Gaming Respawn @ EGX 2017: Interview with Sunless Skies Developer Failbetter Games

Over the course of EGX, we got a chance to take on a lot of great games, most of which weren’t even out at the time we got to play them. Obviously, games from every facet of the industry are one of the main draws of the show, and from indies to triple As, they are all there to bring their A game for the fans.

In that vein, one game which was definitely showing off its best parts was Sunless Skies, the latest title from FailBetter Games. We got a chance to talk with the vice-CEO of Failbetter Games, Adam Myers, and the game’s producer, Lottie Bevan, about Sunless Skies, Fallen London and the universe at large.

Gaming Respawn: “What is the biggest inspiration behind the world and setting of the universe?”

Lottie Bevan: “We’re a very literary studio, so there’s a lot of very specific literary references. I think if you put the game in front of an average audience, they would say one of two things, which is Lovecraftian or steampunk, which we try to disassociate ourselves with because there is a lot of stereotypes around that, and we’re very keen on digging into stereotypes and actually presenting a surprising amount of more historically truthful things but also super-kooky Gothic things. So, for example, if you said to somebody ‘Victorians in Space!’ talking about Sunless Skies, they’d be thinking top hats and big glass helmets and tea on the moon, and that’s really fun, but we’re very keen on actually presenting people a world where if Isambard Kingdom Brunel was launched into space at the start of the 20th century, what would he have realistically achieved?”

Adam Myers: “Our biggest single area of influence is actually Gothic literature. I think most people tend to think of the Gothic in terms of its visual associations, for instance, the colour black, but we’re really interested in the 18th and 19th century literary genre and the things it did with themes like domesticity. So, for instance, in Fallen London you can invite your friend over for dinner and not just go out and fight things, and you can spend lots of time doing stuff in your lodgings. Also, with the sense of thresholds being crossed and always being under threat, your normal life being under threat from strange, mysterious forces outside of your control. So, we draw on stuff like that more than Lovecraft and steampunk. It’s just because the Gothic genre is largely a historical one, and Lovecraftian and steampunk literature are very popular today, those are the influences people are the quickest to pick up on. We also try to give each of our games a strong emotional focus, so Fallen London is about love, and Sunless Sea is about loneliness.”

LB: “What’s Sunless Skies about? (laughs) I’m sorry.”

AM: “Corruption, compromise and integrity, I guess. They’re a cluster of things that come up when people interact in a very unfamiliar, drastic environment.”

GRS: “How has the transition from a browser-based experience like the original Echo Bazaar and Fallen London to the traditional release form you now use changed how you go about producing these games?”

LB: “Well, one of the big differences between Fallen London and Sunless Sea and Skies is that Fallen London is an ongoing project. There is constantly new content being added, and it is a journey that our players continue to play and a browser, although it is a non-traditional medium, does reach a very wide audience in a way that lots of people who wouldn’t consider themselves gamers would feel like ‘I could get into that, I could understand it’. Whereas Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, I mean we added new stories into [Sunless] Sea after launch, but it’s a much more specific collection of narratives.”

AM: “Another difference is that because Fallen London is so narrative-focused that all of the design in it is basically narrative design, we had to then do other kinds of game design and make those connect up and support the narrative so they worked together. So, that’s an example of the type of challenge in how we organize ourselves with the skills that we need.”

GRS: “Because all of the games have such a heavy narrative focus, how closely have the people who design the mechanics had to work with the people who write the stories?”

AM: “Our narrative director is one of the three people who worked on the original design document for the game. When we are…, to give you an example, when we create a new locomotive for the game or some of the inhabitants of Sunless Skies, we have to make a bunch of decisions which effect mechanics and the narrative. So, we end up inevitably having a bunch of conversations because, for instance, we need something interesting for players to actually encounter as a thing in space, we need an idea of how we’ll fight, and ideally, that’ll be something which interacts interestingly within the game’s various combat and navigation mechanics. We’d like it if its behaviour can tell part of its story, and of course, we also want to write a bunch of stuff around it, so ideas can originate pretty much anywhere, but in order to actually get them into the game, there has to be a bunch of conversations about how we integrate them into the world.”

GRS: “We already touched on this when we talked about the emotional difference between Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, but would you say that there is a narrative difference between the storylets and pathways you could take in Sunless Sea to the ones you can take in Sunless Skies?”

LB: “Definitely. It’s still very much in the same world, we are still using many of the same people that we used to make it, but to give you an idea of the scale, Sunless Sea was made with 5 developers, and that number has now gone up to 18. So, Sunless Skies’ game world is much bigger than the Sunless Sea game world, and it does involve a greater number of writers, so what we’re hoping to have is a much more diverse set of stories than those that were in the original Sunless Sea. That doesn’t mean that Sunless Sea’s stories were not different and diverse, but I think they were much more tighter and specific emotionally because there’s a feeling of loneliness constantly. It’s all leaving Fallen London and hoping to come back to it somewhere or end up dying in the waves somewhere and never seeing your loved ones ever again. Sunless Skies has a bigger emphasis on exploration and on getting involved with this really weird, huge world and less onus on leaving and returning.”

