The Bestest Best Words Of 2014: Sunless Sea

Failbetter have been writing the bestest best words in gaming for a while now and in Sunless Sea they have created a worthy vessel to carry those words to new audiences. There is horror, humour and haunting in the cavernous depths, and through it all, your ship cuts through the waters seeking new mysteries and fresh hells.

Adam: Worse things happen on the Sunless Sea.

When I spoke to Failbetter about Fallen London many moons ago, it didn’t take long before the conversation turned to the studio’s next project. A “proper game!”, I was told, “a 2d, top-down roguelike trading game”. That sounded like the best of both worlds. The exquisite writing and weird world of Fallen London translated into a game inspired by Elite as much as the Dickensian gloom, The Ancient Mariner’s rheumy rimes and Captain Ahab’s doomed dreaming.

Fallen London can be a hard sell, despite being entirely free to play. It’s a sprawling piece of interactive fiction with RPG elements, but the method by which portions of story are rationed out may be offputting to some, even when the prize is the most delicious collection of words in all of gaming. Sunless Sea staggers the delivery of its fiction in different ways, by providing the titular abyss to explore, with parcels of prose scattered across its surface.

Narrative is a currency of sorts in Sunless Sea. As you explore, you’ll trade in all manner of odd goods (it starts with living corpses), and you’ll confront pirates and monstrosities, but the fragments of folklore that you gather are the most valuable discovery of all. The water is thick with mystery, some of it lurking below, much of it residing above. Distant pinpricks of light might be the glow of a factory’s electric hum or the lantern in the window of a lonely dream-haunted manor house. They might be the dangling bait that leads into the maw of one of the dread gods of the deep. Whatever strange shores and terrible tides you discover, there will be stories to tell when you return to safe harbours. If you return to safe harbours.

Despite its nautical theme, Sunless Sea doesn’t strap its stories to a single mast, seeing the waters as a place where all manner of fictions can rest among the flotsam. Like much of the best writing, Failbetter’s shows an appreciation of genres but skims across them. It’s often horrific and grotesque, but often raises a smile even when plumbing its most sinister and repulsive depths. And it’s never boring.

As well as finding a voice in Fallen London’s streets and alleys, Failbetter learned effective pacing methods. Sunless Sea has many tales to tell but it doesn’t regurgitate them whole, instead coughing up a bone here and a chunk of gristle there, leaving the player to stitch the pieces together. Without pages to turn, Failbetter have managed to reinvent the pageturner.

Except that’s not really the right label at all. These are words to chew over and to revisit. Sunless Sea’s brilliance is that it marries the exemplary writing of Fallen London with a game that is its equal. Not just a satisfying experience, but one that contains combat, trading and management, but uses words to knit the pieces together into a delectable whole. As well as being a thoroughly entertaining entity in its own right, Sunless Sea is a gateway into Failbetter’s past and future works, whether they be (un)interactive fiction or otherwise. And that is priceless.

Alec: Failbetter’s lonely drowned world does very much have the best words – its surface sprinkled with unsettling written concepts, petals on a wet black bow – but it would be remiss of us to ignore what else it does so well. Careful, charismatic art and sound power the maudlin chugging of the small ship across the yawning black ocean, circles of light offering both hope and doom and backed up by a soundtrack which evokes solemn purpose in an unfathomable and treacherous world.

The ultimate goals of Sunless Sea – the ever-expanding circle of exploration, the acquisition of wealth and upgrades – are perhaps secondary to simply existing in Sunless Sea. The moment-to-moment doomy determination of it, that sense that the journey is as important (and deadly) as the destination. It’s FTL inverted; rather than concerning itself with what happens at each new objective, Sunless Sea is the fear and introspection that grows en route to each new objective.

And the words. Such wonderful words. Visual ideas picked from across fiction and genre, blurred wryly together then let out to play, unhampered by the need to recreate them in substantial image. A grotesque in every port, but Fallen London is a place where no-one blinks an eye/cavity where an eye used to be at such things. If you survive a voyage in Sunless Sea, your reward is discovering more of its dark denizens, and strange new places whose descriptions are so evocative that you can smell the seaweed and fear.

Douse the lights. Full steam ahead.

Back to the complete bestest best PC games of 2014.

42 Comments

  1. Llewyn says:

    This is the one thing I suspect I’m most likely to treat myself to when I get some time off work over Christmas, and backlog be damned. Everything about it looks delightful.

    • TemplarKnight says:

      Truly one of the best Indies I’ve put money into buying into the EA for in a long time.

