Interview: Alexis Kennedy | SUNLESS SEA

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Failbetter Games are best known for their award-winning browser based story adventure game, Fallen London, which lets people explore a version of Victorian London which has fallen into hell. Starburst caught up with the writer and creator of the game, Alexis Kennedy, to talk about their latest project, Sunless Sea.

For those unfamiliar, tell us a bit about Fallen London...

Fallen London is the game we’re best known for and has been running for four years. It’s got a couple of hundred thousand players. What we’ve realised over those four years is that a lot of the game mechanics are rather pedestrian, so we’ve been looking for a way to tell the story of Fallen London in a different way.

We’ve already done a comic and it was met with an enthusiastic response; we did have a publisher lined up but that didn’t work out. We asked our fans what they’d like to see as a Kickstarter, and an Elite style, top down trading game came back as the preferred option, so that’s what we’re doing. We audience tested Sunless Sea with our fan-base very far in advance and we got some really good feedback, such as realising that most of our US audience don’t know what Elite is.

How similar will Sunless Sea be to Fallen London?

The main difference is the interface; ships sailing around a lightless ocean. It’s more of a visual/sensory experience than Fallen London. We showed video to one of our testers and they pointed out that it looks a lot like the early Grand Theft Auto and GTA: Chinatown Wars in the way you explore the world, unlike Fallen London which is pretty much a text only game.  There will be actual movie images; this is the first time we’ve had animation in our games.  In terms of what’s the same, we have a very distinctive style which I think is sardonic, gently observed and quite dark and that, from the early feedback we’ve got so far, really comes through.

We’re also importing, wholesale, the Storylet Engine from Fallen London. Little self contained situations and nuggets of story will appear and require you to make a choice and it effects what happens later. So for example, if you run out of supplies, rather than the game being over your hunger starts to rise and storylets will pop up about the increasingly desperate measures your crew starts taking; people jumping overboard, cannibalism, mutiny, that sort of thing.  So you get a story that’s made up of lots of tiny little bits which assemble to make a larger clockwork whole is something that should be familiar to Fallen London players.

The mechanics include things like trading and negotiation, so you could hug a sea monster if you want.  They all wind back into the story; for example if you pick up zoological specimens from an encampment and decide to bring them back home, those specimens might escape. In which case you may find yourself resolving storylets that evoke the feel of the movie Aliens. It’s not just about fighting a succession of indentikit monsters and just defeating them to get the loot. Some of these will become adversaries, emissaries or even obsessions. You may find yourself fighting a white whale, and it escapes to come back again and again until you get a climactic showdown; though you could break the story early on if you wish.

Should we expect the same level of storytelling and humour from Sunless Sea that we expect from Fallen London.

Enormously so. You may be familiar with Bartle’s Taxonomy of Players; you get explorers, killers, socialisers and achievers. We always felt that with Fallen London players tend to fall across the explorer axis, and that’s certainly where the creative team comes from; poking about a world, finding the interesting stories in it and exploring the nooks and crannies. That’s one of the reasons we went for a world assembled through tiles rather procedurally generated ones. We love the idea that when you’re exploring, you don’t just come across a slightly unusual rock formation or a slightly awkward trade route, you instead find a city built on a turtles shell or a lost Mongolian empire or town composed entirely of sentient monkeys. All these sort of things mean that there will be always something else to discover at the edge of the map.

Will the mysteries in Fallen London carry on into Sunless Sea?

They are probably three maybe four core mysteries in Sunless Sea which touch on existing mysteries  in Fallen London. The Dawn Machine and its relationship with the admirality is a big one and ties back into the main theme of light and darkness.

Would you describe the two games as steampunk?
I have a difficult relationship with the word steampunk, because as a genre, steampunk tends to be one of optimism, chrome and polished brass. Fallen London is gothic in the literary sense of the word, it’s the eruption into everyday life of the dark and chaotic, and how people deal with that.  So I was quite precious for a very long time about not calling Fallen London steampunk, but so many enthusiasts are keen on it.  Ultimately we have clockwork and goggles and we are set in the Victorian era so it’s futile to fight it. Andrew Eldritch has gone on record saying that the Sisters of Mercy aren’t a goth band, but everyone else has decided that they are. I think Fallen London is a bit like that, maybe in some sense it’s true.  Sunless Sea is probably more steampunk because it’s populated with steam ships.

The art is very distinctive, and your mention that Sunless Sea will have animation. What should we expect?
The keyword is painted. A little bit cartoony in a slightly grotesque way. Sort of if Edward Gorey had gone to work for Pixar. One of the key features of Fallen London was silhouettes and we use those again with Sunless Sea. Because it’s a top down game you get this sense of a particularly macabre dollhouse, and it looks like it’s been painted, rather than rendered on the 3D engine.

You’ve got the browser game, you’ve done a webcomic and the video game is currently in the works; what other media would you like to use to tell tales of Fallen London?

More games; games are our heritage. Films or short films would be great to do, but it’s not something that we really have funding for at the moment.

If you were trapped on a desert island with only a book for company, what would that book be?

The Desolation Road by Ian McDonald.

Who or what are your main sources of inspiration?

David Lynch is a god, though you’d be pressed to find Lynchian influence directly in our work. He’s the granddaddy in terms of enticing symbolist narrative, a dream like air and the strong themes of sex and death. The fathers of Steampunk, people like Tim Powers and James Blaylock, I love to bits. King of Dragon Pass is also a big influence on us.

Zeppelins or Rocket Ships?


Simpsons or Futurama?


Sherlock Holmes or James Bond?

Mycroft Holmes.

Truth or Beauty?

The two are indivisible.

The Kickstarter Campaign for SUNLESS SEA is running now, and can be found at:

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