March 03, 2010

"Welcome, delicious friend."

Just a quick note in case someone finds this interesting. (I'm noodling a long-ish post at the moment and felt I needed to write something else for a change.)

I've recently been investing a lot of my in-between moments to Echo Bazaar. I'm not playing it with any great concentration and am not paying that much attention to it: It perfectly occupies the moments at work when I have a few minutes at my desk, waiting for something or having a small break.

Echo Bazaar is not really a game as much as it is a choose your own adventure storybook with slightly amped interactivity. Essentially, Echo Bazaar is to a lot like Mafia Wars in its basic functions. It's a low-maintenance, turn-based and slowly advancing game integrated to a social networking service. Though whereas Mafia Wars works with Facebook Echo Bazaar is linked with Twitter. I suspect I'll contact other players as soon as the single-player adventures get boring. But they haven't, at least not after a couple of weeks.

The basic game mechanics are simple: you have four stats (Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive and Shadowy) and a deck of cards. Drawing cards awards you with random occurences, most of which require you to make some sort of a stat-check against your four base stats. Succeeding in these checks results in gaining more levels to your stats as well as items, awards and other miscellanea. The size of your hand depends on how luxuriously you live. The better your flat the more cards you can have at any given time. There is also a staggering amount of "storylets" which are small stat-boosting missions that you unlock as you level up. And that's pretty much it.

All of the above is pretty much irrelevant, however. I don't play Echo Bazaar because of its qualities as a game. I play it because the world intrigues me. I think it's best to illustrate the world via my own character and their doings in the weird city of Fallen London. Everything that's quoted straight from the game is in italics.

First of all, Fallen London is an enchanting place. The premise is that at some point in history (though what history is largely left untold) London Fell, whatever that means. The Victorian era (-ish) London was transported underground, and now the old London is no more. In Fallen London the old street signs are being taken down and, for some reason, life on the surface is largely not to be talked of. In Fallen London vast mushrooms grow in parks (which seem to be largely devoid of trees), and the streets are occupied by not only urchins and gentlemen but spirits and demons as well. At the center of it all is the Bazaar, ruled by the Bazaar masters. I actually don't know anything about the Bazaars, other than that the masters have enormous influence over everything, and that (Fallen) London was not the first city the Bazaar has been affiliated with. The city around the Bazaar is called the Fifth City because, they say, it's not the first the Bazaar chose as a home. You can still turn up bricks from the older cities, now and then. Look: here's one marked with an eye.

It's a very dark (in, uh, many ways) setting but the tone is very light. It's a delightful mixture of morbid humour and pretty grimy things. And, most importantly, everything is written surprisingly well. I like to read every new storylet and item description even if they are often only a paragraph or two in length.

Pascal Again (Why is the name so dorky? You tell me, it just sort of... stuck.) is a devious and intriguing individual of mysterious and indistinct gender. (You get to choose your gender from male, female and none-of-your-business which is great!) Pascal's strongest trait is his high Shadowy rating, meaning he's adept at all sorts of suspicious stuff, from burglary to stealth to talking with cats, hence the devious. Also, because of their affiliation with all things suspicious and illegal, Pascal spends most of their time in Spite, one of the more shadier districts of Fallen London (The ragged old market of Spite is known for its silk-weavers and its pickpockets. Blythenhale is notorious for its feral cats. Flowerdene Street is the heart of the worst rookery in Fallen London.) Pascal is also intriguing which means their Persuasive rating is rather high. Persuasive means Pascal writes pretty neat poems and penny dreadfuls, can seduce and slander people and in general be a very smarmy person. Because of this, whenever Pascal's not in Spite they dwell in Veilgarden (A haunt of poets, prostitutes and other low types, and location of the notorious Singing Mandrake. Elderwick is famous for its booksellers. Hollow Street offers the best honey-dens in the city.)

