News

The Mysterious and Indistinct Art of Pronouns

By Hannah Flynn, March 9, 2016 · Fallen London Sunless Sea

This is a little bit of Fallen London history with a juicy bit of news at the end.

Fallen London is somewhat known for its third gender option:

gender options

This is reflective of a personal experience of our founder, Alexis. His name is often taken for a female name in the US, to the consternation of event organisers and internet strangers. This inspired him to include an option in Fallen London that was basically a ‘bugger off’ to people asking about gender.

This is a fairly humble beginning for an element of Fallen London which has become much-loved by players of mysterious and indistinct gender. It is simply wonderful to us that people still screengrab and share the signup screen, six years down the line.

The way the real world has handled pronouns has changed a lot in the last six years. As a text adventure/literary RPG, we have some specific uses of pronouns which have perhaps not stood the test of time very well. Take this example:

1) Male character:

You invite the urchin in. “Nice place, Sir. Very nice. I like how it’s got, like, a roof. Also walls.”

2) Female character:

You invite the urchin in. “Nice place, Madam. Very nice. I like how it’s got, like, a roof. Also walls.”

3) Character of mysterious and indistinct gender:

You invite the urchin in. “Nice place, ah, Si-, er, Mad-, er, yes. Very nice. I like how it’s got, like, a roof. Also walls.”

We’ve had dozens of support tickets both in support of and criticising the ‘yes/er’ pronoun replacement. Some people have loved it, and some have told us that it makes them uncomfortable. It’s clear from the mixed feedback that this language is still malleable: it’s highly a personal matter.

In Sunless Sea, we iterated on our gender options: the game isn’t interested in what gender you are, asking instead for your preferred form of address (“Your actual gender is up to you”).

This caused us a few headaches when trying to write the option to have children when the game doesn’t know about the reproductive equipment of either of the people involved – but we figured it out, and it led to things like this delightful family:

littlegumshoe
This art by tumblr user littlegumshoe was captioned: “this is my cute family in sunless sea, i cant believe im an actual gender neutral character w/ a trans boyfriend and a child. and its all completely canon i cant believe it”

Learning from what we implemented for Sunless Sea has led us to making some changes in Fallen London that will come into effect this week:

  • The ‘er- ah- um- yes’ pronoun will be replaced.
  • The game will get out of the way of your character’s gender, and take the Sunless Sea approach of asking for your preferred form of address.
  • We’re adding lots of new titles (some of which will be unlockable, depending on profession and other factors).
  • As with the recent Making Your Name changes, established players will be given an option to choose a new preferred form of address.
  • The character sign-up screen will be the same, and you’ll still be a Person of Mysterious and Indistinct Gender on your profile.

Please as ever, send your thoughts and feedback to feedback@failbettergames.com. We relish hearing from you, and we hope that these changes will only enhance your experience of Fallen London!

26 Comments

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Citizen Thane Jan 3, 10:03am

