Saturday, April 2, 2022

Fallen London Festival Of Games

Here's a little bauble you may have missed. There's a games festival going on in London right now. It goes by the catchy name of the London Games Festival. Always good to be declarative, I say. (I never say that.)

The LGF (See, if they'd have called it the London Festival of Games they could have acymonized it LFG and how much better would that have been? I used to be in marketing once, you know.) has a tag line: "Making London the games capital of the world." I wonder where it is now, assuming it's not in London?  I'd have guessed Seoul or Beijing.

Anyway, good luck with that, London. I'm sure we're all rooting for you but that's not really what I'm here to talk about. I'm more interested in your "Five amazing game demos. Free to stream now." Why don't you tell us more about those?

"Five game demos are now available to stream from the cloud, entirely for free with no download required, thanks to an exciting partnership between London Games Festival, Microsoft Azure and Gamestream

In a world-first for a global games event, you can sample key games from our festival-wide showcase of new indie games entirely free from home – you don’t have to be in London to be part of London Games Festival

The line-up covers highly anticipated indie games: Silt, Lab Rat, Grimoire Groves, Mask of the Rose and Paper Trail

Demos are available for ten days starting on 1 April to players in the UK, West Europe and USA"

Thanks! That does pretty much cover everything, doesn't it? Although I would have to query the "global games event" claim, given the hefty regional qualifications in the final line. 

I guess we'd better have a link to the website where you can join in.


There you go!

I pressed play yesterday afternoon, right after I ran across the NME news report that let me know I could. I get so much of my gaming news from the NME now. Who'd have imagined? They've even been covering bugs in Guild Wars 2, which either tells you something about the depth of the NME's gaming coverage or the sudden uptick of interest in GW2 since End of Dragons dropped.

The demos are each limited to sixty minutes (Or an hour as we call it here.) and your progress, always assuming you make any, will not be saved. They put that in bold on the website and now so have I, so don't say you weren't warned. 

All five of the demos look interesting. They all lean towards puzzles or adventures which is tilting in my direction. I only found that out after I finished sampling the first one, though. Employing my usual analytical skills, I just picked the one with the most interesting picture and clicked on that.

About thirty seconds into Mask of the Rose I realised what I'd done. I was playing Fallen London! Again! Seriously, how many times have I played this game in different iterations now? The first time was so long ago it wasn't even called "Fallen London" yet. It was called Echo Bazaar and I had to make a Twitter account just to play it because it was a Twitter game. Do those still even exist?

Failbetter Games is one of those companies that has a thing they do and they just keep doing it, which is admirable and understandable when the thing they have is as good as this. Fallen London has always been a great setting and I guess by now it's a great I.P. 

Is Mask of the Rose going to be a great Fallen London game? That's the question!

I'm not sure an hour-long demo can give us the answer but after my sixty minutes yesterday I'd have to say the signs are good. It's possible this could be the best Fallen London game yet.

It's cetainly the most visually appealing. The series has always enjoyed excellent design and impressive aesthetics but the nature of the gameplay has sometimes led to iconography that felt more suited to tabletop or even card deck than screen. MotR isn't exactly slam-bang action graphics but at least the pictures are bigger.

Failbetter Game's website describes Mask of the Rose as a "Visual Novel, Dating Sim, Detective Story." The Steam page uses the same tags, plus "Romance". I guess that's what it is, then.

The demo (And by implication the game) opens with character creation, something I'm not sure usually happens in visual novels, where you're mostly going to be guiding a premade character through a series of pre-determined choices There's still a sniff of the RPG about this one. 

Also, I haven't played many Dating Sims (None at all, in fact, unless you count Doki Doki Literature Club, which you would have to borderline crazy to do.) but I'm guessing it's probably not genre-typical to play a character who only wants to be friends, if they're even prepared to go that far.

(I just know someone's going to drop into the comments now and give me chapter and verse on how modern dating sims cover all shades of the spectrum of human sexuality and I really hope that's true but if it is, it must make the games hell on wheels to code. How many conversation trees would you need? You'd need a conversation forest!)

