The compulsive draw of Echo Bazaar

If you haven’t tried it yet, go and sign up for Echo Bazaar. You’ll need a Twitter account, but if you don’t have one it’s worth signing up just to play #ebz. Come back when you’ve had a taste…

Greetings, delicious friend! Tell me, what what secrets are you uncovering in Fallen London? I’ll trade you some juicy tidbits about the dirigibles and the bat swarms.

Secrets are the essence of Echo Bazaar. There’s very little gameplay to speak of – you have a selection of possible actions, some randomly drawn from a “deck”, some unlocked by reaching certain levels in various stats (or “qualities”). Success or failure at that action is determined randomly behind the scenes, but increasing your stats makes actions easier. It’s basically an RPG grind with no animations or combat tactics.

And yet, I can’t stop playing. Some people have claimed that it’s the quality of the writing that draws you in, but I disagree (although it IS good). No, the real draw is the secrets. Like LOST, there are many very weird things going on in Fallen London. And anything you do to investigate gives you a half-answer and two more questions. And it is the IDEAS that are revealed that keep you coming back for more. What do the sorrow-spiders do with the eyeballs they steal? Where do the Rubbery Men get their Deep Amber? Why was London stolen?

Playing Echo Bazaar is rather like reading a China Mieville novel that has been shredded. You slowly piece together an elaborate, horrific picture of life in the ‘Neath, fragments of story unlocked as you grind your stats upwards. And grind you must, because the human brain hates unanswered questions. And what Echo Bazaar offers, more than any other fictional universe I’ve encountered, is questions. And FailBetter Games know this well – three different classes of secret are even used as currency in the Bazaar! Yes, the writing is elegant and wry, which makes you care about knowing the answers, but it is the continuous drip-feed of mysteries that hooks so many players.

Long may it continue…

Doctor Who Computer Games – a new format?

So, there are four Doctor Who games releasing this summer. This is interesting partly just because new Who games are cool – maybe these will do the license justice. The last one, Destiny of the Doctors, was appalling and even the best Who game yet – The Mines of Terror – was clearly supposed to involve K9 and the Daleks, but had to change them for licensing reasons. And it’s a little disappointing for me personally, because I’ve wanted to work on a Doctor Who game for over a decade. But at least someone’s doing it…

But I’m more interested because of the format. These are free episodic downloads for PC and Mac, developed in parallel with the TV series, and written by TV writers. One of the producers has described them as four extra episodes of season 5. So creatively, there is a possibility of something quite special. I would be nervous about the involvement of writers with no experience in the interactive form, but under the guidance of Charles Cecil of Revolution, I’m pretty confident they’ll create something that works.

My only worry is that it does look a little low-budget – in the screenshots posted so far, the lighting looks poor and character models are both waxy and wooden. They’re apparently aiming for “stylised” look, but haven’t really introduced a style to make up for the simplification. I hope the finished product is a little more polished than the work in progress screenshots.

Nevertheless, I’m excited about the possibilities of this format, and I hope it’s very successful. If you want more detail, Develop magazine have a very detailed article here.