Beneath the Sunless Sea.

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Sunless Sea
 2015 Roguelike/rpg developed by Failbetter Games

 

Sunless Sea’s steam tagline is “LOSE YOUR MIND. EAT YOUR CREW. DIE” which, while all these activities can all be partaken of in game, is really somewhat misleading. A more accurate tagline might read “SAIL AROUND. GET LOST. SHOOT AT BIG FISH”.

Indeed the game projects the image of being something like a pulpy Heart of Darkness with Lovecraftian themes transposed to a Victorian setting. Sunless sea’s setting is complicated to describe—and to be honest I am not sure I understand it—so I shall only give the briefest outlines. As far as I understand, thirty years ago (1861) Queen Victoria, in order to save Albert from his fatal illness, sold  London to an entity called the Echo Bazaar—this was probably not a prudent move on her part. We can see this in the fact that, in Sunless Sea, London is now deep underground, in a massive and dark cavern, beset by unnameable evils. Down in Fallen London, as it is now called, it seems, every horrible superstition is true. What goes on in Fallen London is a litany of the most awful things imaginable, horror lies around almost every corner. Gods are real—they are not nice gods, Hell is real—it has an embassy in London and human souls can be traded on the open market—so long as they are stamped by the customs office.

Progress, in a Sunless Sea’s world, has stopped and reversed. The empire is gone, and London has been made answerable to its sins. Yet, in this setting, the British Victorian spirit perseveres as if there was no great catastrophe, and the urge to colonise and exploit the world has not dissipated. Fallen London, is surrounded by the “underzea”—lord knows why the inhabitants of the damned city decided to exchange the “s” in sea for “z”, but they have. The player takes the role of a captain going out into the vast dark sea that surrounds subterranean London, possibly to make their fortune—or for some other reason (chosen from a menu at character creation), like finding their father’s bones or writing the “song of the zea”. When I first fired Sunless Sea up, what I expected of it was bunch of standard Victorian aristocratic archetypes engaging in daring do against indescribable, unspeakable and quite possibly barbaric foes. This impression was cemented for me by the somewhat cartoon-like art style all thick outlines, rounded edges and dramatic shading. In these first impressions I was completely wrong.

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Sunless Sea is only a roguelike inasmuch as the default setting of the game is that one’s game continues until one dies, at which point one must start a new game. I have not, however, so far found that I have died very often in Sunless Sea. There is little, from what I have found, in the way of massively dangerous encounters that are not signposted as massively dangerous beforehand. While the prospect of “permadeath” provides a powerful need for self-preservation, I cannot say that it has been terrifically important to my experience of the game. What Sunless Sea excels in and what I want to talk about here is, in contrast to its tagline, is not presenting the player with a voyage to the Heart of Darkness and back, but rather the conjuration of evocative mood. Sunless Sea actively tries to manipulate the player’s emotions, and encapsulates that within an intriguing but lightly sketched setting. This creates a genuinely interesting take on exploration, supported by a consistent atmosphere of danger and unknown menace. In my reckoning all Sunless Sea’s complexity is made possible, and made interesting, by two features of its gameplay: The first is the way in which Sunless Sea records and represents information, and the second is the risk/reward nature of exploring the “unterzea”.

Sunless Sea is a quite brilliant storytelling engine, with one of the best solutions I have seen for presenting the player with an easily accessible flow of information. The power of that engine lies in the ease with which stories can be told through it, and  the ease in following along the action as a reader. The system responsible for this ease is the ingenious interface by which almost all information is presented in Sunless Sea; The “Gazeteer” (henceforth the “logbook”, because I find that easier to type). The logbook is an interface modeled as a journal, in which seemingly everything in the game—from one’s romantic exploits and lifetime achievements, to how interested the gods of the zea are in one’s progress— is recorded. This has mechanical interest because of the way Sunless Sea records information. That is, not in enigmatic phrases that sit lifelessly on the page, of the kind one would find in almost any fantasy RPG, rather it treats of information much like an item in an inventory might be treated in a standard rpg inventory. Every quest, piece of vital information and status effect has a neat slot, and is presented as a colourful little icon, with text explaining it becoming apparent on mouseover. By treating the logbook like an inventory, Sunless Sea encourages thinking of information like a kind of currency or a collection of curios.

