Interview: Failbetter Games

Interviewed by Michael McHenry

 

For this issue, we asked the staff at Failbetter Games for a little of their time to talk about the creative process behind their video games, and they gave us a bunch.

 

First and foremost, how in the world did you guys get Sunless Sea to look so beautiful, sound like a dream come true, and read like a true survival story that just keeps begging the player to keep playing?

 

Hannah Flynn, Communications Director:

 

Short answer: we had to.

 

Longer answer: All of our art is done by CEO and Art Director Paul Arendt, so that brought a particular kind of singular focus to the look of the game. We were blessed to find an excellent and thematically perfect composer, Maribeth Solomon, who also scored Fallen London, our first game. And we worked with some of the best interactive fiction writers there are, lead by our own team and in-house editor, leaning on what was at the time four years experience of writing long-form interactive fiction.

 

The writing is exceptionally dark and foreboding, sometimes so creatively different that it gives the player the creeps. One of your reviews ominously described it as “…the most delicious collection of words in all of gaming.” What gave rise to this amazing idea of horror/survival writing? Did Failbetter Games think that this was missing in modern games?

 

Chris Gardiner, Narrative Director:

 

There’s lots of very effective horror in gaming. I think Sunless Sea’s take on it is perhaps slower and more encroaching than some of it – more like the difference between a horror novel and a horror movie. Both scary, but they have to use different tools.

 

One thing that makes the horror in Sunless Sea so effective, I think, is that it’s not relentless. We mix it up with humor and homeliness. The moments of warmth make the darkness feel deeper.

 

Discovery and exploration are at the heart of Sunless Sea. Was there real-world inspiration for some of the key locations? Any Easter eggs out there that players might want to keep an eye out for?

 

Chris Gardiner, Narrative Director:

 

We tend to wear our historical influences on our sleeves – the Khanate is an extrapolation of medieval Mongolia, Visage is influenced by Egyptian mythology.

 

For a lot of our ports, the inspiration tends not to be a real place, but an experience or opinion. If you visit Saviour’s Rocks in the game, for example, you’ll be left in doubt of writer Richard Cobbett’s opinion of spiders!

 

Writing 200,000 words for a game of this magnitude takes a toll on someone, not to mention the rewrites and drafts throughout the development stages. Were your talents as creative writers tested to the brink? Any significant challenges that you overcame and celebrated?

 

Chris Gardiner, Narrative Director:

 

We’re always pushing our own limits in terms of the stories we want to write and the things we want to explore. We have a team of in-house writers and a pool of talented freelancers, so the work gets spread around. We have a fierce “no crunch” policy at Failbetter.

 

One of the biggest challenges is maintaining a consistent tone when you’ve got a number of different people working on the game. Though each island in Sunless Sea is a separate little pocket of fiction, they all need to fit within the same game. The lore has to match up; the tone has to be at least close enough that it doesn’t feel out of place. Getting everyone onto the same page and keeping them there isn’t easy. Especially when – like us – we want to give our brilliant, passionate writers room to experiment, to push at the edges of what we’ve done before, and to exert their own voices.

 

Decisions by the gamer have benefits and consequences throughout the game, allowing for an amazingly precious replay value for the future. How challenging is it when you sit down to create story arcs, decision trees, and the character backgrounds?

 

Chris Gardiner, Narrative Director:

 

Yeah, this is hard. We tend not to make heavy use of branching fiction, and find other ways to allow and represent choice. The structure of Sunless Sea helps, here: each island is separate. We don’t need to track every minor choice you make on a certain island – we can just track a handful of key outcomes and draw on those in other ports.

 

The background of Fallen London has accreted over seven years. Coming up with all of it at the beginning would have been madness! Instead, we stuck flags in the ground and built around them. Because of that groundwork we can add new elements to the world and have a good sense of what will fit well with lore we’ve already established.

Writing for games is much different than writing for publications, film, and television. If someone wanted to get started (or further their career) in writing compelling narratives and storylines for video games, do you have any suggestions or resources that they can pursue? How did you find Failbetter Games as your career? What have you done in your career to prepare yourself for such an amazing company? Any tips or learning lessons for someone that wants to follow in your footsteps?

 

Cash DeCuir, Writer:

 

My advice to anyone wishing to write for the games industry is the same advice I’d give to any artist wishing to enter any field: love gluttony. Consume culture without reservation. Honor every morsel. Savor ideas. This is to say: study everything! The Romantics were a wild and a fun bunch: read them. Study Chinese epics, see how ideals express themselves. Read Hegel, see what you can synthesize. Tolerate French New Wave cinema, expand your means of presentation. Take possibility from art galleries. Understand the layering of music. Write poetry! Comics! Study science and mathematics! Life overlaps. Lessons are universal.

 

This was advice from my first writing professor: that to be a good writer, study everything else. I suppose he was right, as I joined Failbetter shortly after graduating from college. It served me well, and it’s a recommendation for everyone else: study the world and you can work wonders.

 

James Chew, Writer:

 

My advice for anyone wanting to go into games writing is to lose your ego. It’s a tough job (all writing is, after all) and games writing doesn’t put you in a position of complete creative control (unlike say, writing a novel or running a tabletop RPG for friends). Writing for games is collaborative and often full of constraints.  You’ll be expected to meet specific briefs, work in the house style and adapt your work to the mechanical and technological needs of the games you’re working on.  At Failbetter, we have an in-house editor and a narrative director who provide direction and vital feedback throughout. Ultimately, the player experience is king — they’re who you’re writing for.

 

You need to be flexible, humble and willing to take on feedback. Games are an interstitial and collaborative art form. It’s an amazing education for a writer — if you’re prepared to learn.

 

Writing a solid story is only half the battle. The other half is the soundtrack, drawing in the gamer and testing their sensory abilities in ways reading just doesn’t satisfy. What went into composing the soundtrack for Sunless Sea?

 

Hannah Flynn, Communications Director:

 

There are a lot more factors involved, I think. The writing, the story, soundtrack, art and gameplay all pull together to create the atmosphere which we were aiming for. Our soundtrack is by Canadian composer Maribeth Solomon, who has been prolific in scoring 3D films about the bottom of the sea or the reaches of space – so she grasped our dark and strange world brilliantly, and brought something very rich to it. The track people say is their favorite is Wolfstack Docks – the music which plays in your home port! The sense of relief you feel when you hear the song start up means a lot to players who’ve just escaped something terrible, or made it back with a dribble of fuel and a couple of raving mad crew.

 

Zubmariner, the official expansion to Sunless Sea, came out in October 2016 and immerses the player in a way that wasn’t done in the main game. Any thoughts on what led to its creation? Anything you might want to tease your fans with?

 

Hannah Flynn, Communications Director:

 

Zubmariner was a Kickstarter stretch goal so it’s been in the cards since then! It seemed to be the logical next thing: introduce a lot of awful things on the sea, and then take players below the sea, where things are irretrievably worse.

 

Zubmariner’s main appeal for me is that it offers you new opportunities every time you dive: shipwrecks, cities, currents, zee-beasts, etc.

Lastly, give us a snapshot, sign-off blurb as to who you are, how we can keep up with your company, and what we can expect from you in the future.

 

Failbetter Games are the makers of Sunless Sea (Mac, PC, Linux) and Fallen London (browser, iOS, Android), purveyors of the finest interactive narratives and lovers of rats. Follow us @failbettergames on twitter, and most other places too.

 

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