COGWATCH – 6. Sunless Sea

Hey! It’s a new and final episode of COGWATCH, a weekly video series in which Quintin Smith examines one mechanic in one game. This week, the BOSS COG that is miserabilist, boat-bound roguelike Sunless Sea [official site].

Like it? Part one was on rhythm in roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer, part two was about co-op in cart-based platformer Chariot, part three was on risk and reward in procedural stealth game Invisible, Inc, part four was on item degradation in The Long Dark. and part five was on the rewind ability in Life Is Strange.

Remember to subscribe to the RPS YouTube channel for more videos like this and also not at all like this.

Episode six marks the end of COGWATCH… season one! It will resume with a second season later in the year. Until then, keep watching those cogs.

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  1. Freud says:

    Thanks for this series. Entertaining and even a bit, though it’s a bad word these days, educational.

    • thedosbox says:

      Seconded. I was surprised when the RPS twitter accound said it was the end of the series. Happiness followed once I realized they just meant the first “season”.

      • Havalynii says:

        “Series” = Britishspeak for “Season”. Although it sounds like you’ve already gotten that. :)

    • Oozo says:

      Add me to the praise heap.
      I won’t lie, I was more than a bit sad once Quinndependance Day was announced — yeah, I still haven’t completely gotten over it, Quinns was (and is) so good a writer.
      Anyway, it’s fantastic to see that he can now apply all that he has learnt in the meantime by turning to board games — a careful eye for the “cogs” that make a game run, how to do video journalism — to video games again, a subject that is closer to my interests. (I love boardgames, but I don’t get to play them nearly often enough.)

      This series is, with one word, fantastic, it’s what game criticism in the video format should aspire to be. Glad to hear that it won’t end any time soon.

      As for the subject of this episode: I agree, I battled myself on the decision if I wanted to turn off permadeath or not — but with each passing hour that I survived against all odds, the thought of having to repeat all this again (and, as you say, the weakness actually is that it’s not flexible enough to be so endlessly replayable the way a roguelike is) became more and more unbearable. So I hit the trigger, and a bit of the magic was gone. Not nearly enough, though for me to stop playing. It’s a clunky, but great game indeed.

      And god dammit, that comparison with JRPGs make a lot of sense — above all the Persona games. They are probably the only JRPGs that I played to the end in the last… 10 years or so, and it’s actually because, much like in Sunless Sea, the repetition is supported by the themes: it’s a game about life at a highschool, and much, much more successful in this than, say, Bully, which does not know the first thing about that constant up and down of bitter repetition (classes) and the relief that week-ends, holidays and school trips do bring — a relief that is all the sweeter for the tediousness that surrounds them. I found myself getting into a certain rhythm playing both Persona and Sunless Sea, which had, in fact, some aspects of work, but which I didn’t mind too much, to my own surprise.

      I had never thought about that, but I guess that the Persona games might actually help you explore that particular argument, or abyss, if you prefer — so thanks, I guess, for all the food for thoughts Cogwatch provides.

      • Kitsunin says:

        I hadn’t thought of it in those turns, and I think this is one of the big reasons I don’t feel Persona 4 improved over 3 in terms of pacing. Well, it did in the sense that you don’t have to grind quite as much, which is great, but the timing of that grind feels at odds with the simulation aspect, rather than mixed in.

        In P3 you would dip into the dungeon for the evening every few days and dig down until your party got tired, head out, rest up while socializing, then dig down again, repeat until you reach the current bottom…now you’re free from the dungeon for a little while, like a vacation until the full moon comes.

        In P4 the most efficient way to do things was to wait until a rainy day, dig and grind and dig and grind for a long time, fight the boss, and then come back in a month or so when the next person needs rescuing. Doing it very quickly is important because you lose your whole day otherwise, even when it’s raining and there’s no S-link that means missing out on a big life-sim stat boost from the beef bowl, fishing or somesuch. It left you with big chunks of RPGing with massive chunks of life sim in between.

        So often I was left wanting whichever one I wasn’t currently in the midst of, while P3 gave a good mix (on the whole too much time was spent grinding though!), and the occasional week without needing to go to tartarus felt like a proper piece of respite.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Another thing I liked about Persona 3’s pacing. Because the event occurs each full moon, the actual vacation bits of the story, while they were fun and relaxing, they gave you a sense of tension which you would naturally feel in such a situation: I’m relaxing, but because I’m away I’m not training, I’m losing out of precious time!

          In Persona 4, the vacations happened while nobody was missing, so there was no such tension. No time limit slipping away as you spend a week with friends…just a vague feeling that your time to get to know the people in town is passing you by. Which is fitting, but it doesn’t feel quite as good in the way it interacts with the gameplay.