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Since zea stories, tales of terror and the like are treated as generic objects, they can be held in “stacks”, much as apples or arrows in other games—and like apples or arrows, their individual details are un-important, what is important is their mechanical purpose. That mechanical purpose is trade, either for goods or services in various places or in unlocking more profitable conversation options and adventure choices. Recent News from London is valuable in outlying colonies, while there are ports in which one can trade tales of terror for fuel. Some characters will not speak to the player without being offered a zea story as tribute. One’s stories are always worth their interest in cold hard cash. This serves both of Sunless Sea’s thematic masters, cynical Victoriana and bizarre Lovecaftian horror. The zea is the stage of a trade of the very things that make human beings human. The idea that the abstract or ephemeral is just another item of trade is one that runs through Sunless sea. There is a roaring trade in memories and souls across the underzea, and one cannot progress in Sunless Sea without becoming a part of this information market. All that one is, all of the stories one has gained—the very anecdotes and quirks that we might think compose a person’s internal life, are collapsed into items which can be gained, lost and traded. Also, gaining these stories often comes with a price, and that price is usually moving the player and their crew further towards outright madness. Much as in a Lovecraftian novel, it is knowledge of the truth that begets madness, because the truth in Sunless Sea is almost always unbearably awful to comprehend. One way of retaining one’s sanity therefore, is simply to insulate oneself from knowledge.

On the other hand, being completely ignorant of the challenges that face you, is also a recipe for fear and madness. This is visually represented by the very darkness of the sea on which one sails, where there is no day, and little can be seen without using a source of artificial illumination. One discovers new shores by shining the ship’s forward facing spotlight upon them, and the crew becomes fearful if the light is left off for too long—the trade off of course being that the light burns precious fuel, and makes the ship visible to malicious eyes. There is no knowledge without cost.

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Fear of the unknown is often difficult to achieve in a video game and Sunless Sea is one of the better examples of how to do it. This is often achieved by actually presenting the player with too much information and too many choices. The player is presented with a large amount of information that they are in no position to process or make sense of at the time they get it (some of which is never explained at all). For instance, one will occasionally be told that some or other god is watching one’s progress, or that one has aroused some shadowy character’s suspicions. What this means, or what you should do about it often remains completely unclear, however one knows it must mean something, after all, it has a little icon in one’s knowledge inventory. Does one approach the unknown by pursuing it, or attempt to fly away from it by avoiding anything that looks like it might be connected with those worrying little icons? Given that one’s character might die—these enigmatic icons can cause a little shiver of trepidation, one has a lot to lose if one chooses poorly.

There are other occasions where Sunless Sea changes tack, and starts hiding information from the player, and this is also used to great effect. On the choose-your-own adventure style port interface, it is not uncommon to be presented with a number of possible adventure options with exciting or terrifying names, the conditions of which are clear to see, but the effects of which are surrounded in mystery. There are a number of occasions where the game will, seemingly from nowhere, give the player an option to do something completely awful. These options always create a temptation to click them, just to see what happens. This is the digital equivalent of taking someone to the edge of a cliff and telling them that they could jump off if they liked. The player is tempted with their own destruction, just for the sheer curiosity of knowing what lies on the other side. For instance there is a port at which one can, if one chooses, eat one’s crew (as the tagline states), why would you ever do this? I don’t know, I don’t want to know, I try to avoid that port because if I go there too often I am sure I will just click that button because it is there.

There are two components which go into the creation of fear in Sunless Sea, one is the clear presentation of facts through a transparent user interface, the other is the occlusion of the effects of that information on the game world. One is never left at a loss for options, the question is what taking those options will result in, and whether those consequences will be good consequences for the player. This, it should be mentioned, makes it one of the better renditions of Lovecraftian horror in a video game— at least when the game is at its most interesting. That flavour of horror makes play of an un-fashionable idea, that knowledge is dangerous, and that it can be self-destructive—and that is certainly a recurring theme in Sunless Sea’s semi-blind choices.

