The Dev Lens is a column about the game developers behind the games we play and love. Video games are a product of the people who imagine them, and make the decisions that bring them to life. This series of articles takes a closer look at these individuals and their stories.
A video game can stand out in many ways; it can be an addictive product, a means of relaxation, or even an experience for players. Others gain prominence for their literary value. Alexis Kennedy talks with Game Lens about how he achieved this.
Every year, thousands of game developers around the world get together to create a game over a weekend. The event - the Global Game Jam - has become an annual fixture for developers. In Malta too, a budding gathering of game developers participated in the Maltese chapter at the Institute of Digital Games. It was at this game jam that we met Alexis Kennedy.
Alexis was in Malta as a keynote speaker during Malta's Global Game Jam event. On a wintry afternoon, not dissimilar to the ones he had left behind in England, he sat down with us to discuss various facets of game development.
Alexis is best known for his writing, and his skill at telling tales and building rich universes in video games. One of the founders of Failbetter Games, his past work includes Sunless Sea. The indie game propelled Failbetter Games to fame following a triumphant Kickstarter campaign. It also won Rock, Paper, Shotgun's award for game writing, and was a nominee for the Writer's Guild of Great Britain Best Writing in Videogames.
Yet Alexis' resume extends well beyond the creation of video games, because Sunless Sea is much more than that. The rogue-like is well known for its narrative, and Failbetter Games is still supporting video games based on storytelling.
And yet, had you been with us you would not have recognized him for the gifted writer that he is. On the contrary, he blended in with the other game developers hasting to develop their games. Nonetheless, it did not take long after we sat around the table for his brilliance to sink in.
Failbetter Games and Sunless Sea
Back in 2009, Alexis was still a financial software developer - a far cry from what he would become. In the midst of the financial crash, he made the decision to take a six-month sabbatical, and his employers were happy to oblige. Keen to start developing video games, rather than writing for them, Alexis followed his entrepreneurial spirit, and set up Failbetter Games.
Alexis co-founded Failbetter Games with Paul Arendt in 2010 - a different time, and not only because seven years have passed since then. The game industry is unrecognizable, and an unprecedented world of opportunities has opened up for indie game studios.
Failbetter Games describes itself as an "independent games studio, creating games and stories mostly set in the Fallen London Universe." In an industry where players often only follow stories, the British studio went in a different direction by creating a huge world full of tales. Thus, the love for storytelling drove the British studio to delve into interactive narrative video games, such as Sunless Sea.
Sunless Sea is set in an alternative Victorian London, dubbed Fallen London - a universe that Alexis had created himself. Alexis explained how Fallen London came to be from a small side project, although it has since ballooned into a massive world. "I just built a whole bunch of power-ups and events based around something to do with acoustics and echoes. This just took a life of its own, developed into an idea of an underground city with a lot of stories, and I almost completely abandoned the initial game."
However, not everything was rosy within the Fallen London universe. "Every time that I explained to people the setting of this interactive fiction game that was coalescing, they were confused; this was placed underground, it did not have a sort of anchoring point," Alexis discussed. "I was talking to Paul, and I said, off-handedly, "well, you know, what if the city underground was actually London? It'd be dragged down beneath the Earth," and that cleared. That's what we started with."
"The Fallen London universe is like a tapestry that's been woven by princes or princesses trapped in a town for seven years. Every day, I or the other writers added to it for years and years and years."
More impressive than the studio's success is Fallen London's size, which makes it one of the richest game worlds in existence. In fact, by now, Alexis told Game Lens, the Fallen London universe would have around two million words - an impressive figure for an indie studio.
Given the amplitude of Fallen London, what sticks out is that Sunless Sea is a rogue-like - a genre that is not usually associated with narratives. Indeed, the genre forces players to start over from scratch upon death - a peculiar choice for games that revolve around narrative.
The co-founder of Failbetter Games explained how he wanted to base Sunless Sea on exploration and survival. "If you want to make a story about exploration and survival, and if you had to mesh the narrative with the mechanics, something like a rogue-like is not only natural, but inevitable," Alexis confided to Game Lens.