  2. Trillby says:

    It’s a very interesting avenue of thought and something that is not discussed at all, unless it’s the other way around. We always say how ‘such and such mechanic took me out the game’. Well these mechanics are drawing us further into the world of the protagonist through some weird quasi-similar experience. Obtuse mechanics to simulate the frustrations of being in their situation, and give a sort of sideways affective empathy.

    I guess the time has come to start coining the phrase “Ludo-narrative harmony” and circle-jerk ourselves silly. Great series Quinns, lovely to see you on RPS again <3

    • Rizlar says:

      Somehow missed this comment before. But yes! I’ve definitely used the term ‘ludo-narrative resonance’ before when talking about Sunless Sea. ‘Harmony’ might suggest elements existing side by side, I like the way ‘resonance’ describes the actual process of elements feeding into and amplifying one another.

  3. Canadave says:

    I loved this one (though I’ve been enjoying the series as a whole). Sunless Sea is a really interesting game, and I’ve quite liked my time with it. You’re right that the long slog between islands is sort of simultaneously dull and part of the game’s attraction. Every time I choose if I want to press on or make my way back to London it seems like a weighty choice, because I know I have a long way to go.

    Something you also touched on that I like is how the threat of death and danger is always lurking nearby, but unlike most rouguelikes I’ve played, it feels manageable. I don’t have to keep pressing forward into the unknown, as there’s no rebel fleet chasing me or deeper dungeons to reach. And when I do die (or nearly die) it always feels like it was due to a reckless decision on my part, not because a RNG decided not to give me a weapon I need or because I haven’t quite figured out an enemy’s attack pattern yet. It’s a really interesting, unique dynamic.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Thanks Canadave!

      I totally agree, and that’s yet another example of the game’s design pulling in two directions simultaneously. Sunless Sea is a game that punishes you hugely for death, yet the first tip you see in a loading screen is “Go off and get yourself killed!” What?! Any developer in the world would tell you that’s a mistake.

      But it’s *not* a mistake. The simple fact that you didn’t *have* to go on this idiotic voyage makes the entire voyage so exciting. You’re wallowing in your own greed the whole time. And guess what? That feels fun!

  4. shrieki says:

    nice vid-! i´m trying to decide if i use manual save for my next sunless sea session. i find the perma death aspect frustrating because of the repetition. but i´m also afraid that the game then looses its magic :P
    kinda hard to enjoy sunless sea … its a bittersweet experience somehow.

  5. misterT0AST says:

    Quintin Smith is really good at making videos interesting and fun.
    Sure his writing is equally entertaining, but his charisma equally shines in video form, and the same can’t be said for many writers.

    I don’t know how long ago he came back to RPS but if he starts a weekly column in video form, I won’t miss an episode for sure!
    This could really bring something of notice to the Rockpapershotgun Youtube channel (which I usually only visit following article links).

    It turns out the videos with him really hold their own even without the dashing good looks of Reference Pear.

  6. Dorga says:

    This one really got me thinking, thanks Quin!

  7. heretic says:

    Great series, thank you! Hope we don’t have to wait too long for the next one :)

  8. RagingLion says:

    My favourite thing on RPS.

    Quinns had already mastered talking about computer games with the written word – critically or in fiction.

    Now it’s as if he went off to Shut & Sit Down to learn how to present on video and to have him back again commenting on micro-chip enabled games with these latest skills is a sheer joy.


    I love that this video is about a mechanic working even if it can’t be fully explained. It feels true to what games are to confront that head on and makes the series feel a more rounded commentary on game mechanics because of it.

  9. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Brilliant Quins. We’re now seeing the development of in-depth, intelligent games criticism (paralleled by Eurogamer’s dropping of number ratings for reviews). I’m much enjoying gaming at the moment in so many different subgenres. Sunless Sea was a recent highlight, now I’m obsessed with the stripped board-game mechanics of Invisible Inc, and – despite being a pinko feminist at heart – GTA V is wonderfully lush. Such breadth in the gaming scene, ripe for criticism.

    When do you join the London Review of Books?

    • gorice says:


      Also, yes, this was an excellent installment in an excellent series.

  10. Sin Vega says:

    I had such an epiphany on this subject while playing Fallout 3 + FWE with a self-imposed permadeath (plus lots of other conditions) challenge*. Finding a place where I could probably be safe forever, but in an incredibly boring way, brought me up against a huge dilemma that made a huge change to the way I think about and play games.

