Deep Thoughts: Sunless Sea’s Zubmariner Expansion

If you were at Rezzed last week, you had two opportunities to see Failbetter folks live on stage, talking about narrative games on a panel hosted by our own John Walker, and presenting a talk on the Zubmariner expansion to the wonderful Sunless Sea [official site]. You can watch the latter presentation below and it contains loads of new details about venturing into the depths of Fallen London’s perilous waters. Key points: the Constant Companion is the most horrible of all the horrible things, and submarines are fragile things.

Zubmarines then! You’ll be able to get hold of your very own submersible shell fairly quickly once you’ve purchased the expansion. It’s not given to you automatically but it won’t take a great deal of effort to get hold of it. More interesting still, the zubmarine form is an extension of your ship, so if you’ve got a beast of a machine already, it’ll morph into a beast of a zubmarine.

The lure of the depths is similar to the lure of the sea itself – hazardous, lonely and terrifying though it may be, there are treasures to find. And more importantly there are stories to discover. Curiosity is the fuel that drives those ships.

Other than that, it’s best to let Failbetter speak for themselves. They have quite a way with words. As does that chap at the beginning and end of the video, doing the introductions and hosting the Q&A. That would be me.


  1. demicanadian says:

    I really wanted to love Sunless Sea, still waiting for novels and rpg in the Fallen London, but I can’t get into this game.
    My problem is, I’m either terribly bad at it, or this game by design requires player to use wiki and all that metagaming practices I don’t use.

    • AngoraFish says:

      Same. 7 hours in and, despite trying very hard indeed to like it, I lost interest.

      Sunless Sea is one of those games where you can only progress by dying repeatedly and in the process developing a deep understanding of the game’s underlying systems, including being able to think like the developer so you can ensure that you are playing the game exactly how they imagined you would play, rather than doing your own damn unanticipated thing.

      Frankly, repeating very similar content over and over in order to push a little longer next time (or not) just isn’t my idea of a good time in a game that’s more than slow enough to start with.

      • jalf says:

        That’s really not my experience at all.

        In my experience, when people have struggled with Sunless Sea, it has actually mostly been because they *didn’t* do their own damn unanticipated thing, and instead “repeated very similar content over and over in order to push a little longer next time”.

        In short, don’t treat it like a typical video game where you have to start small and grind and grind and gradually work your way up to the interesting bit. Strike out for the unknown. That’s what the game is about, and it’s what you should do right from the beginning. Don’t just hug the coastline going up and down a bit. Explore. See new things. Earn money by reporting on those things when you return to London. Visiting the same places over and over isn’t interesting and it isn’t profitable.

        To be honest, I’m not even sure what you’re doing where repeating content over and over would allow you to push a little longer next time. Are you trying to save up for something hugely expensive? Don’t bother. You can literally reach the right hand side of the map in the starting ship with the starting engine.

        Don’t bother trading (much), and don’t bother fighting (much). Explore, and make your living from that.

        • AngoraFish says:

          The flaw with that is running out of fuel. So there’s a hard limit to how far you can get before you have to turn around and return. And without returning you get no cash to buy fuel (and other supplies), which means inevitable death.

          One of the biggest frustrations I had is either miscalculating how much fuel I had, or getting distracted checking one last thing, and then running out of fuel within sight of London.

          That, or running out of fuel trying to circle around or outrun pirates or monsters I’d never have a chance of defeating.

          So the game isn’t at all about exploring, it’s about balancing fuel consumption with risk/reward to get a couple of extra visits and maybe a lucky roll in an event, while at the same time keeping a close count in your head about the last possible moment to take the long, dangerous, tedious trip back to london to stock up again.

          In the end, despite min/maxing triangular exploration paths and balancing supplies perfectly so I got back to london with only a hare’s breath to spare, I still found myself stuck largerly on the left side of the map with the same ship I started out with, repeating more or less the same text-based choose your own advanture stories each time.

          • Jekadu says:

            Strike out anyway. It may sound weird and counterintuitive, but you’ll be surprised at how well it works. The first time will be a panicked scramble between islands, trying to just stay ahead of the curve. After that, though, things will start falling into place. You learn where to look for extra supplies, where to scrounge up some fuel, where to replace lost crew and how to just barely make it back home again.