Picking a genre was no trivial task, as Alexis explained to Game Lens. As a matter of fact, Failbetter Game struggled to pick what genre to follow. On one hand, following the route of a traditional RPG meant that players could discover Fallen London with ease. However, that would also have robbed Sunless Sea of its survivalist trait.
Failbetter Games never committed to a genre. Alexis conceded how the end result was a game that "was too CRPG-like and was not really robust in terms of the player's experience and story in subsequent playthroughs."
Hence, Sunless Sea became a compromise, stuck between the freedom afforded by RPGs and the caution necessitated by rogue-likes. Failbetter Games' novel approach only served to accentuate the challenges.
Whereas rogue-likes were gaining in prominence, very few had any narrative to speak of, and fewer still had such a strong dependency on lore. In a bid to allow players to explore Fallen London, the British studio introduced a legacy system. Upon death, the new seafarer inherits the previous captain's chart, an officer or a skill. As a result, they do not start over every time they die, but build upon the experience of previous captains.
Sunless Sea may have its faults, but Alexis still swells up when he talks about Failbetter Games, and with good reason. The work started by Alexis Kennedy and Paul Arendt lives on in other games. More than anything, it's a prime example of how far inventiveness can take independent game development studios.
"You want the risk of death, and you want uncertainty about whether you'll find something dangerous or something wonderful in the darkness."
With time, Alexis' role at Failbetter Games transformed from a writer to a creative director. In an interview that he gave, he expressed his conviction that it would be possible to transition back. However, that was not to be.
Shortly after the release of Sunless Sea, it was time for Alexis to amicably leave behind the project he helped start. In pursuit of more time for creative work, he left Failbetter Games, but not before one last project saw the light of day - Fundbetter.
Fundbetter is an initiative launched by Failbetter Games with a simple goal - funding interactive fiction indie games. Ever so humble, Alexis told us how he does not see Failbetter as his legacy. "It was not quite right there yet, but I like to think of it as a ship I built and that other people are now sailing," he explained. Along this line of thought, Fundbetter was "the additional mast you put on a ship."
The spirit behind Fundbetter is one of camaraderie that is iconic to the indie community. "I think Fundbetter is set up to be a different kind of micro-publishing label the same Failbetter is created to be a different kind of studio," Alexis explained.
"We wanted to find games that could be made for a low cost, but would be interested in the story first, and were made by people who we wanted to help," Alexis went on to describe. "A lot of the rationale of setting it up was [that] we worked hard and we did good work, but also we were lucky. I wanted to pay some of that luck forward to make sure that other people had the same opportunities that we had coming up."
Earlier this year, Fundbetter bore its first fruit. A House of Many Doors, developed by Pixel Trickery, became the first game funded through the initiative to launch on Steam. Those who have played Sunless Sea will immediately draw parallels between the two games. Indeed, A House of Many Doors is the kind of game that Fundbetter was created to promote - interactive fiction games.
Although Alexis Kennedy has left Failbetter Games, the celebration of video games led by narrative is far from over. The Fundbetter initiative and the philosophy at his old studio ensures that games like Sunless Sea continue to thrive. With his job at Failbetter Games done, his pursuit now turns towards new tales to tell through video games.
An Evolving Gaming Industry
This chapter of Alexis' career coincided with a major upheaval in the gaming industry. New funding opportunities and unparalleled coverage led to a resurgence in indie studios. Moreover, an ever-changing technological landscape and new platforms only uncovered more possibilities.
Indie games do not only offer a wider range of games to players, but are also an innovative approach to an often stale market. The games market, more open to new and unconventional studios and experiences, allows just about anyone to tell their own tale through video games.
While at Failbetter Games, Alexis Kennedy lived through, and was part of the indie revolution. Nonetheless, he is aware that today the industry is in a difficult spot. Every year, indie studios release hundreds of games, which prompted a change in direction for Steam Greenlight. "We"re seeing what we always see after a boom, which is a correction where the market is still growing," Alexis told us.
It is not all grim, however. In Alexis' own words, "it is still absolutely possible to make a living as an indie, but you have to choose very carefully how you're going to pitch your game and how you're going to find an audience. It's still enormously-better than it was thanks to digital distribution."