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These themes are supported and added to by the overworld gameplay, and the meat of that is exploration, combat and questing. Sunless sea is a game that I am never entirely sure if I am doing well at, or indeed if I am playing it correctly at all and I have a feeling that this is intentional. It is in fact, uncertainty is a major factor in establishing the setting, which relies heavily on a fear of the unknown and subverting one’s assumptions at almost every turn. That feeling is critical to exploration, wanting to know what is going on is a large part of why one goes out into the zea. The first time I played the game I went on an expedition to the frozen north of the map in search of fame and fortune, what I found was that fuel runs out faster than I thought it did, and that there are some Icebergs in Sunless Sea’s world which move on their own power and have a taste for ships. This revelation was new to me, but it was also a thematically authentic slice of the brutal and desperate unknown that comprises the underzea. Every port one docks at tells one that there are four or five quests that one could hand in there, if only one had the right items to do so. These act as spurs to further exploration, the expectation of great reward—or simply some an interesting story— pushing the player further out into the unknown, into the dark.

Sunless Sea randomizes its world every time you send a new captain out to sea, outside of some special areas like home waters that are always consistently positioned. The world is not randomized to the extent that the islands one finds in the underzee are randomly generated, there are a fixed set of islands that the game scatters merrily around its board. However this randomization prevents the rote memorization of trade and quest routes—if you have ever played the Escape Velocity games you will be aware of how much this repetition can damage the urge to replay the game. Further, the randomization of islands prevents the underzea ever really feeling like home, or a place that one really knows or feel comfortable in. Happily captains can pass on some property and some stats on to their successors, which is a nice way of allowing the player some progression if they are unlucky enough to fall to the predations of the zea—or their own curiosity.

Exploring the unknown, charting distant lands and uncovering new ports after a long voyage is a deeply satisfying experience, doubly so because the zea itself can be so empty. In leaving port and setting off into the dark one will probably primarily experience three emotions, anxiety, frustration and boredom. The anxiety is a function of the fact that time is money, or more specifically it is fuel and supplies, and long expeditions away from the coast of London cost quite a lot—at least in the early game. I found that while I was exploring, my eyes were not on the zea itself, but on the bars that told me how hungry my crew was, how sane they were, and how much fuel was left in the tank for the return voyage. I find myself constantly, and inexactly, trying to work out how much more I could spend in terms of these two resources, before turning back home.

 

The great black fog that obscures those areas of the world that you have not yet shone your torch upon hold deep reserves of knowledge and riches, and that knowledge can lead to frustration when one cannot find the port one needs. This frustration is fundamental to Sunless Sea, as it drives players to go beyond the realm of safety, pushing their supplies, fuel and sanity as far as they can go. The reason for this frustration is that as supplies tick down, the psychological impulse to go further out becomes more acute, because one becomes more aware of the return that one needs to make on one’s investment. Furthermore, one will occasionally run into patches of rough weather, fog banks and blizzards, which can be navigated through, but impose costs in terms of sanity or fuel. When faced with such an obstacle, the player will have to choose between pushing themselves closer to the red line by attempting to go through, or changing their objectives completely. Expeditions can cost so much that it is quite possible to bankrupt oneself very early on unless one finds something profitable out at zea. Most of the big pay-days come from completing quests, however, quests can only be completed once per play through and thus the game is constantly pushing the player to take greater risks and move on, further from home in order to keep the money flowing. Thus the game is constantly frustrating the player by pressuring them economically. The player’s captain is like an addict, they must go further every time out, driving themselves closer to insanity and helplessness. The upside of this is the feeling of relief and accomplishment that comes from a big pay off, and the genuine relief that one feels on seeing the port of London, which contributes to making the zea feel hostile and menacing.

