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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.

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Adam Smith

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