Of Madness And Steamships: Sunless Sea

Sunless Sea takes the excellent writing and world-building of Fallen London, and injects it into a 2D exploration, trading and survival game. It’s Elite but with steamships instead of starships, and dwindling-dark ports instead of space stations. Throw in giant fish with moustaches, living mimic islands and deranged cannibal crew members, and the resulting concoction seems more than satisfying. I spoke to Failbetter about Fallen London, Black Crown and Sunless Sea a few weeks ago, and today, as the Kickstarter launches, I plan to feed you their words over the coming days. Visit Fallen London, toll-free, for a taste of the style and the setting of Sunless Sea, and then ponder if it is possible to pass up on a game in which the images and text below appear.

Here are some descriptions of places that await discovery in the cavernous under-sea.

Demeaux Island: named for the navigator snatched by a waterspout from the coast of Macau in 1822. The luminiferous bosk-shrooms of Demeaux Island enjoyed a brief vogue as avant-garde building materials, but sleep can be difficult in bosk-bole buildings. Contrary to popular rumour, bosk-shrooms cannot ‘swim’.

Here’s the SS John Masefield idling off the Warehouse of the Iron & Misery Company, on Demeaux Island. That’s a port where it can make landfall, resupply, and find out why the I&M Company hasn’t been making shipments back to London recently. We’re using luminous features on this island, as others, so you’ll be able to make out its outline even in utter darkness with your prow light turned away.

The Corsair’s Forest: a thousand stalagmites bridged and elaborated by warring pirate-clans, exiled artists and worse. Is it more dangerous to navigate the jagged roots of the stalagmites by ship, or walk the creaking ways between their summits? Hard to say, but the stalwarts of the Royal Navy prefer to avoid either approach, and so the fugitives from Justice lair here still.

And here’s the Masefield pushing through the Corsair’s Forest at half-speed. Note the wake and the smoke streaming from its funnel (more visible when it turns). Half-speed makes it easier to negotiate the confines of the forest, and also consumes fuel less aggressively, which can be important this far out. Especially since we’ve whacked the prow glim-light up to maximum radiance, so that’s also burning fuel (you can see the stalagmite occluding the light if you look at the top right, too). There’s another port to the bottom: the Corsairs are wary folk, so they keep cranes at the summit and use those to hoist cargo – or even ships – up to a safer height…

I don’t often quote people in large chunks like that because I like the sound and sight of my own voice so much, but Sunless Sea will quite happily do the right sort of walk and talk all day long. Kickstarter page here, interview in the coming days. Key points to take away right now are that this is not a free-to-play game – it’s a full experience, paid for up front and yours to cherish as and when you like. It’s story-focused, through both the player’s adventures and actions in the world, and interactions with crew and other folk through event cards.

From what I’ve seen and heard, which goes slightly beyond what you’ll see on the Kickstarter page at present, the blend of Elite, Rogue and FTL seems hugely appealing. And that’s not taking into account the actual words, which are Failbetter’s proven strength. An exciting prospect indeed.


  1. Hunchback says:

    Ah, so you did get my mail :)

  2. c3lt says:

    Kubla Khan reference?

    • GernauMorat says:

      Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
      Through caverns measureless to man
      Down to a sunless sea

      Makes me want to give opium a go

    • mouton says:

      I remember when, during my English poetry class, the lecturer read Kublai Khan it struck me like a thunder.

      I heard that fragment in Alpha Centauri before.

  3. Lars Westergren says:

    10 seconds in – any game where you can have that as a mascot gets backed.

    Speaking of Lovecraft and Kickstarters, there is also U55 which looks a bit “Metro meets Amnesia”. Nice sources of inspiration, but remains to see if they can deliver any compelling gameplay.
    link to kickstarter.com

  4. bcrowe says:

    Getting a bit of a China Mieville feeling from this, which is appealing.

    • equatorian says:

      Fallen London itself is like China Mieville with a bit of Terry Pratchett and a bit of Gormenghast if it’s set in 19th century London if London is kind of but not really like Sigil. I don’t play grindy browser/social games as a whole, but I make an exception for Fallen London.

      (I’m a bit biased. Take me with a grain of salt.)

      • dontnormally says:

        Fallen London is amazing and everyone should try it.
        That said, once it got too grindy I moved on while I was still smiling.

        These guys’ writing minus F2P equals Yes.

    • TsunamiWombat says:

      Fallen London itself is a super gothic story with Terry Pratchett silliness mainlined into it’s eyeball wearing “I Love Tim Burton” branded cloths.

      Much of the game exists only in the feeling inspired by the narrative and cannot really be explained in words, it’s a drip feed “watch the numbers go up” choose your own adventure game where you are both simultaniously an important protagonist and a nameless nobody in a dysotopic future-past subterranian London, the remnant of a craggy and dying Empire that imprisons it’s own Queen for treason while still housing her in high luxurious style and pomp in a magnificent Palace-Fortress.

      It only held me for a dozen or two hours, but considering it’s a browser game that consists of an overhead map of Fallen London’s districts and text boxes thats fairly impressive. After a certain point it gets too grindy, a necessary evil because no gestalt-human-hivemind consciousness could possibly write enough content to keep up with their traffic if it wasn’t (also bonus rates on action points are monetized)

  5. equatorian says:

    One day, I hope we see this kind of thing for the fallen city itself.