    It’s funny that at the time, just a couple of years ago, survival games were few and far between, and roguelikes were still a relatively niche, little-known genre/design idea, yet now we’re swimming in both, but many of them don’t really seem to understand the territory they’re skirting around. It’s a shame. But it’s good that some devs are getting there, and that the discussions are finally starting to establish a foothold on the culture.

    *shameless self-plug: link to

    • Sin Vega says:

      Gah. That was meant to be a reply to Canadave, above. Damn internet.

    • gorice says:

      I’ve had similar experiences with Unreal World (and Sunless Sea, ofc.). The lure of adventure or mystery always ends up luring me out of my comfort zone.

    • Rizlar says:

      My first zee captain was so inept at the business side of things that, after being forced to trade in the starting steamer and making a couple of outings in a rubber dinghy with one crew and one hitpoint, she eventually spent the rest of the proceeds on a townhouse and retired.

      There was no reason to retire, I didn’t really gain anything in terms of wealth/power/knowledge. It just felt so much more in character. I think they had a background as a writer or something, I imagined them having gone to zee as a bit of a jolly jaunt, the rest of their life telling heavily embellished stories about it and appearing in publications as ‘the inside voice of a famous ex-zee captain’.

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      kfix says:

      God DAMMIT, why did I follow that link? So many words! In pleasing arrangements!

      I’ve put it aside for dipping into a little every day, possibly for a long time, but just wanted to say I already like the style. No surprise there, having liked what I’ve seen of your other writing in these parts. So thanks. I guess. So many words…..

      • Sin Vega says:

        Thank you! I am working on more, but life is slowing the process down considerably lately.

        • Premium User Badge

          kfix says:

          Live first write second, please :-) There’s enough for me to be going on with for quite a while by the looks….

  11. Schazzwozzer says:

    I wish I had experienced the high highs that Quinns praises in this video. With my first Sunless Sea captain I sputtered around a lot, charting the west side of the Unterzee to no real consequence. Not knowing what else to do, I resolved to reach Mt. Palmerston, one of the few quest-like objectives I’d been provided. Unfortunately, Mt. Palmerston was randomly placed on the far east (most dangerous) side of the map. My first captain probably succumbed trying to reach it.

    I played a couple other captains, but tedium and high risk can also inspire cautious, boring play. None of my experience with the game had rewarded risky play, so I tried to do the optimization thing, running whatever passed as trade routes. Went out to the Salt Lions a couple times. Bought a new engine eventually, but it was too late: I stopped loading up the game pretty quickly thereafter.

    Maybe I was unlucky, but in 26 hours, I think the only satisfying story arc I experienced was that of the settlement of Visage. Virtually all else was promises of story that I couldn’t pursue for lack of skill, money, or resources.

    • jalf says:

      First of all, Visage is amazing.

      Second, my experience is that the game *does* actually reward taking risks. There’s really very little money to be made on trade routes or known destinations. But you can reliably turn a nice profit by striking out as far away from London as you can get. Into the unknown, with as many stops along the way as you can get.

      The game doesn’t really tell you this very clearly and it’s easy to get the idea that “I should play it safe and putter around the west coast for a while”, but really, it’s not worth it. I’ve kind of had the opposite problem, even. I found I could get pretty much anywhere with the starting engine/ship, so why would I bother upgrading? As long as I can afford to fill the hold with fuel and supplies then I can reach the eastern end of the map right off the bat, and make a huge profit compared to what I’d get from tediously chugging around near London.

  12. Rizlar says:

    The bit about the character’s actions mirroring the player’s actions is bang on. I’ve thought about it a lot while staring out at the darkness on the long stretches between ports. How the gamey parts involve charting courses, figuring out how many supplies to take on and where to stop over. Keeping a light touch on the tiller, nudging the boat to glide easily in to dock so as not to waste fuel. Learning the names of ports and what they trade in. Making a reckless, mad dash for home as your ship is on the verge of mutiny. How you are never at home for long yet it’s invaluable, it still feels like home. Leaving port with a full compliment of crew, a full hold, the dark sea stretched out full of promise, and in those safe waters close to home just briefly hoping that you make it back.

  13. Chris D says:

    Good as the text adventures are I think my high point with the game was actually something else.

    We set out to explore the Zee and discovered a chain of islands leading east of Codex in the north and a similar chain in the south extending out from the Iron Republic, but between them the interior of the zee was a wide and dark expanse. Early voyages had explored either one side or another and we’d done reasonably well, acquired the skills to progress in a number of adventures and had managed to upgrade and outfit my ship to the point where I was feeling confident. Too confident perhaps.

