbing Alexis’s work on the Tomb-Colonies, and it’s fantastic, really innovative. Every mission is written as a letter home from exile. So that’s my favorite bit at the moment.
Tell us more about the “mysteries”. What purpose do they serve? Then tell me the answers. (Kidding. Sort of.)
AK: We’ve got this gigantic labyrinth of world background, which people like exploring, but there’s not always an obvious way in. And because we reveal it piecemeal as you explore, some players get confused. The mysteries page is a series of questions about some of the background and secrets in the game. They give some orientation on where to start looking, if you’re interested; when we close the question and declare the answer, you’ll get a small reward, and brag rights; but also you can see what other people have answered. So it allows people to co-operate in digging into the background; and it allows players to be creative, or funny in a way other people can see.
Incidentally the answers to the tricky ones are blue and gold; moon-misers; Stamford Raffles; the Overgoat; it’s made out of spiders.
PA: Those aren’t the real answers. Well, one of them might be.
Has the response to the game surprised you at all? (i.e., fans embracing aspects of the game you thought were no big deal, ignoring things you thought would be a big hit?)
AK: My God yes. People responded to the setting in a way I hadn’t expected in the slightest. I hadn’t expected us to get fans, per se, at all, to be honest.
Also, stupidly, I didn’t expect people to seek out the most appalling and self-destructive parts of the game. If your Wounds, Nightmares, Suspicion or Scandal qualities rise too high, then alarming things happen to you. We gave explicit warnings about this. And the immediate result was that people started grinding all these qualities like crazy to try to see just how bad it got. Lesson learnt.
PA: But it’s like Sigil again, isn’t it? You wanted the Lady of Pain to smack you down, just to see what happened. Of course, Echo Bazaar doesn’t have a quicksave button.
See you around the Bazaar. Watch out for the sorrow-spiders.
Susan Arendt is both Watchful and Dangerous. You can most likely find her on Ladybones Road.