      For those of you who may have earlier experiences with it, or haven’t kept up with it since it first came on steam, it has gotten better in some ways. Combat has switched from turn-based to real-time (which feels weird at first, but works far more effectively when you get used to it), there are far more ways of obtaining money faster than earlier builds and especially being able to hang onto it (The Salt Lions, The First Curator of Venderbight, Wine Offerrings at Godfall, and most recently Red Honey from the Isle of Cats and the Venturer’s Requests), and its just getting better and better and the picture becoming more complete as they put out more content. Best $30 I’ve spent in a while.

      Its not perfect, the addition of neutral ships has put in a pretty serious bug where it’ll spawn so many neutral ships it’ll crash the game if you play long enough, but that’s the first major bug I’ve encountered since buying the game about 4-5 months ago, and its not unworkable, you just have to restart the game. Lots of content still needs to be added and a couple weird things ironed out, but its still a very functional game.

      For any new potential buyers, THIS GAME IS HARD. It is not meant to be a game you immediately know everything of what’s going on or what is the best course of action, you’ll likely second guess yourself multiple times even while you’re charting a course. You’ll likely die several times before you start to get the rhythm for the various routes of trying to play (for now, there are only two ambitions, but more will come with further updates). Its a game of risks, taking chances, and venturing out into the unknown in all things and hoping you’ll come out free and clear on the other side. Its a load of fun though, I’ve gotten over 80 hours out of it.

  2. somnolentsurfer says:

    I should really check this out. I love the writing and world of Fallen London, but playing it is an incredible grind.

    • klops says:

      That’s my experience for Sunless Sea.

      Interesting and enjoyable world but the gameplay was grindy and… lacking? Then again, it was lacking for a reason, since my last try was with an early build with the old combat system. Hopefully the game has improved a lot from those days.

      Has it?

      • leeder krenon says:

        The combat is real time now and way way better. I played about an hour of the original build and an hour of a more recent one, I think it’s come on quite nicely. I don’t really want to play it too much though prior to full release as I don’t want to see the story yet til it’s ready.

    • jasta85 says:

      I’m a kickstarter backer and it’s definitely a fun game, however it is early access so there’s still a lot of work to be done and I’ve held off from really diving into it until they’re done. It is a bit sad that the best game in this category is an unfinished game, just shows the lack of games out there with proper writing.

    • TemplarKnight says:

      In some ways, its meant to be a grind. You’re meant to revisit places and try and keep trying to find more efficient and effective ways of doing things or try for better results as time passes.

      Its improved a lot since it first released on Steam EA though. I could never have had the potential to make roughly 10,000 Echoes in 5-6 hours of gameplay on the steam release, or even dreamed of buying of a new ship from the starter one. Trade is becoming better, and there is so much more to explore, its a big Zee, full of mystery and stories to discover and complete which they keep adding and expanding to.

      It just keeps getting better and better the closer to release it gets.

  3. bramble says:

    I’ve been highly interested in this game since I first read about it on RPS. That said, Early Access drains my enthusiasm for any game, no matter how anticipated. Their website says they plan to have a proper release in February 2015, so I’ll just wait til then.

    • TemplarKnight says:

      Fair enough, though I, and probably others can claim that this one is worth the money. Perhaps watch a couple LPs show off a little bit of it on its most recent build (Sapphire) if you’re interested in browsing before buying.

  4. padger says:

    I’d wait until it gets out of early access, if you’ve not played it yet. HOWEVER, it is fantastic.

  5. vecordae says:

    I have this one and am quite pleased by it. Reminds me a little bit of Pirates! or the Uncharted Waters games from the 16-bit era, but run through a filter of Lovecraftian mirth.

  6. Caelyn Ellis says:

    I was massively disappointed by this. The words are indeed excellent, but the game is rather slow and unwieldy and resources are very limited, at least to start with. I felt this resulted in the ratio of slowly chugging through the dark to interesting stuff being way off.

  7. NotOscarWilde says:

    To anyone who seeks a weird fiction pirate-themed novel, I must recommend The Scar by China Mieville (a British national, in case the name fooled you). Probably my favourite novel of this century.

    I admit I’ve spent a lot in Fallen London precisely for its similariites with Bas-Lag mythos. I long for more weird fiction or cosmic horror in games. But the grind was too much after a while.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      Oh yes, The Scar is wonderful, and much recommended.

      • B.rake says:

        Bestist Reading Simulator, 2012… I know it came out earlier but that’s when I simulated reading it.

