[In this analysis, writer and designer Emily Short explores Fail Better Games' web-based card game Echo Bazaar, whose disciplined writing and consistent world make up for its grinding tendencies.]
Echo Bazaar, a web-based card game by UK firm Fail Better Games is a social grind game. Gameplay [here's a review with screenshots] consists of choosing trivial tasks to improve one's stats at four skills: Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive, and Shadowy. Grinding also typically produces loot of some kind, which can be sold at the Bazaar for weapons and stat-improving hats and other similar trinkets; and players can also work on short-term and long-term goals (called Ambitions).
Success at these tasks depends on chance and your existing stats, which means that you can increase the likelihood of success on a particular challenge by devoting more effort to stat-building beforehand.
There are only a certain number of actions available in a given day, with a maximum of ten available at any given time; that number can be increased by tweeting an ad for Echo Bazaar (once per day at maximum), or by purchase. That structure means that gameplay is more or less a resource-management problem, with more resources available for real money. The player's agency is all about deciding which goals sound interesting enough to spend actions on.
That's not the description of a game I would expect to like. I have little patience for games that are mostly grinding, and I also like to be engaged with a game when I'm playing it, focused on the story and structure -- and then done when I'm done. Games that force you to string out the gameplay over many days tend to attenuate the pacing to the point of tedium. (I've yet to find a real-time game like Virtual Villagers that I get along with either.)
I had some of those issues with Echo Bazaar, too, but I'm still playing with it.
So far Echo Bazaar is a game almost entirely about setting. The premise is that London has at some stage -- perhaps during the Victorian Era -- fallen. It is now an underground, infernal environment, where mushrooms instead of flowers decorate the hats, where bats and weasels are the most common sorts of pet, where the demonic and the undead can be found at afternoon tea. Con artists wear lace gloves to increase their plausibility. The vestiges of old London -- the street signs, the currency -- are forbidden and are rapidly being censored away.
The idea of an alternative, semi-demonic London is not exactly novel, but Echo Bazaar's version continues to appeal to me for two reasons.
First: the quality of the prose. Even very text-oriented games aren't always solid in this department. The writers of Echo Bazaar use concrete nouns and active verbs. They don't abuse adjectives. They have a sense of rhythm.
"Unfinished Men are Clay Men who lack something - sight, a voice, a hand, conscience, obedience. You can't really tell a crippled Clay Man from an Unfinished Man, except that ordinary Clay Men are never criminals. The distinction, unfortunately, often evades Constables and citizens alike."
Notice the way the number of syllables increases through the elements of the list, "sight, a voice, a hand, conscience, obedience". Notice that that list doesn't end with the obviously chilling "conscience", but with the more interesting "obedience". Notice how "Constables and citizens alike" sounds much better than "both Constables and citizens", because "alike" gives us a firm ending on an emphasized syllable.
This is not pyrotechnic prose, with lots of flashy words and obvious rhetorical figures. It's something better: it's disciplined.
The structure of Echo Bazaar really requires that the text be worth reading, because the short descriptions of missions and their outcomes (and of objects to buy at the Bazaar) are the chief reward for interaction; there are illustrations, but they are more limited in number and contribute more to style than to content.
Moreover, the text comes in small pieces, from a single sentence to a short paragraph. Not every one of these pieces is individually memorable, but most are fairly effective, hinting at a larger world and more depth than the player can immediately see.
The second point: despite my apprehensions, the world building feels reasonably consistent. I was afraid on first playing that it would be a grab-bag of images and concepts that had struck the authors as cool, with no connecting tissue. After playing for several weeks, I'm still not certain how much core world-building was done, but the new tidbits that I learn do seem to fit; the structure doesn't feel slapdash.
I think an engine like this could be used for something plottier. So far, though, such plot as there is is provided by the various long-term and short-term goals. These are pretty linear: the player has little control over how their pursuits turn out, only on whether they make progress.
Characters tend to be generic archetypes rather than specific individuals, too: you're generally casing "a jeweler's shop" or making up to "a rich widow", not robbing or seducing a specific person. This makes the story feel oddly lonely even though most game activities are about social interactions of one kind or another.
So it's the writing and the world that keep me tinkering around with Echo Bazaar weeks after I was initially invited to look at it. I am still having fun dipping into the environment it provides, and the daily time investment to do so is slight enough that I can forgive the slightness of the gameplay.
Disclosure: As a reviewer, I received free in-game currency (ordinarily available for pay), enabling me to see more of the game more quickly.
[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]