During his tenure at Failbetter Games, the indie game scene has also seen the rise of text-based storytelling games. Many acclaimed indie games, such as Oxenfree and To The Moon, owe their success to story-telling. Nevertheless, in spite of their fine-crafted narratives, they do not have the copious amounts of text that Sunless Sea has.
Instead, text-based games only started cropping up in recent years, Alexis explained. "There have been text-based games in the past," he told Game Lens, "and of course there were words and stories in games." On the other hand, he continued, "this whole genre of strong dynamic story-based games is something that has come out in the last five to seven years."
"It's something that is still something relatively rare - successful indie studios wanting to invest in other companies. You're sitting on a big pile of cash and you want to invest it."
A third significant change came in the rise of mobile. Whereas most applications were web-based before 2010, the mobile revolution was a swift and unexpected one for Alexis. Mobile development and usage snowballed and outgrew itself, resulting in a dense market.
Nevertheless, Alexis described mobile development as a missed opportunity for Failbetter Games. "I didn't realize how big a deal mobile would become, or I would have made Fallen London as a mobile-first experience," Alexis explained. "Honestly, we [Failbetter Games] suffered for years for not making it a mobile experience. There's a mobile app out now, but trying to squeeze it into a mobile app was tremendously difficult."
The technological landscape has not stopped changing. 2016 saw Augmented Reality gain prominence thanks to games like PokÃ©mon Go, and Virtual Reality too is on the rise. In contrast with the mobile development market, Alexis does not see the latter technology as an opportunity.
Speaking with Game Lens, Alexis confided that he does not consider VR to be a "natural medium for writers." Even aside from storytelling, he expressed his belief that the VR development industry is a trap to indie developers. In particular, with the slow adoption of the technology, studios could be setting themselves up for failure by limiting sales.
Moreover, he expressed caution at the nature of the industry's players, even though he expects surprises. "Although it is a newer market, there are some very talented people and some high-end industry names with development focus. I think we will see a couple of indie breakout successes - somebody who's in the right place at the right time and with the right idea."
Instead, now that he is no longer at Failbetter Games, Alexis explained how his approach to game development will differ. "My strategy at my micro-studio [Weather Factory] over the next year when I will do contract work for other studios is explicitly to make small games that do not need to sell that many games to return their cost of development. They can be as experimental as I want in the writing and the design because the whole reason I'm taking this time out from the studio is to come back and do this stuff."
Cultist Simulator and BioWare
Following his departure from Failbetter Games, Kennedy did not sit on the sidelines for too long. Although he left the Fallen London universe behind, his passion for writing still burns bright, like his love for marrying contrasting genres.
Weather Factory's current project - which is currently on hiatus - is a board game by the name of Cultist Simulator. In Alexis' latest venture, players assume the role of a cult leader tasked with starting and growing their sect.
Each cycle starts with players receiving cards. A key part of playing these cards is reading their descriptions and weighing the effects of their decisions. Even so early in its development, Cultist Simulator shows glimmers of excellence in an unexpected place - writing.
The idea of board games combined with tales may not be the most natural pairing, but this was an idea that Alexis dismissed. "Any game that Failbetter made, and any game that I make, is always going to have narrative at its core. And because I am primarily a writer, it is likely to be primarily text-based narrative. What enthuses me is the fusion of narrative game mechanics."
Cultist Simulator is still a prototype, and will be so for some time while Alexis sees to other duties. Nevertheless, the work in progress project already comes with unorthodox design decisions. For starters, the goal is not as narrow as the title would have you believe.
As part of the daily job of running a cult, players must also see to their personal needs. This includes looking for a job, staving off starvation and making similar menial decisions while under the pressure of a timer. As Alexis told Game Lens, the timer mechanism serves two distinct purposes - a thematic and a formal motive.
"The thematic effect is that Cultist Simulator is a game that is about, among other things, tension between pursuing something wonderful, dangerous and risky, and playing it so." Yet having indefinite time to pore over a decision allows players to choose the optimal balance between these elements. In reality, time is not as abundant, and the timer mechanism serves to accentuate the feeling of "existential dread", building on the game's theme.