      • malkav11 says:

        The Scar remains my favorite Mieville. Perdido Street Station is nearly as good, but I don’t think it’s quite as focused or its setting quite as personally compelling as The Scar’s seafaring. Unfortunately, Iron Council felt as much political screed as story. And the various other things he’s written are all neat and imaginative, but…they’re not Bas-Lag.

    • Marrow says:

      Before even reading the comments this article prompted me to message a friend saying “Reading The Scar is making me want to play this game”
      Although nothing can beat Perdido Street Station imo

    • jezcentral says:

      I was reminded of Bas Lag just reading the article. I’m glad to see that others who have experienced the game think so too.

      One to add to the list, then. I also narrowly preferred PSS to TS, but both great reads. Dear China, stop writing Marxist interpretations of international law, or whatever it is you prefer doing nowadays, and give us more Bas Lag. Pretty please?

    • twaitsfan says:

      Reading Kraken right now and I keep thinking how great it would’ve been if The Secret World had synthesized the innumerable cults like CM did in this book. “A game where every legend you’ve ever heard is real!” My azz…

      • NotOscarWilde says:

        I’ve played most of vanilla Secret World in one or two months I subscribed. The lore was much more satisfying than the generic Star Wars/Warcraft games, but the MMO concepts got in the way, and ultimately, some story parts were lacking (no real ending and no real feeling of belonging to your secret society except for one or two exclusive missions).

        So that’s a shame, I guess — TSW and Fallen London are two games with innovative, immersive lores that are average in the gameplay part of the game, and by the comments, Sunless Sea is not that different.

  8. Cryptoshrimp says:

    See, I really want to love Sunless Sea, and there’s no doubt that Failbetter has a gift with words nearly unmatched in the video game world, but I wonder if dear RPS has played the same version of the game as I have, or have access to a – far superior – future build.

    For a start, it isn’t a trading game, it just isn’t. The developers have made their intentions clear on the development forums: they want you to focus on the exploration, not the trading. Which is fair, because the story is (mostly) really good, but don’t advertise it as a trading game, then.

    The trading you can do is so limited in scope – while ferrying a few crates of mushroom wine to the tomb-colonist sounds great when I write it, mechanically it isn’t fun, and nets you a few nickels.

    Which ties in to a bigger problem I have with the game: it’s like your miserly aunt, giving out a single peppermint for your birthday. Everything is expensive and to get anywhere without tedious grind is either dependent on luck or gaming the system.

    What should be a constant battle against the Zee and its inhabitants is just a constant battle against the restricting tedium of the game’s mechanics, and while the (lovely) story is doled out in a more generous fashion, it just doesn’t make up for it.

    • klops says:

      Oh? Sounds still like the same experience I had with the first early builds. I hoped it has improved greatly because of the news lately and its position among the bestests of 2014. But then, Sunless Sea has got high praise from RPS during its whole life span and I haven’t much enjoyed playing it during the same time. Not my cup of tea then. Shame!

    • Loam says:

      I don’t think the problem I have with it has anything to do with the combat (which is the most recent major change AFAICT) — I’ve been avoiding it as much as possible, anyway, unless I was out of supplies and saw one of the weaker beasts. Rather, as Cryptoshrimp says, the extreme lack of resources and luck-based circumstances combine to make it frustrating to an unfun point. I really want to explore the world of Sunless Sea, but the game doesn’t seem to want the same thing.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      Bang on. I really dislike the forced drop-drip method of (delicious) story delivery. If someone wants to take their time, no problem – but let’s please also not make it impossible for those of us who just want to go exploring. Fuel management and trading are crippling an otherwise excellent game. I’m not returning until this is fixed – and am a little disappointed in RPS for not being more critical about this side.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        It’s not going to be ‘fixed’ because it’s not a fault with the game, but a design goal. Which is exactly why RPS aren’t being more critical of it. If it’s not to your tastes, fair enough, I can appreciate that even if I don’t relate with it. But don’t ask the developers to make a game they aren’t making, and don’t demand that RPS judge it as what it is not.

        • colossalstrikepackage says:

          Hmm. I can see where you’re coming from. My issue is not with the mechanic per se (every game has some grind) – it’s with the balance of the grind. Seems like I’m not alone from what people above are saying. I enjoy the world-making of Fallen London (as RPS does), and fell out of love with the grind then as well. Here’s to hoping the devs do look at this aspect. Failbetter responded admirably to the combat system criticism (inc from RPS) even though it was part of the planned system – I’m hoping they can do something similar here. Not sure why I can’t expect RPS to flag it as an issue.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            I see what you’re saying, I really do. But what you call grind, some people call pacing. I can’t say Failbetter won’t change their minds, and I can’t say RPS won’t decide that spacing out your content rather than throwing all of it at the player in the space of one hour-long session is a bad thing. But I wouldn’t hold your breath on either count, I’m afraid. It’s possibly just not the kind of game for you. Lord knows Fallen London has its share of folks who love it, and folks who hate it.