GRS: “Have you ever been worried that the difficulty of the games will be a barrier for people who want to get into the story of the games?”

AM: “Yes, one that we’re quite careful with. The thing that we probably iterated on the most in Sunless Skies’ development is the way that the player’s locomotives move. There are various things that we wanted to achieve with it, we wanted it to support an interesting range of manoeuvrers in combat, for instance, but at the same time, we wanted to make sure that it was possible for people who don’t normally play games which require a high degree of hand-eye coordination to be able to access the story content. So, it’s been a really important part of the design that you can get used to it that way, and also we thought about things like how we can introduce a set of adjustable difficulty scalers that will enable people to customize it to get something as close to the intended experience as possible based on what they bring to the game. So, for instance, it’s not in the Early Access version yet, but you’ll be able to adjust to what percentage the projectiles you fire arc towards their targets. The idea being that we wanted to give players a particular experience, and that experience will be different for people who are used to firing really precisely.

GRS: “What was it about space which made you take the game’s setting there?”

LB: “We’ve always been thinking about the skies, in our original Sunless Sea Kickstarter actually, it was one of the stretch goals that we unfortunately didn’t reach, to be able to go up into the space of the ‘Neath. What it does is it allows us to play with so many more things than we can with Fallen London and Sunless Sea, and I think our writers are really desperately happy that they can now talk about things like light and plants. You’ll notice there is a lot of verdancy going on in the game that you can see right now, and that’s because those things were forbidden because of the world building rules that we established in the previous two games. So, there’s a lot of freedom in terms of the themes that we can play with but also the mechanics, we can now zip around and have multiple degrees of interaction with people. So yeah, it’s a big freedom increase.”

AM: “Another aspect of it is that since the very beginning, a lot of really important actors in the Fallen London universe have been out in the skies. It’s a world where the sun and the stars are responsible for the universe’s laws, they determine the place of every being, their cosmological importance. One of the major sources of conflict in the setting is about the justice of these transcendent beings, dictating to everybody how they get to live, what they have to do and the bounds of what’s possible. So, we thought it was very natural in our next game to go and explore that more directly, so that you weren’t just seeing the consequences of those cosmological struggles in a small part of the setting, so we could observe and take part in them more directly.”

GRS: “Is the game still set in the big cavern called the ‘Neath?”

LB: “No, the idea is that it’s still set in the same Fallen London universe, but it’s slightly chronologically further on than Sunless Sea was, and the same society, this sort of Queen Victoria-led Gothic society, has now left the Unterzee and started populating the skies. I can’t be too specific about this for lore reasons, but it’s not the entirety of society that has moved, there is definitely a vocational decision that has been made.”

AM: “One thing that we find interesting to explore is that it’s not space as we know it today. It’s closer to space as it might have existed in the Victorian imagination.”

GRS: “So, it’s like the Victorian version of 1950s Futurism and what they thought the future and space were going to be like?”

AM: “Well, you know how Fallout is an imagining of what people might have thought of the future after the Second World War when they were worried about the bomb and they had ideas that had no basis in modern science about what radioactivity does? Like creating Super Mutants or Ghouls. We’ve done something similar, it’s not even necessarily that it’s what 1900s era scientists would have thought it was, but it’s more space as it would have infiltrated the imagination of the people of that time.”

GRS: “In the previous two games, the tone has been very dark and downtrodden. Has there been any shifts this time around in tone? Is it still very dark, or is there a glimmer of hope now that plants and light and life have been introduced?”

LB: “So, one of the key things that we talked about when we started talking about themes was the Shackleton expedition and the idea of the Arctic North. What we really like is giving the players the opportunity to succeed against long odds, that the world is fundamentally cold and uncaring, and if you manage to do it, fantastic, but you’re still kind of not important to the world. We compare this to things like, you know in Skyrim when you’re the head of everything? Like the head of the Mages Guild, the head of the Fighters Guild, you save everyone on the planet, and you do everything and that’s great, but it gives you an immense sense of empowerment that we really want players to have to think about in our game. So, it doesn’t mean that you can’t win or that we’re going to kill you unfairly or anything, it does mean that we don’t want people to go into this world feeling like they’re ultra powerful.”

AM: “I think one thing that we aim for in all games in the Fallen London setting is a tone of comic horror. So, we don’t just want it to be a horror story, although there are obviously important horror elements, we still want it to be funny. So, we’ll take a break occasionally from the tentacles and just have someone interrupt your breakfast ceremony where you are diligently eating your kippers, also we try to affectionately parody things sometimes in the same sort of lighthearted way, and that’s in Sunless Skies as well.”


Sunless Skies is out now on Steam Early Access.

*Please note: Every care has been taken to ensure that this transcript perfectly matches the words said by all parties present at the time of the interview. However, Gaming Respawn cannot provide an absolute guarantee that everything above is accurate to the thoughts and opinions expressed by the interviewees. 

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