"Most choices in text-based interactive narratives tend to be very tight. It gets to a point where it waits for your input and says "do you want to do this thing, or this thing, or the third choice?" And you can do rich, exciting, memorable, effective choices like that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that - I've been writing like that for years. But I wanted to try something different"
Alexis proceeded to describe how the formal motive leads to two advantages in Cultist Simulator. "Most choices in text-based interactive narratives tend to be very tight, where it gets to a point where it waits for your input," Alexis told Game Lens.
This approach not only leads to "rich and memorable" choices, but also allowed the British developer to stray from the traditional narrative. In similar fashion to FTL and Papers, Please, players can base their decisions on long-term strategies. Therefore, keen to avoid this, he went for a more inclusive approach.
The second formal aspect of the timer mechanism is that it promotes impulsive decisions. "When the game is waiting for you, you have the good old thing of optimizing your decisions in game terms. When you only have four seconds to make a decisions you often make it in an instinctive way, which is much more satisfying - it's a very exciting moment."
Apart from this timer, Cultist Simulator leaves the reins in the player's hands. They can pursue the mundane, as Alexis told us, or the mysterious peril of cults. An interesting point that the British writer raised is the fact that players can also opt to make no commitment - a decision in itself.
Cultist Simulator is still some way off release. Right now, Alexis Kennedy is working with BioWare on a yet-unannounced project in the Dragon Age franchise - a big jump from indie development. With Game Lens, Alexis expressed his excitement of not knowing what to expect in this move, but admitted it was something he has wanted to do.
"I wanted to work with a AAA studio because it will be a completely different experience," Alexis conceded. "It means that I will get a different perspective on a whole set of professional problems. Of course the biggest change I expect is that it's no longer my IP - it will be an IP that other people have created."
Unfazed by the challenges, Alexis explained that these new restraints are facets of his new job that he is looking forward to. "I think writers are treated better at BioWare than most other places in the industry. It's a story-centric company with a very strong tradition. In a big game contract the writer always has to be aware of all the constraints, and I'm quite looking forward to the creative constraints of it because there's always a way to work around it."
The independent game landscape is an ever-changing one. With studios pushing the boundaries of quality, standing out is more difficult than ever before. Video games that do stand out, on the other hand, take the limelight for a prolonged period of time, extinguishing it for other studios.
"The answer is the same that it ever was," Alexis told us. "The more successful something is, the more attention it attracts, and the more attention it attracts, the more successful it is." So how can independent video games ever stand out, when big indie games hog the spotlight?
"The only way to deal with that is to make it a point and write about lesser-known games. That is obviously where you guys [journalists] come in," explained Alexis. He did, however, leave a piece of advice.
"If you have a talent and a distinctive voice, or you're working with a talented and a distinctive voice, you can make something distinctive, and distinctive is what indies need, and distinctive is what wins awards."
Over the years, many indie games have stood out. More often than not, they attracted attention for going beyond the common definitions of games. Some excelled as literary masterpieces, others for quirky mechanisms that hit the right spot. To Alexis, storytelling is one of the best investments that smaller studios can make.
"Story is one of the areas where indies can compete really effectively. Seth Godin, the marketing guy, once said that a book is the last cultural work that can be created by a single human being. And that is not really true; people can do a painting, or make a game, but writing tends to be something that is done by an individual or a small team." Alexis and his projects are sufficient proof of that.
We concluded the interview with the chicken-and-egg question for game developers; what comes first to Alexis - the story or the gameplay? To this, he mused that it is akin to "asking somebody who their favorite child is. No, what it's like is asking whether I prefer coffee or gin. And I love coffee and I love gin, but I love them in very different circumstances. I'm not gonna tell you whether the storyline or the gameplay are more important, but I am gonna tell you that words are better than pictures."
This article was made possible thanks to Alexis Kennedy, co-founder of Failbetter Games. Alexis is currently collaborating with BioWare. He is also the man behind Weather Factory, the studio behind Cultist Simulator.