What precious treasure will you find in Echo Bazaar?

, | Game reviews

Before I get to the downside of Echo Bazaar, a text-based game set in a fantastical Victorian underworld called Fallen London, I want you to know two things. The first is that if you’re going to try Echo Bazaar, the next two days are a perfect opportunity. Trust me on that. I’ll explain later, but suffice to say February 1st and February 2nd are the days to play.

The second thing you should know is that Echo Bazaar isn’t just a text adventure in the same vein as the early Infocom classics. That’s just the basic structure, although with a more modern sensibility about gameplay. What makes this game special is the content: H.P. Lovecraft meets Sherlock Holmes meets Edward Gorey meets Lewis Carroll meets Monty Python. Early Tim Burton wishes he was this weird.

After the jump, the bad news

Echo Bazaar is a free-to-play game that requires either a Facebook or Twitter account. It’s a browser-based game, so you don’t actually play it on Facebook. But you do need an account, and you must give the game permission to post to your account. Note however — and this is hugely important and something I didn’t realize that almost kept me from trying the game — it will never actually post to your account unless you go through a three-step process telling it to post to your account. Echo Bazaar is, by default, entirely silent and it will not nag your friends unless you tell it to nag them.

As you might imagine, it’s also wrapped tightly in the free-to-play business model. You will occasionally be nagged to use “fate points”, which are available for purchase. Some actions, quests, and locations are closed to you until you’ve ponied up actual monies. Without fate points, you can only take forty turns a day, and those have to be spaced out over several hours. Just when you get going, sorry, you’ve used up your daily turns. That’s all the Echo Bazaar you get until tomorrow! But for the next two days, on February 1st and 2nd, Echo Bazaar’s daily turn limit is lifted. You still have to wait for your turns to refresh up to ten at a time, but you can revisit it throughout the day as many times as you like.

So let’s get down to brass tacks. I loathe business models in my gameplay and therefore I loathe most free-to-play games. So why am I recommending Echo Bazaar? Because, make no mistake, that is precisely what I am doing here. You should play Echo Bazaar. It is a fantastic piece of work in spite of — and possibly, just possibly, even because of — its business model.

This is every bit as good as the classic Infocom text adventures. Better, in fact. I don’t remember the writing in those games being this good, although perhaps I was too young to appreciate it. But I don’t think any of the Infocom text adventures visited a place as vividly imagined and darkly memorable as Fallen London. And I know for certain none of the Infocom games had anything resembling the free-form gameplay on which Echo Bazaar is built. Its foundation is a latticework of quests, stats, random events, and inventory items, all of which you navigate by making choices that spread and intertwine like vines. It’s not simply about making numbers go up over time, although that certainly happens. It’s about making mutually exclusive choices. It’s about struggling with madness. It’s about solving mysteries. It’s about choosing factions. It’s about your pick of a lifelong ambition. It’s about building a framework of contacts, quirks, plots, and schemes. It’s about opening a jar of shrieks, deciding what to do with a boxed cat, and trading whispered secrets for ancient mysteries.

For instance, early on, I drew an event card in which I found a wounded man clutching an evil-looking idol. I could help him, wait for someone to come along, take the idol, or chuck the idol in the river. Options are often limited based on your stats, faction connections, inventory, previous choices, and so forth. As I’m playing my character as an upstanding friend of the Church and law-abiding citizen, I threw the idol in the water. In any other game, you would never throw away an inventory item! But Echo Bazaar has plenty of things happening without me messing around with eldritch statues. Besides, my character was already struggling with bad dreams. He’d accumulated a long list of nightmares and they were getting worse. I didn’t need evil idols compounding the problem.

So I went on playing the game over successive days, tracking down missing contessas, investigating furtive golems, befriending urchins, working with the Constabulatory, sharing tea with the Vicar, and moving into a room above a bookshop to give me more options for event cards. For the most part, I’m raising my Watchful stat to help pursue my lifelong goal — an overarching ambition I selected early on — of avenging a murdered loved one.

And today, well over a week since chucking that idol way, I come across an event card in which Special Constables accost me and bring me to a Bristle-Mustached Official from the Ministry of Public Decency investigating some sort of ransacked study. He wants to know what happened to the idol!

I have various options for how to respond based on my stats. As a Watchful character, I explain everything and clear my name, but I mange to steal from the study a Page from the Liber Visionis. I can use this inventory item, which ties into some lore from other quests about a mysterious character called The Face Tailor, to change my appereance at some unspecified cost to my sanity. Or I can just burn the thing. Which I do, easing my nightmares a bit and earning a bump in my austere rating. As I said, I’m playing an upstanding friend of the Church and law-abiding citizen. Is that the end of the evil-looking idol? What I love about Echo Bazaar is that I have no idea.

The key to making this all work is the writing. It is superlative. The developers at Failbetter Games have built a world out of words, every bit as vividly drawn as the worlds built by Rockstar in Red Dead Redemption, or Irrational in Bioshock, or Supergiant in Bastion. Perhaps more so because what I can imagine always looks better than what someone else has to draw. In lieu of screenshots, I’ll share a few bits of text.

