I didn’t really know what I was going to write about Sunless Sea until I lost my second ship to a dumb occurrence close to home. And all of a sudden, I realized I’d write about frustration.
Some clarification: Sunless Sea is, as best I can characterize it, a sailing simulator set in the world of the popular and longstanding browser-based game universe of Fallen London. I haven’t played Fallen London, so I have no idea how Sunless Sea jibes with that, but suffice it to say, the cruel and disinterested quality browser games have toward their audience transcends the genres and comes out clearly in Sunless Sea. If you’ve read a Videodrone before, you’ll know that this cruelty is where I got hooked.
But unlike a number of the other difficult games I’ve considered, Sunless Sea trucks more in the science of frustration than anything else. It’s closer to the “Is it a Word Processor or a Game” genre of Starseed Pllgrim, but the game element is stronger here. The game itself, as best I can describe it, is focused on exploration as a mechanic, formally concerned far more with the slow unfolding of dangerous exploration than with combat or acquisition. In this way, it’s a bit like Stardew Valley. But again, the difficulty is far ratcheted up, and the game effectively taunts you into taking the hardest route: if you switch to “Merciful Mode” (a mode that allows for periodic saves that aren’t auto-saves), you lose an item that has no purpose in the game other than marking your ability to not give in. I mean come on, have you heard a better incentive?
The game isn’t kidding when it gives you the warnings in the above image — you go through your first captain quickly. And the instant you (I) feel confident about your (my) second captain, they’ll die too. The game is nothing so much as a love story to the early forays into narrative videogaming like Zork, or Sierra and Lucasfilm adventure games. Brutally list based, largely premised on making choices that have set risk percentages, and privileging narrative, Sunless Sea bares no small resemblance to those early attempts at producing a “virtual novel.” Unlike these early attempts, though, Sunless Sea has two new things going for it: first, it balances difficulty, graphics, and narrative expertly; and second, it is self-reflexive.
The first bit might be the easiest to explain. In Sunless Sea, you’re forced to balance hunger, fuel, and sanity. Your hunger is salved by supplies, which are used more or less quickly depending on how many “zailors” you have on hand at any given time, or if you have a chef as an officer. Your fuel decreases quickly, but all the more quickly if you have your lights on. And if you don’t have your lights on (and even if you do), your fear ticks up. Get to zero supplies, and your crew eats itself. Get to zero fuel and your boat stops and you drift aimlessly. Get to 100 terror, and you’ll go mad.
As you continue through the game, you dock at ports in order to gain reports (which you can sell to interested parties), finish quests (criminal or otherwise), and simply see what’s up. All of these moves net you money, through which you can buy ship upgrades, a nicer home, something for your family (which you can choose to produce or not), and, most importantly, more fuel and supplies. But the exploration of the islands is its own reward, producing pages of narrative driven by choices that have very real outcomes, good and bad. You can lose crew, supplies, fuel, terror, etc, or you can gain treasures and plot movement. It’s all a roll of the dice.
Ultimately, it’s this roll of the dice that makes Sunless Sea interesting. The narrative is fairly generic for the type of game it is: a vast, terrifying London, infested by Lovecraftian demons; a quest to “zail” across the ocean against terrible odds. But the various stories on the islands flesh out the world tremendously and in surprising ways. What could become a steampunk free-for-all turns into a fairly considered, cautious, and always frustrating attempt to inch further out into a dangerous world. And when you die, you don’t forget, personally, the stories, even if your new captain might not know them. So what ends up being tremendously frustrating — “Ah dammit my captain died I spend like four hours building that one!!” — quickly turns into a redirected focus — “I wonder how quickly I can recoup my losses and discover more about what’s going on at Hunter’s Keep or The Chapel of Lights.”
To put it bluntly, Sunless Sea knows full well that it’s a pain in the ass. The company who made it has the Beckettian nom de plume of “Failbetter Games” — it’s not like there’s a lot of dissimulation going on. But the triumph of the game is in convincing its player that it being a slow, cautious slog that can unravel in one bad decision is a feature, not a mistake. The balance of the mechanics keeps the difficulty high, but the paced mystery of the plot, premised on decisions the player makes (and often regrets), or by the quality of the ship, or by the knowledge of one’s officers appear randomized in outcome, but not in significance. In other words, while I may not uncover some secrets in one iteration of the game because of bad luck or poor choices, in a second iteration, I know those secrets still exist and might come through in a roll of the dice.
Sunless Sea, therefore accomplishes an allegory of reading that I feel is more successful than any interpretative account of Starseed Pilgrim’s approach to writing. Exploration, dead ends, stories that require seven, eight, a dozen revisitings — this is all familiar to those of us who’ve worked through a tough read. The consequences of the game encourage reconsideration and experimentation. The game’s mission structure forces both directed and randomized stops across a map that, to begin with, is blacked out entirely. The self-reflexivity of Sunless Sea is, essentially, that it gets to say “This is for your own good” to its players, and regardless of the player’s patience with the game, it’ll be right.
I didn’t finish Sunless Sea. I expect I will — it’s really fun, and deeply engaging. But I was initially worried that I wouldn’t have enough of it done to write about this week. But when my ship sank and I felt that familiar long-buried frustration at videogames pass over me, I realized that the game really was all there at the surface. No one likes to start over. No one likes to lose. But, Sunless Sea argues, there are good reasons to do both. One reason is to figure out just what the deal is with Station III or The Dawn Machine. But the more important reason is to engage in world building, alone and with no guarantee of success: the same thing we do when we pick up a forbidding piece of literature.