Other than that, to me it felt very much of a piece with all the other Fallen London/FBG titles, just with the pieces swapped around and the pack shuffled. There's the same arch humor, the same existential dread, the same fin de siecle, pre-post-apocalyptic ennui. The writing feels almost identical, which, since the writing is probably the franchise's strongest suit, is a good thing.

The setting and the vibe may be familiar but the mechanics feel significantly different, this being very much a visual novel not a "browser based story adventure". Fallen London's mechanics were "rather pedestrian" according to Alexis Kennedy, writer of the follow-up, Sunless Sea and he should know, since he wrote Fallen London as well. 

According to his Wikipedia page, Kennedy, who founded Failbetter Games in 2010 and remained "chief narrative officer and creative lead", left to go solo in 2016. Well, that's what we'd call it if this was a band we were talking about. From what I saw and read as I played yesterday, whoever took over is still very much working from the framework he established, narratively speaking.

If the ambience and the atmosphere felt much the same, the new mechanics felt fresh. One thing you could never accuse Failbetter Games titles of doing is tripping merrily along. They play slowly and get feel slower the longer you go on. Mask of the Rose bucks that trend.

It may be rash to judge from just an hour (No maybe about it.) but I certainly found the visual novel format much more sprightly, a skip rather than a trudge. Even though the structure still involves a great deal of repetition and the gameplay seems to come down to little more than asking a series of impertinent questions, I found the hour just flew by. 

It was also notable how strongly the narrative seemed to want to interrogate the concept. I've never made my way far enough into any of the games to find out if the storylines ever reveal how London came to fall ("Carried away by bats" isn't much of an explanation.) but it always seemed to me that it wasn't really a question one asked. 

Even more so, no-one ever explained how people were surviving underground, where the food and the light and the heat came from, how everyone wasn't going mad with fear, claustrophobia and hopelessness. (Okay, going mad with fear, claustrophobia and hopelessness is pretty much the USP of Sunless Sea but you get my drift.)

In Mask of the Rose, all these concerns are front and center. In just the small section I played we were treated to conversations about the number of Londoners missing or killed in the fall, the instability of the buildings that survived, the shortage of drugs, medicines and doctors to treat the sick and injured, the inability to grow fresh food and the consequent reliance on handouts from the mysterious and sinister Ministry of Accounting and Recounting

Questions were raised concerning the impact of the event on organized religion, there were references to social pressures around transgender identity and ethnicity and I had the opportunity to quiz two people who may or may not have been citizens of Hell about their romantic inclinations. It's a lot for a demo and it augurs well for the full game.

I've wishlisted it on Steam, for what that's worth. Mask of the Rose might be the Fallen London game I've been waiting for. Unfortunately, it looks like I'm going to have to go on waiting a while. Release date is "To be announced" and we all know that means "Not this year."

Four more demos to play, then, and eight days left to play them. With the clock ticking at an hour per game, that shouldn't be too hard to manage. I hope they're all as good as the first one. 

If you happen to miss the window of opportunity opened by the LGF, Mask of the Rose, Silt and Grimoire Groves all have downloadable demos on Steam. Lab Rat doesn't and Paper Trail doesn't even seem to be on Steam at all, despite the "Wishlist" button on the game's website that takes you straight to Steam's homepage.

More reviews as and when I play them, if they feel worth the trouble. And maybe I'll review the streaming aspect, too. I didn't even mention that, did I?


  1. Replies
    1. No! *They* stream! The demos play on a service called Microsoft Azure, of which I'd never heard, via something called Gamestream, ditto. It's in the text I quoted near the top. I might, if I have time, look into what both of those are and do a post about it, with experiental evidence from my time with the demos.

      I knew I should have covered that part in the post, which is why I mentioned it at the end, but I didn't want to get into it because of how much research I'd have to do. Probably should have kept quiet about it.

  2. I tried tow of them. The way they immediately loaded up in my browser in my choice of resolution was very slick. No real lag, despite presumably being streamed through cable under the Atlantic ocean.

    1. It was smooth for me but then I'm only about a hundred miles away!


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