I'm a bit late for this article, writing my comment here from the very start of 2021, but I found the link to this while browsing the web reading up on Failbetter Games' approach to gender in Sunless Seas/Skies, and was delighted to see that they had written an article improving the use of neutral pronouns in their first game. It was a bit disheartening to scroll down and read all of the snarky comments though, so I thought that as another person of the mysterious and indistinct gender myself, who is in full support of these changes (from the future, mind you), I wanted to throw in my two echoes on the matter. TL;DR: The "er-um" pronouns are cute and fun for some, but for me and others like me, they are an awkward and tiring reminder of the Otherness we constantly encounter when our terms of address come up in real life, and it's far more relaxing and enjoyable to read a story where the dialogue both flows smoothly AND incorporates your nonspecific gender in a way that feels just as natural as he/him and she/her pronouns do. A lot of people seem disappointed by the removal of the quirky inclusion of the "er- ah- um-, yes" pronouns, and the resulting awkward acceptance to whatever esoteric gender you had conceptualized being. It's cute, and it feels good to play in a world where people will back down from that immediate confusion with acceptance- maybe because in real life, so many people don't quite receive that sort of reaction. Or maybe just because it's funny. But for me, when I play the Sunless Seas/Skies games and have the game ask for my address, and smooth over my gender, as WELL as include characters of nonbinary and binary trans identities, it feels really nice to exist in the headspace of a world where I don't have to pay attention to my gender at all. Not that my gender or lack of isn't important to who I am as a person and how I view myself-- just that, for people who have stuck with their assigned gender and who "look" like it, they've never had to have the experience where another person doesn't know how to refer to them, in that way. It's smooth sailing, and there's no awkward hiccups in conversation like that-- no frequent reminders about how you are Different, and the overwhelming amount of others simply don't understand you, even if they are patiently willing to. The subtle feeling of Belonging that the pronoun system of all three of Failbetter Games's productions so far has given me is one that stays with me. To this day, it's the only game franchise I've ever played where I've been allowed to not only be non- or third-gendered (as in games like Undertale and Hollow Knight for example, who gender the player neutrally by default), but also allow me the choice to choose that for myself above other options. And then, have other entities in the games simply wordlessly and menially accept my own pronoun choice without any issue at all? It grants such a sense of control and belonging that I'll never have in real life, even in vast majority of understanding of spaces. The "er-ah" address is funny, but in real life it's a tiring reminder, and it's a relief to exist in a game-space where you can be "Other" and also accepted. That's one of the joys of fantasy, after all. This is long and, once again, five years late, but I wanted to leave something somewhere thanking the studio for the work they've done, and the improvements they are continuing to make. For everyone who is upset about the changes in media which, although done for the better, had meaning for you-- you're certainly allowed to be sad over it! Since so many people are attached to the old dialogue, I hope it did end up being kept! But I'd invite you to think twice before writing ever other person off as "a bunch of entitled twats", to quote the most aggressive comment here. So if anyone stuck through reading all of this, maybe you have a better understanding of the other side of responses now. I wish everyone a great new year (as good as we can get this time around...), and I'm so excited for more news on the front of Mask of the Rose! :-)

Jay May 30, 10:57am

*rolleyes at people that are bothered by these changes* I don't see how modifying the title to be less blundersome intrudes upon your fantasies of being a genderless squidface, in fact I'd argue that it fits better, and would reflect how this society would have naturally adapted its language to be able to refer to these mysterious supernatural beings, in addition to nonbinary humans. As someone who is nonbinary, I was never terribly bothered by the stammering confusion in lieu of a proper title (indeed, I've had a few similar experiences in real life, and I find it quite amusing when people are forced to reassess their deeply ingrained worldviews). But I would certainly better appreciate a language that reflects acceptance, rather than confusion. I am glad that, slowly but surely, we are moving beyond confusion and narrow-minded rejection. (Though, with recent surge in the polarisation of the annoying conservative vs progressive dichotomy... *sigh*.)

Awwwww... May 4, 12:18pm

I really thought I was choosing to be Cthulu at the start, and find it strange and slightly uncomfortable that I've been arbitrarily relegated from tentacled Lovecraftian horror to some kind of politicised gender thingy.

Yet another squidface Mar 24, 5:18pm

I really love the "er- ah- um- yes" bit! I completely understand why it would be unpleasant for many others, and I have no issue with you wanting to do even better by giving people more options. However, I'm gonna stick with that one when I get to choose, so thank you for having introduced me to the emotional high of feeling like a humble eldritch monster faffing about in a fascinating town. I never knew pronouns could be this fun, and I'm glad I signed up before I would have had to rely on my boring imagination.

Matt Mar 14, 5:07pm

You can thank English for not having convenient gender-neutral titles that don't come off as aloof and distant. The stammering approach made perfect sense in that context. A compromise might be to just not use any address at all. Allowing the player to pick their own address is reasonable, except that it still won't add an appropriate word to English, meaning it will come off as a little odd that everyone else in the world magically knows whatever forced title you come up with instead.

bandaged colonist Mar 14, 1:13am

what a bunch of entitled twats they are, i wish you had kept it but if you wish to change it then i will support you your whole way through

Beliyaal Mar 13, 3:11pm

Not to nitpick (except totally to nitpick) what you're talking about in this article aren't pronouns, they're titles. Pronouns are things like "he", "she", and "they" (or neopronouns like "xe" and "hir").

Glubbert Mar 13, 1:37pm

My problem with 'er - ah - um - yes...' is how it often doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the line (threats, for example) or is just really out of character for many fl personages. Immortal magical beings getting flustered because they can't figure out your gender? C'mon.

Lumus Mar 10, 6:04pm

I have to say, I'm uncomfortable with how, in the name of more progressive treatment of people like me, you're stripping me of the pronoun I chose and insisting I must restrict myself to the ones you find more palatable. I know that's probably an overdramatic reaction to a very minor change, and I do like that you're giving more options, but... seeing that "ah, Si-, er, Mad-, er, yes" is not amongst them, I just don't feel like I want to play anymore.

