How we write impactful stories in Fallen London, Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies


Registered Developer
Dec 30, 2019
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We've compiled the following for you from our many years of experience in writing narrative games in the Fallen London Universe (Fallen London, Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies) and working on other properties with strong writing (like Dragon Age: The Last Court, a tie-in game which we made for Bioware, and which you can play for free in the DA keep).

How does our writing process work?

We have a team of four writers internally, and a stable of freelance writers who we call on to write either for specific topics or themes which we think they would be the best fit for, or where we have a lot happening and need some support.

We have a very collaborative process in which the story is proposed, pitched, outlined, drafted, edited, reviewed, revised, quality analysed and revised again. When working with an external writer, we see it as our role to provide the support they need to do their best work. That varies by writer. If a writer is less confident on the Fallen London economy, for example, we'll provide mechanical support. If they'd like help to pin down an effective use of choice and consequence in the game, we'll support them with what we've learned from stories in the past. We have very good relationships with our freelance writers, though it is extremely hard work.

How do we write memorable stories?

The stories which we create most often are the Exceptional Stories for our Fallen London subscribers. These are monthly stories which can be played through in one go, or savoured if you prefer. You can apply the same kind of advice to the ‘island’ approach we had in Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, or any piece of interactive fiction which you want to be more short story than novel.

The following is part of a guide which we created for our freelance writers to help them pitch and execute stories which would be exciting and memorable for our community. It’s really easy for a piece of interactive fiction to run away with you, so this is our advice to help you stay on target for a piece that’s manageable to write - it’s not to say that you shouldn’t go wild with extra side-characters or locations! But remember, interactive fiction content multiplies exponentially, and the player will only ever see a fraction of it.

Where to begin?
  • Focus is the priority: decide what your story is about early. Choose which aspects of the setting it's using, and focus on a key character or location within that story.
  • Decide at the outset how long you want the story to be. Remember to account for branches that are needed to pace the story or help link one scene to another. It's easy to underestimate how many branches you'll need if you're just focusing on the key scenes, and not enough on how they connect together.
  • Create an outline spreadsheet. Break your story down into storylets and branches in the spreadsheet. This will give you a better sense of how long the story is going to be. You might be surprised at how much of our writing relies on spreadsheets! Note: If you haven’t seen the term ‘storylet’ before, Richard Cobbett’s PC Gamer article about them from a while back is very illuminating.
  • If you’re writing in a team, as you create storylets in the content tool you’re using, add links to them in your outline spreadsheet. This will make it easier for others to easily find everything when editing, reviewing and testing.

How do we avoid scope creep?

Scope creep is, in short, allowing yourself to add cool things until you suddenly have something that’s too big for purpose, or that will take longer to write and polish than the time you have.

  • Avoid complicated plots: This is something to work out at the pitch stage – identify the core strand of your story; make sure all elements support that core. Excise extraneous details.
  • Limit your choices: Decide on your endings, and what needs to happen in the story to justify them. Direct the player's decisions towards them. Avoid introducing additional choices when writing that might dilute the story
  • Beware significant 'interstitial' content: Beware of adding locations, characters, or bridging sections which don't contribute to the main story.
  • Avoid Multiple characters with complex motives: Other characters should be used to shed light on your main character, add flavour to a location, or present obstacles for the player to overcome.
  • Beware temptation: Be wary of structures that duplicate branches, then make minor changes to them to represent the player's choices. Even if you're mostly copy/pasting text from another branch, these copies still take time to create, still need revisions to be made in response to editing and quality analysis, and often complicate testing and support.

What's the centrepiece of your story?

There are three kinds of central element to an Exceptional Story: character, place or situation. We pick one, and make it the centre of the story. (All of the example stories quoted below are available to buy from Fallen London's Fate page, if you’d like to really dig in!)

1. Character Stories
These might feature an established character or a brand new one. There isn't room for multiple well-developed, multi-layered characters with attached compelling choices in an Exceptional Story. Focus on a single character and their journey through contact with the player. Treat it as a character study.

If you want to see some good examples of character stories in Fallen London, look for: Written in the Glim (the Astrologer), For All the Saints (the Deacon) or Cut With Moonlight (the Graduate).

2. Location-Based Stories
These stories focus on exploring a single exciting location: in Fallen London, we like these to be somewhere under-used, new or enticing. It could be a familiar area that has been made unfamiliar during the events of the story by a particular event happening there (like a festival or a fair). It could be a brand new area. It could be a place connected to somewhere more established. The story could take place entirely within that location, or use it as a centrepiece of events.