            One of the most important sources of income is the delivery of Admiralty reports. You don’t get much money for them, but as long as you turn in a bunch at once, you’ll be able to finance your trips through them and treat any other forms of income as profit.

            Take risks. Explore. Do stupid stuff. You’ll be surprised at the rewards you will get.

          • Blackcompany says:

            Completely agree. The game features a downright tedious, punishing level of grind.

          • qrter says:

            You learn where to look for extra supplies, where to scrounge up some fuel, where to replace lost crew and how to just barely make it back home again.

            Sounds like just another way to say you’ll have to repeat very similar content over and over in order to push a little longer next time.

            I love Fallen London, and the universe Failbetter have created, but the game running under Sunless Sea just isn’t much fun to play.

          • Muzman says:

            “The flaw with that is running out of fuel. So there’s a hard limit to how far you can get before you have to turn around and return. ”
            “So the game isn’t at all about exploring, it’s about balancing fuel consumption with risk/reward ”

            Sure sounds like exploring to me. We’re just used to travel being gamey and virtually free.

            I hear people having these troubles very early on and it sounds like what it was like wayyy back in beta when the game was murderous. Now they practically throw fuel at you at every turn, your terror is quite manageable and many more ports seem to sell you important stuff. It’s easy by comparison now.
            That’s not a boast, it’s just true. For the record I’ve had only about 4 captains I think. And the last two had crazy long careers and basically owned the Zee. So while you can repeat a lot of stuff early on, there’s options to explore and a few times isn’t so bad (and we repeat things over and over in games all the time, so while I wouldn’t dismiss the reaction here it’s at least intriguing that it bugs so many people in this sort of game).

            I’m not sure if its the problem here but the first tip that a lot of people get the wrong way around is trying to hang on to the ‘stuff’ you earned with each captain. For the first few captains Do Not Do This! Especially the Map! Scrap it and start fresh. The game’s reconfigurations will be more thorough and more likely to go your way.

          • Jekadu says:

            Sounds like just another way to say you’ll have to repeat very similar content over and over in order to push a little longer next time.

            That’s not what happens. As I said, throw caution to the winds. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well this works. It’s counter-intuitive, but playing defensively is a poor strategy for getting to know the game. Taking risks is not so much about learning by grinding, but learning by doing — getting to know the various destinations is part of it, yes, but above all it teaches you which risks pay off and which don’t.

            Also, playing defensively is super boring. If you really need money fast early in the game, try to find Salt-Lions. Other than that, the game is best played by diving into the deep end.

          • InternetBatman says:

            I backed it on kickstarter, played the beta, pay for Fallen London, and completely agree with the criticisms.

            It is incredibly possible to strike out and die from monsters, or strike out and get jack for your troubles, then you’re doomed to either tedium or low fuel death spiral. Go north past the tomb colonies or south from Godsfall, and you’re in a long, long, long wait before getting to anything noteworthy.

            And when you die, you’re doomed to repeat the same areas over and over again. There’s no progression beyond death, because progression is hellishly expensive. There are no purchasable fuel upgrades. And most of the events that give you a slight edge end abruptly, forcing you out further rather than plentiful rewards encouraging you to go further.

          • dumbshine says:

            psssst… it’s “hair’s breadth.”

    • Troubletcat says:

      I played about 30 hours before losing my first captain with no use of any out-of-game resources whatsoever (not even talking to anyone about it).

      So suffice to say my experience was not quite the same as what a few people in this thread have said.

      It’s fundamentally a game about risk management. That doesn’t mean taking no risks (you’ll never get anywhere in the game) but you do need to only take measured risks. A lot of people say they’re running out of fuel a fair bit and dying because of that…

      Turn around when you have half of the fuel you left London with remaining. Obviously these calculations get more complicated once you’re refuelling on your way out, but when you first start out there’s no good reason to buy fuel anywhere except for London.

      Steer very, very wide of any zee-beasts save for the weakest early on. Turn your lamp off as soon as any come on screen. Leave it off until they’re off the screen and behind you again.