David Wilson Mar 9, 11:25pm

I hope one of those option will be the , "er-ah" option. I think its one of the best addresses ever, given the context of the game.

Sir Frederick Tanah-Chook Mar 9, 11:02pm

Jabberwok: Gender doesn't have any effect on gameplay; all cards, including the devilish suitors, can be drawn by all genders. So, changing the gender system won't change gameplay at all. Moriat: When one has a child in SS, one chooses which of the partners is actually giving birth, or if they're adopting. So, it's entirely possible for one's spouse to be, say, the Dapper Chap, and for him to give birth.

Augusto M Mar 9, 10:15pm

I really hope you at least keep an option to use the ‘er- ah- um- yes’ in the game, I find it to be spot on with the game's setting.

Jabberwok Mar 9, 9:14pm

So my understanding is that in game terms, all characters will now be gender neutral? I could be wrong, but it seems that some opportunity cards (like the male and female devils who progress the 'An Intimate of Devils' quality) are meant to show up for people of a certain gender. How will this affect things like that?

Zelmor Mar 9, 8:44pm

For the love of all rubbery, don't remove ‘er- ah- um- yes’ from the game. I still laugh at it after years.

Lae Mar 9, 7:36pm

Please keep the er-ah-yes thing for those who choose it! We loved it throughout all these years, and we want it to be. It's funny and it adds a lot of athmosphere to the game.

Alex Mar 9, 6:42pm

Please do consider keeping the "er- ah- um- yes" pronoun as an option for those who want it - I fell in love with it on first sight after starting to play, and it still makes me smile every time I see it over a year later.

Mark Hoffman Mar 9, 6:09pm

I'm all for this change, but please keep the "yes/er" title as an option for those who want it. If it makes some people uncomfortable, then they shouldn't be forced to use it - but by the same token, I shouldn't be forced to NOT use it just because others are bothered by it if my use of it doesn't affect their experience of the game on any way.

marcmagus Mar 9, 5:57pm

This sounds like a good step forward. When I first started playing FL I chose the indistinct gender option, excited that it was there and thinking of it as a "bugger off" option. I was rather disappointed when I got into the game and everybody I met was suddenly making a big deal about their inability to figure out my gender from my appearance. There are conversations that merit that, but I would have expected the urchin to just say, "Nice place. Very nice. I like how it’s got, like, a roof. Also walls." It would be nice to leave er-ah-um-yes or something similar as an option for players who enjoy it. If it's not the only option of nonspecific gender it becomes much more of an opt-in thing and thus less uncomfortable.

cake Mar 9, 5:39pm

I was fine with the way it was. I'm fine with the way you're planning to make it. This honestly seems like a trivial concern to me, since minorities who make up less than a percent of the global population usually find themselves having to adapt to the world, whereas with transgenders, it seems to be the other way around. I don't care either way and choose not to get involved since it doesn't affect me in any way, but it's an interesting social phenomenon regardless. And before I forget: Spend your time fixing that timer instead!

Tsyld Mar 9, 5:30pm

Having the option not to specify your gender is really one of the things I really like in Fallen London, and I am delighted. I didn't mind the "ah, Si-, er, Mad-, er, yes" because it happened to me sometimes, which was always a bit funny ; however, choosing how you are called will be nice. ...Now, we only have to imagine that everyone will magically know that we prefer to be called Citizen.

Esurnir Mar 9, 5:01pm

*clap clap clap clap clap*

Dr. Strangeyoung Mar 9, 4:59pm

I like the current stumbling-option, as my character is wrapped up like a tomb colonist. But this sounds like a great change - will the chosen form of address be able to be changed more than once, say as new options become available? Or might it be a Fate expenditure, much like resetting the House of Chimes entry?

Joe Mar 9, 4:49pm

I love that you're adding more options, but I wish "er, yes" was still one of the many options for those of us who like it for our characters.

Kat Mar 9, 4:26pm

I would have just used 'Citizan' myself...

Moriat Mar 9, 4:21pm

How does one get a trans relationship in SS?

Jekadu Mar 9, 4:14pm

This sounds like a great adjustment. I chuckled each time a character would stumble over which form of address to use for my character, but I also suspected that it might come across as making fun of non-binary people. The idea of choosing a title instead is a great idea (I thought about it at some point myself, after all), especially since it allows you to add another reward layer to the game.