    We could make a decent profit exploring the north or the south but if we could complete the whole circuit in one trip then we’d make some serious money. It would be tight but we could do it. I had taken to supplementing my supplies by raiding any passing shipping. I’d taken down many a pirate ship without a hit but this time I got careless and they got a shot off. The long sea journey had taken it’s toll and this damage took the crew below half way which results in a large drop in speed. Now we weren’t going to be able to resupply in time. The long trip we had planned was impossible the only chance was to try to head straight back to London across the black and empty inner Zee.

    Too badly damaged to risk another fight, but the crew was too terrified to risk running without lights for any length of time. Fuel and supplies ever dwindling, the only chance was to set a straight course and pray for fuel, and all at a maddening half of normal speed. We limped through the dark for what seemed an age until starving, terrifed and down to our last drop of fuel we finally made it back to the lights of Fallen London.

    In reality of course this mostly involved holding down the direction key for probably about ten minutes and occasionally turning the lights on or off but it’s still managed to be one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time. (The other being the final mission of Invisible Inc, but that’s a story for another time.)

    On the stories themselves I’ll just say, as far as the game is concerned I still have my soul, despite the best efforts of the wistful Devilless and Pentecost Apes but in my heart I know I lost it on the Isle of Cats.

  14. caff says:

    I’m so glad you said many of the things you said about Sunless Sea, as it resonated with me (but equally I felt bad for it).

    Because I absolutely love the writing. The game itself (of what I played) let it down. Maybe you could compare JRPGs in terms of “grindy” but some people like me don’t have the patience to break through that barrier and get that lucky break or just simply keep going.

    On a side note, I really hope that when the Pathologic remake becomes real, Quinns is the one who reviews it.

  15. Muzman says:

    Good stuff.

    Sunless Sea does quite a few things you’re not supposed to do that turn out to be quite interesting like that. Such as the lack of any real secondary hubs or bases of operations. Most exploratory or open world-ish games are expected to have some. You feel pretty hamstrung in the early stages being shackled to London like that. But I realised after a while that as every journey took me further and further the sense of isolation and danger just kept growing. You might find a new outpost but they might have nothing you need. And then it’s such a relief to make it back again.
    The game just trains that reaction to home.

  16. Eawyne says:

    I desperatly tried to go deeper into this game, but like its zee did to way too many of my captains, the game drowned me in the tedious gameplay. I love the design, the background, the stories that emerge and promise much. But after nearly 30h, I didn’t manage to get that far. I tried to go east, like hinted, but to no avail.

    And thus, even though I often think about installing it again, the meer idea of faring endlessly again just puts that desire aside. And that’s sad.

    • shrieki says:

      thats exactly how i feel about this game – but i did not un-installed it yet. i´m thinking about using manual save next time but i´m not sure if that would ruin the excitement.

  17. Grim_22 says:

    I absolutely love this series – looking forward to season 2!

  18. HuvaaKoodia says:

    I haven’t played SS yet, but by the sound of it I’m in no hurry. Wasting the user’s time is, in my book, a capital offence. These meaningful feelings can be achieved with other means.

    One example of this is The Curious Expedition. In the traditional roguelike fashion the movement is abstract and turnbased. Going from one location to another might only take 15 seconds and a few clicks, but it feels much more anxious than that.

    This is because every single step drains your resources and saps sanity. Every single step holds potential for grave danger. Every single step is further and further to the unknown. There is a point of no return, but you don’t know where it’s drawn. To find treasure one has to take risks and that makes success so much more rewarding and awe inspiring.

    The mind will fill in the details of the journey. The loneliness and boredom spiked with unease and paranoia the group of adventurers is struggling with is conveyed with just a few tidbits of information.

    All this within 10-15 minutes. No wasted time. Great stories to tell afterwards.

  19. brotherthree says:

    I loved the atmosphere of Sunless Sea, and the music/sounds effects were top notch…. but it could’ve been so much more fantastic in my opinion if it had more central “Quests” or Objectives for players to complete.

    The exploration is fun, but having your entire game revolve around a mechanic with uncontrollable outcomes can add, but also hugely detract from people’s experiences in game.
    I’ve read many stories of players who enjoyed their first play through’s, but died for a multitude of reasons only to have no motivation to re-explore the same world, even if its randomly generated. They explored some fun stuff, but because there is no main quest with tick-able objectives the players have no idea how much is “left” for them, and thus impact their wanting to keep playing.

    I think if they took an approach similar to FTL, in that there was one overarching story line or goal with non abstract “waypoints” that kept you feeling like you were progressing, but then kept everything else in their laid back approach to the Zee, allowing players to explore and gather resources at their own pace it would’ve been a universal crowd pleaser instead of a niche survival-atmosphere indie.

  20. Azkaltia says:

    Great series, thanks!