    • TemplarKnight says:

      Have you played the recent builds? Its much more easier to make a boatload of echoes if you know how than it ever was in the early builds. Simply trucking Sphinxstone from The Salt Lions can net you hundreds of echoes on top of the usual revenues from port reports and strategic info, and trading certain goods have become more profitable (Mushroom Wine for example can make a fair bit off of at Godfall, rather than Venderbight if you have enough).

      Its all about risk versus reward, and the Bazaar Economy, the heart of pre-modern trading. The more you know, the more profit you can make and the less likely you are to get shafted.

      • colossalstrikepackage says:

        Now here’s a more helpful comment! I hadn’t realised that the newer versions tackle this. Is it possible to set up a sustainable model whereby exploration is not just slight deviations from trade routes? Would love an excuse to plunge back in if exploration is viable.

        • TemplarKnight says:

          Yes and No. They’ve provided some incentives in stuff like the Venturer’s Requests (His resides in London and basically asks you to find certain goods and bring them back to him for large payments, such as Outlandish Artifacts, Parabola Linen, Mutersalt, or Zoup. Items which cannot be found in London if you wish to make money off of the deal), or The Last Tour in Venderbight, where you are take large shipments of Tomb-Colonists to stop in three different locations and must return with all 12 for a final payment (I have no idea if its randomized or what, but my current route is Gaider’s Mourn, Polythreme, and The Chelonate[Which I didn’t think existed yet, but it does apparently]).

          At the same time, its not bulletproof. There isn’t much reason to go looking for places out of the way that aren’t on those quests such as The Fathomking’s Hold, The Mangrove College, Visage, The Sorrows, or The Isle of Cats aside from the fact that they offer brand new opportunities for power, items, and money if you can find them.

          Which is the thing, I have no idea if you know or not, but the latest builds randomize the islands within their “rows”. The Coastlines stay the same, but everything else can switch around if you don’t have your successor keep your map. Some times you could have Gaider’s Mourn and the Corsair’s Forest right next to London, others it could be two or three tiles away.

  9. 2lab says:

    So often good game mechanics and good writing are mutually exclusive. so often writers don’t want to give the players enough freedom and the good game people don’t give a fuck about the words. I was hoping that Sunless sea would break the mould by having good game and good words but no, they used the story nexus.

    Failbetter, you could fail less, you need two people, one who can write good core code and another to nail the game play.

    • Loam says:

      More freedom isn’t always the answer, but rather appropriate choices about freedom and restriction, selection and refinement of the particular form of interactivity best suited to tell the particular story (or deliver the particular experience) that you intend. (And of course, always in context. I doubt Andrew Plotkin’s “Shade” would offer precisely the same experience outside the conventions that have been established regarding the kind of interactivity and freedom that one expects from IF.)

    • TemplarKnight says:

      I think its a bit unfair to criticize the game’s gameplay when it isn’t even fully complete yet (though it as improved, for the most part since its first release). And in any case, this award was for the game’s writing, not its gameplay specifically. because it isn’t the best thing since sliced bread yet.

      • klops says:

        I don’t find it unfair to criticise an unfinished game no more than to praise an unfinished game.

        So far I’ve had early access experiences with five games, including Sunless Sea. All the other games have given a clear picture how the mechanics work and I’ve more or less liked playing those games. I also expect them to stay pretty much like that till the end. Sunless Sea has given wonderful, twisted mystery world but the gameplay was “meh” for me and by the comments that shared my opinion in here it seems to have stayed like that. Some of the early access games I’ve played have been tweaked a lot but the “feeling” has stayed the same. Perhaps Sunless Sea’s gameplay in its finished form after few months or more feels much different from its nowaday form, but I doubt it.

        This doesn’t mean that I can’t understand why people like Sunless Sea or vote it for one of the best games of 2014 (The category “Bestest words” was given after the game was picked among the 24 or so best games). I’d really like to like the game more (duh, I paid for it) but perhaps this just isn’t for me.

        • TemplarKnight says:

          It takes a particular set of players to like it I think, and its not my place to judge why RPS (or any other gaming media site or forum) decides to make Early Access games available to be put up for awards. My only guess for Sunless Sea is that its basically two major updates away from final release, and they seem to be judging the game more on its writing than its gameplay, in regards to this award.