    In the meantime, I’ve been very interested in this since they introduced it to FL players a few weeks ago, and I’m glad backing is now open. It looks like it’ll do the Unterzee more justice than the mechanics of FL does. They’ve been detailing quite a few cool systems on their website, too.

    • MarkB says:

      A game of this sort that incorporates the entire Fallen London setting would be my dream game. If I can visit the Iron Republic, Polythreme etc then I will be more than happy. (I wonder if we will be able to go NORTH? I feel like that wouldn’t work in a rogue-like-like though, screwing up your life doesn’t mean as much when life is already so cheap)

      • equatorian says:

        I know, right? The moment they announced this, I was like ‘please let us visit the Iron Republic and Polythreme please let us visit them, although I know I’ll love this even if we don’t get to but please please please’.

        I’m not sure if revealing NORTH would be a good idea in this game, but since you can play in succession here with subsequent characters inheriting bits of your voyage, maybe it’ll work if going NORTH successfully could screw with subsequent characters also? They did inherit your stuff, your stuff can be entirely mad.

  6. Reapy says:

    Something about the art style just doesn’t do it for me, and I guess as this is showing me, for exploring I guess that is pretty important. There are elements that look nice like when closer to a town and under that bridge thing and the sea monster, but the boat itself and landscape + water they are sailing through feels um, too much of a flash game look?

    Just a personal opinion, otherwise I’d be all over this one I think.

    • TsunamiWombat says:

      Fallen London IS a browser flash game

    • equatorian says:

      They did say something about the graphics needing a lot more work and having placeholders for a bunch of things. The screenshots we see are from the pre-pre-alpha prototype, so maybe the final product could look different.

      They probably intend the ship to look kind of like that, though. It’s there in their mock-ups.

    • Noviere says:

      I quite liked the art… It sorta reminded me of the maps from old D&D modules.

  7. Kein says:

    Slower Than Light

  8. strangeloup says:

    I got really put off by Fallen London (and the various other games in the same engine) by the “you can only have so many turns unless you pay” bullshit. Really not on board with that.

    • equatorian says:

      That’s more of a way to keep players from completing all the content in two days, though, instead of keeping them from you because they want your money. (At least, not that way.) There’s no real reason to pay for more turns unless you’re really impatient, and the only things really worth paying for are the extra story content. And how much they’re worth depends on you. The rewards you get from them are not that special, so all you’re paying for is the privilege of reading what those stories are.

      Case in point, the grind gets really bad after a certain point and no amount of paying will ever make you ‘win’ that. Even being a subscriber only earns you twenty moves, which refills at pretty much the same pace as the free edition. It can be done better and I don’t like the grind, but the move limit, at least, is not there to get your money. Yes, you can pay for them and the game does remind you annoyingly every time you run out of moves, but I’ve rarely ever met people who actually paid for it.

      And at least, they’re promising to have no such move limits in Sunless Sea, I think, considering that it’s a singleplayer game. That should help with some of the annoyances.

      • strangeloup says:

        I think the bit that got me miffed was that I’d invariably run out of moves just as something really interesting was happening, almost as if it was engineered to be that way.

        Perhaps it’s just unfortunate coincidence, though, and bad memories of Facebook games doing the same kind of thing with far poorer writing.

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          Bluerps says:

          Pretty sure that was coincidence. I cannot say for sure, of course, but I have played Fallen London for a long time, and sometimes I have run out of actions just as I was about to do something exciting, but I never felt like this was something that was built into the game.

          No, the main problems of Fallen London are that it becomes very grindy in the later parts (though in most cases without dangling any “pay to avoid grind”-option in front of your face), and that a lot of plotlines are unfinished, at the moment.

        • equatorian says:

          I think it’s coincidence? I’ve been playing for a few years and never noticed anything like that. Sometimes it happens, but it just seems more like a limitation of the system rather than something intentionally made to get you to spend money. My moves would end in the middle of a boring grind more often than it did in the middle of a nice plot, and I can always wait until the next coffee break. I guess I usually reserve starting exciting things for when I have a lot of actions remaining?

          No, the monetization in THAT sense is more like the options to call up some specific cards in your deck, and they turn up often enough for me to not bother with those anyway. I do spend money to lock some special plotlines, though.

        • dontnormally says:

          That’s a testament to the quality of their writing (;

  9. Doghaus says:

    Never heard of Fallen London, but strongly tempted to back this – nice to see something with such an original and vivid atmosphere, and I actually rather like the graphics. I like the macabre sense of humour.

  10. Noviere says:

    I came here to scream “OMG HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?!!?!”

  11. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    I’ve always liked the sound of Fallen London, but the online aspect puts me off. I would prefer something along the lines of Telltale Games, where I pay for discrete chunks of content doled out periodically.

    And before someone says, “But what about with narrative-focused material like this,” they’re called comic books. I can get my Lovecraftian horror fix a few times a year with BPRD trades without grinding or logging in, and they aren’t affected by outages of any kind.

    • malkav11 says:

      Sunless Sea is going to be an offline up front purchase. Just saying.

  12. iridescence says:

    Have not played Echo Bazaar/Fallen London in quite a while. I used to be really into it but the F2P MMO-style grind eventually wore me down. Still, I felt compelled to back this. These people definitely can write. Hopefully without the annoying F2P BS they will produce a lastingly good game.

  13. substationradio says:

    Does this give anyone an inkling of King of Dragon Pass with the crew stories? If they mentioned that explicitly as an influence I would drop my wallet immediately, KoDP is probably my single favorite game of all time.