The Thing About Echo Bazaar, or Why I Have Over Fifty Tattoos of a Nonexistent AuntMay 11, 2010
I’m’a pretend for a moment you haven’t heard everyone and the plastic thing that keeps people from tampering with their milk jug talking about Echo Bazaar, and tell you about Echo Bazaar. It is a free browser game with absolutely one of the best settings of any game I’ve ever played, indie or commercial — sort of a tongue-in-cheek Victorian post-miniature-apocalypse. A bit Lovecraft meets Edward Gorey for tea on Baker Street. I can’t explain in coherent sentences what is so great about this, but trust me, it kicks some damn ass.
The backstory isn’t really explained as much as it sidles up to you and hisses cryptic expository morsels through a mouth full of forked tongues before seducing you in the back of a hansom cab and making off with your handkerchief, which I think was an excellent choice. (Being coy with the backstory, I mean, definitely not stealing my handkerchief. You have no idea what kind of diseases are on my handkerchief. Actually, I don’t either; I just ordered a random assortment. I think the one with the nougat might be chlamydia.)
The writing comes in anecdotes, most of which are pretty good. (I’m particularly fond of the Iron Hat’s description: “You can’t go wrong with an iron hat. Except that you look ridiculous. This is a problem, certainly” and the letters you write home from the tomb-colonies when you’re exiled there for being too scandalous. This happens to me fairly often, probably because of all that chlamydia.*)
The art is not amazing, but it’s perfectly good art and fits the tone. You will notice I have yet to A) say anything bad about the game or B) mention gameplay. Honestly, I’m sort of loath to be really scathing, since Echo Bazaar’s creator has admitted that the gameplay is not really its strong point. (He thinks the strong point is the writing, though. It isn’t. It’s the setting. The writing’s pretty good, but if it got into a fistfight with the setting the setting would punch the writing’s liver up into its sinus cavity so hard that milk it hadn’t even drunk yet would squirt out its nose. Fucking magic future space milk. Actually I guess that’d work better as a fantasy scenario for laughing really hard than getting punched, but fuck it, I already wrote “I think the one with the nougat might be chlamydia.” That’s a pretty good sentence. I’m phoning the rest in.)
Anyway. The gameplay. It’s very simple. You have four main stats, each of which unlocks little story challenges. (By “challenge” I mean “stat roll.”) For (made-up) example, you might be given the option to follow a hermaphrodite with a raven into the back door of a seedy nightclub. The game tells you how difficult (from straightforward to almost impossible) this task will be before you choose to roll, which is nice of it. Should you succeed, you’re rewarded with stat gain, in one of the four main stats (most often in the stat you used for the roll) and/or otherwise (many things in this game are tracked as stats, including quest progress), and/or items. Whether you fail or succeed you’re rewarded with an interesting chunk of writing, which is another Good Thing About the Game.
The interesting thing about items in Echo Bazaar is that there is, at least as far as I can tell, no such thing as vendor trash. (“Vendor trash” is the term for items that only exist to be sold. Why NPC vendors want to buy this crap is a mystery for the ages.) Conceptually, I find this sexy. In practice, I never have any idea what’s safe to sell, except that whatever I decide to sell won’t be it. (Fuck you, candles.) This would be mitigated somewhat if money ever straight-up dropped, but no, you’re expected to obtain all your titular echoes from the titular bazaar, which I suppose is titular fair enough. Also, the functionality of most items is limited to being able to turn large numbers of them in to unlock shiny new content (sometimes without warning; fuck you, candles), which makes them less sexy than they could be. (Fuck you, candles.)
Pretty much everything that bothers me about the game, though, comes down to this: Echo Bazaar is a couple hours of intense awesome fun separated out into seventy-seven thousand tiny portion-control cups. You get one action — one stat roll — every seven minutes, capped at ten. Getting to the next interesting part frequently involves a shit-ton of stat-grinding or item-farming. These two factors combined mean that while the game as a whole is entertaining and compelling, almost every individual play session is boring as hell. (Impressive thing to pull off, really.)
There were some things I really liked about the gameplay, though, so we may as well make this a compliment sandwich. For one thing, I always felt there were more things I wanted to do than I had time for. Also, I really enjoyed getting a little statlet that not only notched my belt when I’d achieved something, but was actually relevant to the story later. (I think the notching, if not necessarily the relevance, should happen more often, and appear on your profile. For example, I have had a threesome with a melancholy curate and his enigmatic “sister,” and if I didn’t bring it up in absolutely every conversation I’d ever had with anybody about anything, no one would know. This is awful.)
The game also gets points for being mostly non-combat, which I feel is novel enough to award points for. (It’s interesting how often gameplay consists of “you are a dude and you kill the everloving shit out of these other dudes.” Makes me wonder what sort of games a more highly-evolved, peaceful species would play, if they played games at all. Candyland, maybe. “Oh, you won again, congratulations.” “Yes, but we all know the victory was entirely chance-based and arbitrary and it means nothing.” “I know. I was merely voicing the proscribed societal niceties. Let us now exchange handjobs.”)
Anyway. If you would like to be my Echo Bazaar friend, my throwaway Twitter account handle is jennisvagina. (The story behind this is quite short but not particularly good.) I haven’t been playing very often since I got to the end of [the part that had actually been written for] my ambition, but I would be happy to let you whisper your nightmares into my pony canyon. (No shouting, though. You should never shout into a vagina lest you give the girl an embolism. No kidding.)
* Chlamydia is the inherently funniest word for a sexually transmitted disease. Some people think “spleen” is the inherently funniest word for an internal organ, but these people are wrong. The correct answer is “duodenum.” If you’re reading this footnote immediately after finding out this footnote existed, I am about to pass up a chance to say “duodenum,” because I’m also about to say “magic future space milk,” and sometimes the walls have to be beige to let the fuchsia curtains pop. There you go. There is your writing tip for the evening. You’re welcome.