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Sailing the Sunless Sea – A Voyage of Stress and Stories

By Leon Hurley on at

Short pitch: it's FTL meets Cthulhu, with a dash of Elite. A very literary game of voyages, trading and stress. So much stress. Have I got enough fuel? Will the crew keep it together? Will I make it?

Twelve hours in and 'will I make it?' is a constant looping thought as I play. Sunless Sea, like its name, is a cruel mistress and in its first few games it gives out little, and can take so much in an instant. Much of this fretting and worry comes from staring at your reserves of fuel, supplies and money (known as Echoes in-game); in the first few voyages these can be in such short supply that you and your crew's existence hangs constantly, and fretfully, in the balance.

Even now, on a fourth playthrough and starting to feel my way around the world more confidently, that worry is ever present. I'm currently well provisioned, and have started to make a decent and sustainable headway, but the thought remains that one bad call, a moment of poor luck and I could once again be puttering back to London on my last dregs of fuel; uncertain if I'll make it, and teetering between rage-quitting fury and near-tearful relief depending on what the fates hold.

Let's step away from the stress for a moment though and look at the rest of the experience. Sunless Sea is, to some extent, a book that you play. While you sail between ports, trading, exploring and battling pirates or monsters, much of the substance and colour comes from pages of text: everything from update snippets to several paragraphs of lurid descriptions build the world around you. It might be a mission explanation, a character profile or location description – they're all dark little stories stringing together the fiction.

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Scene-setting illustrations and simple sea-gameplay aside, this is a game that almost exclusively unfolds in your head as you read. Learning about a sunken London that's fallen below the surface to become a world of oppressive new religions and beliefs. A place where superstition is as good as fact, and monsters roam the tides looking to pull you under.

When it works it can create a wonderfully sinister atmosphere full of unexpected and horrific delights – a crewwoman with eyes replaced by wasp galls is a macabre highlight: "Her eyes will hatch soon but until then she wants to work." Talk to her and she'll tell you how she wants to see some of the world through 'these eyes' while she still can (there's an implication her eyes let her see more than humanly possible and, I'm just guessing here, may have been a deliberate choice). What a pitifully sad and unpleasant character to create in so few lines. I won't say too much more about anything else, because discovering the unusual and twisted depths is half the fun.

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While the story can be lovely in a disturbing Lovecraftian way, there's no getting away from the UI being a bit of a pig. An odd thing when you think about just how text heavy this is. Developer Failbetter has discussed the issues of shifting from its web-based Fallen London title to creating Sunless Sea in Unity, but the issues remain. You can't adjust the font size currently for example, leaving the text occupying barely a quarter of my screen. There are other odd quirks, like choosing an option occasionally jumping you to the top of the text-filled page, so you have to scroll back through the compact wording to find your place again.

Then there's the structure of it all. It's idiosyncratic to say the least as you navigate between 'areas' in the game. Even now, having got used to the peculiar way it handles information, it's still often less than comfortable to process information. Everything's handled through text and icons, occasionally in a way that requires a little conceptual pain to process. "You now have one of this: 'Recent News'", the game tells you, meaning you have some information you can later sell. Find the option to go to the pub (a good way to reduce your Terror stat) and you'll receive the message: "You've lost 1 x 'A Free Evening' (new total 0)."

It works overall, and can add to the atmosphere when used well, but it can also be confusing to accept more abstract concepts as friendships, and experiences as finite units of inventory. Sometimes it feels like a log-book that's trying to talk to you but only understands log book things. You have gained one of this: slight confusion (new total 1). It also does a terrible job of communication in certain areas. Certain missions and objectives seem to skulk almost at random in different areas of your journal, leading me to write things down in a separate actual note book, rather than poke, prod and mouse over icons to find an in-game record of anything.

More troubling, occasionally sentences end abruptly announcing, for example, that a new relationship with a given character "is now ." The space before the full stop the only indication that a number should be there. In a game where survival balances on such a wickedly sharp knife's-edge, small errors like that worry me. It's hard enough dealing with your own potential to fatally err, without worrying about in-game mistakes.

These annoyances irritate less as you progress, as you both gain a firmer understanding of how this world works, and discover more of it. As I said before, I'm about 12 hours in and on my forth captain – a sinking, running out of fuel, and an absence of supplies doing for the previous voyages. The toughness and unfamiliarity can make the first few games a chore because it's all too easy to sail yourself into a corner with no money, fuel or supplies, and no way of rectifying it. At least two previous games ended with me knowing I was casting off to certain death but with no option to do anything else. Take a chance and hope for the best...

Things do get easier (relatively) with time, though. You can leave a small fraction of certain stats or possessions to your successor, while the knowledge you personally gain is more valuable than all the Echoes you can carry. My latest run is going strong. That's in no small part due to the fact that I discovered turning off my ship's light reduces fuel consumption, while taking on less crew uses up less supplies. With that in hand I've been able to travel further more easily and, without naming specifics, I've found things that have opened up the world and, if not replaced the stress, provided new avenues that seem worth the risks.

And risk is what it all comes down to. In this case no lights means the Terror rating rises faster (if it reaches 100 the crew mutiny), and I'm never sure if the next port will provide enough activities to relive it. Using less crew on the other hand means an attack could leave me short-handed and limping across the map at half speed. At the moment I'm using this riskily extended range to trade in 'Recent News' and 'Port Reports' (information-based supplies recovered from exploring and visiting locations) while doing a little smuggling on the side. Almost everything has a value and I've barely touched actual legitimate trading so far, bar selling things recovered from exploration or defeated pirates.

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For all its frustrations there's an inescapable allure here. The world is mysterious, hard to understand and unpredictable but that makes it interesting. Even the language requires a certain level of mastery. Instead of attack, perception or charisma stats for example, the game talks of Iron, Veils and Mirrors. Encounters hint at lore and back stories quite unlike anything I've encountered. My earlier comparison to Elite extends to the journeying gameplay, as you point your ship in a direction and wait for it to get there. This isn't an experience you rush, the simple art and beguiling music creating an interesting backdrop for the words to paint a picture on as you sail.

I'm still not entirely sure if I'm having fun in the strictest sense of the word. There is a feeling of accomplishment, yes.The world is really is something to savour and I want more. But you really have to work for it, and the threat of crushing punishment is always there, smiling, just over your shoulder. Each time you die you have to go through those uncertain early stages again; those potentially brief and fraught early trips, the struggle to build a firm foundation, all the while re-reading familiar passages as you push towards the new. I dread, as much as anticipate, the next voyage.