Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Echo Bazaar: Social Gaming, RPG Style

Social gaming has been the "hot" trend in online games for the last couple years or so, much to to chagrin of longtime traditional-style gamers. It's easy to look down on Farmville, or Frontierville, or CafeWorld or whatever it is all my aunts and cousins are playing these days. I can be a painfully casual gamer (I own just about every PopCap game) and tend towards games with a social component (hence my love of MMOs), yet I never could get into any of those Facebook offerings. Maybe it was the lousy graphics that turned me off. Maybe it was just the idea of giving any app on Facebook permission to touch my personal information. Or maybe it was my inane need to feel cool and hate on things that are popular.

Fortunately for me, social gaming isn't just for that terribly invasive social network anymore, and it's gone from casual home- or cafe-building into a game reminiscent of a true role-playing adventure. All that I needed to become a social gamer was one that would appeal to my inner MMO addict; one with an amazing RPG world and that "just a little while longer" stat-grinding goodness. Let me introduce you to Echo Bazaar from Failbetter Games, my little indie social gaming guilty pleasure.

Echo Bazaar is, essentially, the acid-laced offspring of those old Choose Your Own Adventure novels and Progress Quest. The game itself isn't exactly a technical or graphical marvel; instead, you'll be doing a lot of reading. Time spent in this browser-based game consists of clicking through dialog boxes and watching a bar move from left to right before leveling up and starting the bar-moving process all over again, only slower the next round. Anyone who's ever played an MMO knows this bar-filling paradigm depressingly well, and outside of the MMO framework, it feels pretty dry if all you're looking to do is become more powerful as fast as you can. (Speaking of which, if you're the type that skips the quest text and gets annoyed by in-game dramas playing out before you can take on the raid boss, this would probably be your exit from the article.)

The rest of us, though, should be doing that aforementioned reading thing, because the world of Echo Bazaar is delightfully narrated and fully alive, despite lacking the virtual space to which many of us have become accustomed. The descriptions of the strange alternate reality that is Fallen London are fascinating, sometimes sarcastic and dry-witted, and almost always dark and menacing for reasons just beyond the veil of your understanding.

Your entrance into this world occurs in a most disorienting manner. You're in prison. You don't know how or why. You receive no background story, save a strange silhouette of your chosen gender; you don't even know who you are. All you know is that you need to set yourself about the task of getting out.

Once you do escape your prison and begin developing your traits in the outside world, only then will you know what has brought you to this city in the depths. Typical RPG-style traits such as strength or intelligence have no bearing here; instead, it is how Dangerous, Persuasive, Shadowy, or Watchful you are that matters. Each of the early starting locations focuses on one of these traits, and you can use your time here to try your hand at repetitive tasks to grind up your levels.

Which of these you choose to focus on - and you can choose to level any or all of them at once if you like, with no restrictions - is what will truly begin to introduce your story to you. It shouldn't take too long before you're rewarded for your increasing level of a trait through your very first real choice: the choice of a motivation.

This is where the "Choose Your Own Adventure" aspect of Echo Bazaar really starts to shine. Are you hunting for exceptionally dangerous and mysterious prey? Or are you tracking down someone who is deserving of your vengeance? This game does not tell you who you are and why you exist - you, as the player, decide that. I found this to be a delicious departure from the forced storytelling route that a lot of RPG games tend to take. This is an opt-in system, where you can choose from the available options, or choose not to, instead of being hand-held through a contrived backstory to provide you a proper motivation. This requires players to have a strong and flexible imagination, but in the long run feels more satisfying and personal as your character begins to reflect your own design.

Echo Bazaar also provides many quest-like side-stories in the form of opportunities, a constantly refilling stack of cards of which you can only hold a few at a time. Some are short, minor diversions, such as a choice to either help a doddering old man home, or to rob him. Others are more overarching: reoccurring dream sequences are common theme, or chances to cash in on the karma you've built up with various sundry groups.

How you choose to complete these opportunities provides your character with many of his or her personality traits. Assisting someone without reward might earn you the Magnanimous trait. Taking advantage of the trust of someone that loves you might get you labeled Heartless. Your approach to problems can also earn you traits; if you choose to quietly wait or circumvent challenges, you could be considered Subtle.

The social gaming part of Echo Bazaar takes place through Twitter. Anyone with a Twitter account can play for free (and Twitter's free too), but it really helps if you have some friends willing to dive into Fallen London with you. When you invite a friend over for dinner or a chess game, you receive bonuses that help you achieve challenges and increase your reputation.

As any of my Twitter followers might have noticed, allowing Echo Bazaar to tweet one of the many clever descriptions on its sidebar helps you too. Echo Bazaar is turn-based, and you only get so many turns a day; it is a free game, after all, and this keeps server load down and prevents you from blowing through the content too fast. However, tweeting about the game once a day gives you a little refill on turns, and lets you play for just a little bit longer.

And trust me, the longer you play, the more you want that refill. Echo Bazaar is a greatly addicting little time-waster, and I'm probably just as bad now as my Farmville-playing extended family. To tell the truth, though, I don't really mind. I'd love to see more expansion into the social gaming market if every offering was as deep of an experience as my one in Fallen London.

P.S. If anyone decides to try out Echo Bazaar, feel free to add me on Twitter so we can play chess or do shadowy things together.

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