At the moment Pascal has a lot going on in their life. After immortalising the serial-killing spirit Jack-of-Smiles in a penny dreadful, Pascal took up seducing a rich heiress who has a penchant for Honey, a very peculiar drug of the underworld (it transport you into your dreams, which is very romantic if all goes well, and less romantic if you spend an afternoon in a city where buildings are made out of frozen blood). But above everything else, Pascal's ambitions veer towards making the biggest heist Fallen London has ever seen. It's just taking a while because one particular artist has turned out to be very resistant to scams. Whenever there hasn't been anything noteworthy to do, Pascal has listened to cats and studied the hidden language of tattoos. The next big thing for Pascal, after the seduction of the heiress is complete, is to meet up with a cheery gentleman. (In the street, you pass a tall, cheerful man with a brisk manner, a stovepipe hat and a row of bright brass buttons down the front of his coat...). Pascal, however, has some reservations as to the nature of the meeting. For one, the meeting was unlocked by achieving level 5 in Nightmares. Also, brass is the token insignia of Hell and everyone aligned with it. A brass ring is bad news, so a whole row of brass buttons is very likely a lot worse.

Pascal has already gathered a moderate amount of items and other interesting qualities, some of which I've listed here.

For example, Pascal has (via the aforementioned cat chats) accumulated 274 Whispered Secrets, 13 Cryptic Secrets (from a black cat, no less) and one Appalling Secret (heard from a well, and though I don't know what the secret is, it left Pascal trembling for days and brought their Nightmares up to 7). These are valid currency throughout the underworld. For example, Pascal's lodgings (a cramped and draughty room on the top floor of a lodging-house.) had a rent of 50 Whispered Secrets. After the roaring success with the penny dreadful about Jack-of-Smiles (which was so scary they had to close down four schools because of it), Pascal received a gift from a certain "Jack". The gift was 12 bottled souls (not actually legal to deal souls, though). Pascal also has, for the purpose of loosening the tongues of artists and poets, several bottles of fine wine (The mushroom wines of the Neath are an acquired taste.)

In addition to an inventory filled with trivial obscurities, Pascal also has quite a list of qualities. Pascal is an Admirer of Art and of Beauty (gained by seducing both the Struggling Artist and his Model). As for connections, Pascal is equally aligned with the Church and with Hell. The church-connection came from gods-know-where but the alignment with Hell was due to Pascal saving their own skin by introducing a drunkard to a devil, so that the devil could have "company" for the night. The devil was pleased with his (or her?) company, while Pascal gained a handsome reward, some favours with Hell and the relief of avoiding the fate of the drunkard (who became an unidentifiable heap extracted from the demon's room at the end of the night.) This whole episode also brought Pascal the label of Heartless (What? It's none of my affair.)

Pascal suffers nightly from recurring dreams of drowning and of dying in a fire. Pascal also suffers from a fairly high level in their Nightmares trait, partly because Pascal does not have enough money to buy Laudanum and partly because Pascal was poor enough to change his prisoner's rags (for everyone starts out as a satin-masked prisoner in Fallen London) for Fourth City Rags (This threadbare garment whispers to you in your dreams. When you wake, sometimes you remember.) which tended to tax heavily on Pascal's mental cohesion. As soon as Pascal gets some more money rounded up, they plan on buying a a cheerful goldfish, rumoured to reduce nightmares. Who knows?

There. I think that's enough of me writing about Echo Bazaar and Pascal. Somehow the world has managed to keep me amused. They tell just enough to pique my interest and yet have the courage to leave a lot of the game mechanics and story for the players to peace together themselves. A joy to play, though I would guess a lot of the appeal comes from the very random and sporadic nature of Echo Bazaar's gameplay. If I were to play it for any greater lengths of time, I'm sure the shallow mechanics would start wearing down the world's charm very quickly.

And in closing, I'll leave you with two totally random snippets from the game, which, I hope somehow serve to demonstrate why I'm so interested in it:

The game refers to players uniformly as delicious friends. This is explained in no way. It's just how things are in Fallen London, I suppose. Also, often you have no idea what's going on, or why:

What's the problem with the Second City?
Never mention the Second City to the Masters of the Bazaar. Mr Wines will look at you narrowly and give you his worst vintage. Mr Cups will fly into a rage. Mr Veils will harangue you for your discourtesy. Mr Iron will say nothing, only write down your name with its left hand.

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