At the end of a quest in which I have to investigate the mysterious packages a Starving Poet has been delivering to anarchists:

The Poet meets a skulking gaggle of suspicious figures. You observe the meeting from the shelter of a rat-ridden rubbish heap. He asks a great many excited questions. What are the latest outrages perpetrated by the Masters of the Bazaar? Are the heights of the Flit still safe from the Constables? What is the next target for the next bombing? The Poet’s acquaintances are clearly anarchists, but they’re not telling him much. They’re more interested in the package he’s carrying. He hands it over. They open it to check the contents: pies. The Starving Poet has been starving himself to feed anarchists.

“Skulking gaggle”, “rat-ridden rubbish heap”, and “heights of the Flit” are good enough. But how delicious is it that the solution to this quest is a play on the cliche of the starving artist? Consider the insinuations in this next tidbit, read upon investigating a tattoo artist suspected of passing secret messages through through the tattoos he gives his customers:

Nothing is ever made explicit. Clathermont has three glum triplets who serve as his assistants. Some say they’re his daughters, but you’ve seen him exchange undaughterly kisses with them. Clathermont himself never applies the more esoteric tattoos. Customers give hints to him – ‘How about a motto?’ they say – or ‘I’ve written out lines of a ballad, here’ – or ‘The blind boys say this, don’t they?’ and then his assistants do the actual work.

“Clathermont”, “glum triplets”, “undaughterly”, and “what the blind boys say”? Wonderful. Echo Bazaar has its own unexplained but no less evocative vocabulary. It’s a web of strange words spun into wisps of story. For instance, read this about the snow in Fallen London, a city that exists in an underground cavern and yet still has snow:

There’s a zee-captain down at Wolfstack Docks who claims you can render Neath-snow into white glim on any kitchen stove. I have tried it. I have a pan of goo to show for it. Three of my cats tasted the goo when I left it unobserved a moment too long. The one that lives is locked in the cellar now. I do not expect I will ever dare to release it. I have developed a dislike of zee-captains.

I take 22 minutes out of my week every week to watch Modern Family, a sitcom that’s good about 60% of the time. After a certain point, wathing Modern Family is more habit that conscious choice. I am accustomed to trading 22 minutes of my time for about 13 minutes of lively entertainment. I’m okay with that rate of return on my investment. Echo Bazaar, which tends to sit open in my browser as I work — it’s back there right now — has also moved from choice to habit, and it has an even higher return rate for a much smaller investment. I consistently smile at what I read, and I sometimes even laugh out loud. I’ll even remember much of it. I probably won’t be able to tell you a thing about Final Fantasy XIII-2 in a month. But in a year, ask me about Echo Bazaar’s Starveling Cat and I’ll probably grin fondly.

And as far as habits go, Echo Bazaar isn’t terribly demanding. I can skip a few days and it’s waiting for me, more like a book than an online game. There is no learning curve, and I never have to remember what I was doing. Any time I play, it’s just a matter of reading these snatches of well-written text, responding to them, and letting them elegantly stack more blocks onto my mental picture of Fallen London. Sometimes quests require a bit of grinding to raise a stat. Sometimes you can see the filler. But it’s always that rich text, like the smell of a leather book cover, or the texture of taffy, or the rasp of a cat’s tongue on your hand.

But wouldn’t Echo Bazaar work better if I could gallop through it at my own pace, like an Infocom adventure, or like the similarly built King of Dragon Pass or Darklands? Probably. Would I savor it as much? Maybe not. Am I just casting about for rationales as to why I’m enjoying a free-to-play game? Most likely. Does that in any way detract from the quality of Failbetter Games’ writing, and therefore the heart, bone, muscle, and blood of Echo Bazaar? Not at all.

Echo Bazaar is still in beta after two years. Right now, the developers claim it supports play up to level 120 for each of the four main character stats. After nearly a month of play without spending a dime, I’ve basically got two stats at 30. The social interaction is minimal at this point, far less prominent than the occasional money nag. You can form cliques (“Tom Chick’s clique” is as natural a name for a guild as has ever been suggested in a game!), and certain options are limited to your friends list. For instance, there’s an insidious system of pawning off your nightmares on your friends, not unlike passing along the videotape in The Ring. Character profiles can be pieced together to show a couple of inventory items and a list of events. For instance, here’s my profile where I’ve decided which details to include in my character’s journal. You can join Echo Bazaar from my profile by clicking “Descend into Fallen London” in the upper right. Disclaimer: I get a free in-game cup of coffee if you do this.

But however you come to it — here’s the main page if you want to keep me from another cup of coffee — I heartily encourage you to jump in and let Echo Bazaar carry you for a few sessions. Because, really, isn’t this why we play games? Because we want to participate in stories? If that’s the case, Echo Bazaar is a story you should play, from imaginative people who know how to write memorable things worth reading.

5 stars