Good location-based stories in Fallen London include All Things Must End (Tanah-Chook), The Century Exhibition (a one-time festival) and The Sinking Synod.

3. Situation-Based Stories
These involve a particular scenario which must be resolved, endured or investigated. In the past, these stories have covered social events, conflicts between factions, colourful contests, illegal trades, etc. They focus on the player's experience of a situation and the complications that arise from it.

It might be about a new, temporary event happening in or near London (like in The Chimney-Pot War, when the urchin-gangs go to war with each other). Or it might be an opportunity to immerse the player in a discrete aspect of life in the Neath (like in The Final Curtain, where the player has to put on a play while skullduggery is occuring).

Some examples of good situation-based stories in Fallen London are Bones of London, The Pentecost Predicament and The Persona Engine.

What seasoning can you add?

In addition to choosing one of the above, we use a couple of these supporting elements to act as seasoning:

  • Enticing lore – adding to existing mysteries, or developing aspects of the setting players are keen to learn more of
  • Guest-stars – an appearances by one or more established characters
  • Referencing player decisions from elsewhere in Fallen London
  • Unique activities – allowing the player to involve themselves in things they don't normally get a chance to (especially if these are activities generally under-used in videogames)

Exceptional Stories don't try and include all of these elements, but use one or two to enhance the story they're telling.

1. Enticing Lore
Focusing on lore means exploring and enriching the setting. It might be a chance to further explore an established mystery. It might elaborate on, explore, or address an underused element of the setting. One way into this: have we posed a question and never answered it, referenced a place but never been, or introduced a character you wanted to see fleshed out?

2. Unique Activities
These allow a player to take on a role or engage in an action not explored elsewhere in the game. The player will be delighted by the new activity, and it's an opportunity to show a different part of the setting or an alternate perspective.

3. Established Characters
The appearance of an established character can be an effective surprise. It's also exciting for players, especially if we use familiar characters in unexpected ways. Examples: the Bishop of Southwark turns out to be entangled in the events of a story. Madame Shoshana, fortune teller, acting as the 'quest-giver' – involved, but not centre-stage. Exceptional Stories are a good way to use characters who have lot of lore/complications elsewhere, as they can take part but don't have to be the focus of the story. Their presence and personality is enough by itself. They require less introduction and come with existing connections to other aspects of the setting.

4. Referencing Earlier Decisions
Players get excited when they are presented with alternate choices (and sometimes pathways) that are unlocked by decisions they made or qualities they acquired outside the Exceptional Story. This can include having a particular companion, a prestige quality (like having studied a particular language), a particular Profession, a quirk (like Heartless or Magnanimous), or a specific relationship. It could even include a decision made in an earlier Exceptional Story. You only need one or two of these in a single story. More significant use should be treated as a feature and major component of your story.

From these foundations, we work up a story and run it through our editorial process, as described at the outset of this post! I hope the advice has been of interest. If you have any questions about games writing, we'll have further threads on it this week, and feel free to leave questions for our writing team in this thread.


Registered Developer
Jan 8, 2020
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Hi @sward!

We use a bunch of tools:
  • We have a 137-page long (and growing) lore document that we add to as time goes on. This contains bullet-point distillations of our lore, organised into categories and ranked by secrecy.
  • We use Jira to manage workflow, In a studio-specific configuration built specifically for our working practices by our producer, Stuart.
  • We are increasingly using Confluence, Jira's companion information-storage system, to store briefs, outlines, design docs, etc. This allows us to easily link them to tasks in Jira.
  • When we pitch a story, before writing, we outline each step and player decision in a spreadsheet, along with information on the variables it uses. The entries are all links, to easily access the specific bits of conTent in our CMS
  • And our Content Management System itself is a massive record of everything we've written, and has recently been equipped with improved search tools that allow us to search for text, or variables across every bit of the game.
  • Notebooks. Lots of notebooks. I am big on notebooks.
Jan 15, 2020
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I've only been playing Fallen London for a couple of months, but the writing never fails to hook me. Not just because it's funny (it's hilarious), or a little creepy (wonderfully odd)...but also for those unexpected moments of genuine emotion the writers so skillfully evoke.
Everyone involved clearly cares about their craft, and telling immersive stories, and I love it. Love it.


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