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Boredom, however, comes about because there is often little to do on a zea journey, apart perhaps from avoiding monsters (I shall elaborate why one rarely wishes to actually fight monsters a little later on). The dangers that the open zea are real, but they are also sedate dangers, so the boredom one faces is not that of the soldier before battle, but much like that of a weary passenger on a choppy ferry crossing, waiting for port. In a game whose gameplay attempts to emphasize danger and terror, a boredom of the first kind would not be out of place, but boredom of the second kind does not easily find a home. That is because it represents a kind of complacency. After the first few voyages out, the zea presents few unavoidable, non-economic, dangers for those that are awake, and for a very experienced player it presents none of these dangers at all. In effect, the longer one plays Sunless Sea, the more it sheds its thematic clothing, and becomes more and more of a heartless grind. Unfortunately this happens quite some time before the player’s captain is within reach of their life’s ambition (a quest one chooses at character creation), and therefore victory, or at least that happened to me. Without fear underlining boredom, the mechanics that Sunless Sea uses to promote frustration are revealed as simple delaying tactics.

Similarly, while most of the game’s mechanics build towards Sunless Sea’s central themes, and are actively involved in helping to tell the captain’s story, combat does not have any real thematic or mechanical heft. It is a system that is neither evocative of the setting nor does it use the unique environment of the unterzea to its advantage. The central combat loop is this; first one sees an enemy on the edge of one’s screen and makes a decision whether to engage them or not. This is perhaps the most interesting part of combat, as it can sometimes turn the game into a most unusual game of naval stealth, wherein one attempts to glide silently by horrific monsters to get at the safety of the port, or open sea, behind them. If one chooses to engage, or has been spotted and pursued to a point at which an engagement is impossible to avoid however one enters the second phase, trying to get a firing solution on the enemy while dodging their fire/jaws/unspeakable appendages.. In order to fire at an enemy, or an enemy to fire at you, one needs to gain a “firing solution” on them, which means keeping them within one of your arcs of fire long enough to fill a bar around the side of the weapon icon. I do not really know what this design was going for.

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I appreciate that Failbetter were trying to tie the concept of illumination into combat—where at least half of the battle would be getting the enemy into one’s sights. That could be something reminiscent of the exciting, cut-throat, anti-submarine warfare of WW2, or the terrifying, close up and flood lit, ship-to-ship night fighting of WW1. What combat actually tends to be is a very, very, silly 2D dogfight, with both combatants rolling around each other in circles. Against an enemy monster the aim seems to be to run away just slowly enough that they stay within one’s arc of fire, while they never actually catch up with one—this is equally silly and tedious. Watching a tentacled monstrosity trailing a ship, entirely failing to close with it, does somewhat remove their inherent menace. The combat works against Sunless Sea’s themes because while the game tries to stress the unknown, combat is entirely clear—one is rarely, if ever, unsure of the position of the enemy, and there is little variety of different types of attack to be surprised by. At best, combat is quick, at its worst, it is an atmosphere destroying chore. The combat works best if one considers it the “fail state” of trying to sneak past an opponent, and for the most part ignores it.

The overworld map then, is home to some of the best and the worst that Sunless Sea has to offer. The “choose-your-own-adventure” portion of the game, and the “overworld map” portion are set up in such a way as to support, and encourage participation in, one another. The costs of movement across the zea must be defrayed by adventure, and adventure often requires collecting resources from places that must be discovered, charted and returned from. When this reciprocal system of storytelling is working well, every time one sets off from London feels like a venture into the exiting yet menacing unknown and every return to London fills one with the relief of tension eased.

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When the system does not work, it not only feels “un-fun”, groping around in the dark for nothing in particular, it also feels thematically unsatisfying. Unsuccessful expeditions, if one is prudent, do not end in cannibalism or survival against adversity, but rather they resemble walking into a room and forgetting why one went there in the first place. The fact that the system does not always work does make the two portions of the game any less dependent upon one another for their operation, and it is most interesting to contemplate the system running at its best.

Sunless Sea then, is a unique experience, but one that I recommend playing recklessly and in short doses. The narrative elements alone, which I have mostly passed over here in favour of mechanical notes, are enough to recommend it. There are perhaps many lessons about narrative and storytelling that we can learn from Sunless Sea, not least that the gameplay and story of the best narrative games do not form two separate spheres, but are intimately involved in one another. Mechanics that are linked to, or create, negative emotions are another tool in the game designer’s cabinet. While they should be used with care, when they are applied correctly they can craft an experience that is much more memorable than a simple romp. When it is working at its best, Sunless Sea represents these tools operating at peak capacity.

 

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Beneath the Sunless Sea.

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