          Its designed to be a rouge-like, hard but not unbeatable, game. I feel its similar to Sid Meyer’s Pirates! except nowhere near as fast-paced and with more depth.

  10. Shardz says:

    But did they actually fix the game play yet? Last I heard, it was under transition and people were on the fence about it. Hrmmm…

    • TemplarKnight says:

      If you mean they changed the combat over to real-time? Yes they have, and although I was nervous about the switch, I’ve gotten used to it and feel that it works a lot better than take-turn.

      The current build, Sapphire, also features neutral ships (wish could eventually bug out by duplicating too much and crashing the game, but its early phases on that front and can be fixed by simply making port and restarting the game from the title screen which only takes about 5 seconds).

      I think its progressing quite well, and the team’s ironing out the kinks as they go along.

  11. Joshua Northey says:

    Do we really need to also have EA games infiltrating the end of year games list? It is making it rather hard to find actually complete games…all anyone wants to talk about is stuff with potential, frequently that ends up falling far short of it.

    • meepmeep says:

      I know this is bah humbuggy, but I really do agree that a game slated for release in 2015 should be included in 2015’s consideration. The comments here just back up that this game has changed significantly over the course of its Early Access, and I have absolutely zero desire to play an unfinished game when that game has a clear stated goal for completion, release and consumption, and is likely to only improve over that time.

      Fair enough if the advent calendar only had a few ‘interesting’ Early Access games from this year, but about half of the entries so far are Early Access games.

  12. Muzman says:

    Mostly this game’s development is a matter of balances being a bit off. It’s funny how such relatively tiny changes can completely alter the game and put people off. Which isn’t to say the gripes are wrong, but I think to play early access stuff you do have to look at a game a bit harder than sitting back and saying ‘entertain me!’. But not everyone wants to and the gut reaction can be useful too.
    Still, despite feeling the same real struggle to get anywhere at the start and being on a knife edge of fuel and supplies for a long time, I somehow lucked my way into a bit of money and the game opened up completely. Probably too much! as I felt I was getting through things too fast for the early development.
    I did learn a few things along the way. If you are trading for pennies you’re doing it wrong. They seem to have clearly designed it so you can’t grind basic goods to riches and then the rest of the game is a cruise. They just may not have designed that aspect too well. You are supposed to explore and gather reports primarily. Along the way you will find stories and developments that can open up new avenues for you. But sometimes that requires too much luck at the moment, the rest of the early time being a hopeless-feeling limp to almost certain death. Not terribly fun at all.
    (I’ve started to develop a theory between this game and Sir, You Are Being Hunted about the slow paced rougue-lite sort of game. High challenge and permadeth type scenarios with a certain amount of randomness seem terribly difficult to balance. When the pace is slow and the ‘lifespan’ longer than more immediate run-gun type games, player expectation changes dramatically and small amounts of bad luck can have huge impacts on the way people play and how compelling the game feels usually at that point where a game is really trying to draw people in and show them what they’ve got to look forward to. But anyway… )

    There is a really cool game there though. One filled with atmosphere and mystery. After a while you do want a cheat sheet of notes about little quests and clues you uncover. The game isn’t going to hold your hand much over those and I like that. Updates can have a huge impact too, even when they don’t think they’re altering much. I do laugh at what counts as progress in development terms versus player experience. There’s aspects of the game that are said to be 90% complete but if you add those few things the possibilities change enormously. Like just a few more random events. Or neutral shipping, which is mentioned like a little detail at the end they’re throwing in. I think that’ll alter so much about the game, from atmosphere to economic possibilities.
    I like the game quite a bit now, but I think it’ll be very good when it’s finished.

    • TemplarKnight says:

      Yeah, the whole point of the game is the process of reaching out and trying to figure out how things work by experience, and some players may not like that. The lack of any real tutorial outside of the help page only reinforces this, you gotta find out all these things yourself, what works, what doesn’t work, what risks are worth taking, what are best left for later, what do you make note of for your next trip or next character?

      I love that aspect of this game, it really nails the core principles of a Bazaar economy, which is that knowledge is power. The more you know, the more profit you can make, the more powerful you’ll become (since knowledge literally translates into ways for leveling up your stats) and overall the more success you will have.

      This game is just becoming better and better as the final release date draws nearer, and I’m hoping it finishes strong.

  13. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Ooh, yes this sounds delicious. Finally got round to trying Fallen London recently, spending a pleasant few weeks logging in once or twice a day for what little tasty narrative morsels you can get per session. A full blown meal should be a delightful thing.