      Don’t make choices that are TOO rash while adventuring at ports. It might not kill you but you might still end up with too much terror or not enough supplies to get back. There’s no rush. No reason not to take your time with the content.

      You shouldn’t have to grind anything at any point. If you’re grinding, stop it. Go explore. It’s way more profitable.

      …I’m trying to think of as much generic advice as I can. I really love the game. I think it’s strange that people die in it so frequently because while I sometimes get stuck in a rut and make little progress for a while, in 60+ hours played I’ve seen most of everything in the game and only died a handful of times.

      • klops says:

        Those would be my advice as well. On this I disagree: “You should not have to grind at any point” When the whole map was completely explored, alliances formed and quests drained there was still lots and lots of tedious grinding if you wanted to finish the game. Also the forever sailing back and forth in search of a little quest started to become very grindy rather soon.

      • qrter says:

        The way you describe the process of fuel management sounds incredibly grindy to me. I mean, who actually enjoys bloody fuel management..!

    • Ksempac says:

      I’m currently playing Sunless sea. My first captain died within 2h,but I’ve kept at it. Many captains later I’ve spent 80h in the game, and I’m still loving it.

      I have not used external resources. I highly recommend not to check external ressources. The game is not like Minecraft or Monster Hunter where you can’t really go far if you’re going alone.

      You can definitely win Sunless Sea on your own. Just keep at it, explore different options, and you will soon get an idea of how the game works, and the many ways you can push further.

    • DragonDai says:

      I think the problem a lot of people have with Sunless Sea is that they want to play a video game with a heavy focus on narrative. But Sunless Sea is not that. It’s a narrative told in an interactive way…where you occasionally shoot things.

      In short, if you go into it trying to “win” or “complete” things or “collect them all” or basically ANY of the stuff that videogames have taught you to do, you’re likely gana have a bad time.

      Sunless Sea is about reading a really cool story that is almost certainly going to end abruptly in a violent, horrible, awful, messy death. And then immediately starting over at the beginning, hoping that this time the ending won’t be quite so awful (hint: it’ll be worse).

      As a note, the combat can be a hinderance to this process more than a help. Once you get good at it, it certainly adds to the story, but ESPECIALLY the first dozen or so deaths it’s WAY more of a hinderance to the experience than a benefit. And some people never ever get over the combat detracting from the experience. Which is a shame.

  2. strummer11 says:

    My disappointment with Sunless Sea comes from the fact that it’s a great story in search of a good game. I know, I know: It’s not a meant to be a trading game, nor a fighting game, nor a character-development RPG. It’s primarily a text adventure with the superficial trappings of the above. The developers say so themselves. But it wouldn’t have been hard to make the other aspects of the game a bit more compelling. I find the way these guys tell a story is unsurpassed, the problem is that I want more than just an interactive novel from a game.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      This is about how I feel, and its frustrating because to me at least it feels so very close. If the trading was a bit more robust and the fighting a little less tedious … still I’ll probably get the expansion.

    • klops says:

      Same with me. Still enjoyed the game a great deal at times.

    • Blackcompany says:

      If the game rewarded risk and exploration more than it punished same, I would love it. But every attempt to explore and find new routes is severely punished by a greedy fuel mechanic that badly needs tweaked.

    • Ksempac says:

      I disagree. I think Sunless Sea has actually great game mechanisms that complement each other.

      First there are the game choices. Contrary to most stories based games (especially visual novel) Sunless Sea show you most of the choices even thoses unavailable to you. More importantly it tell you the conditions required to unlock these choices. That’s a huge hint that there are more stuff out there, more ways to tackle problem. “oh that guy doesn’t want to talk to me, that sucks… Oh but there is another option locked because i don’t have a sea gizmo? Wtf is a sea gizmo? Where do i get it? I need to find out”. All theses missed shots are hints for your current or maybe your next captain. That pushs you to discover more and more, and to peel off layer upon layer of new stuff,because the game gives you hints but will only reveal everything it has through many plays.

      Second the combat. At first it seems super boring, with very few options. The AI is limited, and can be abused to win without getting damaged. But after a while you start finding bigger guns, which give more options but also bigger enemies which become a real challenge. A punitive combat system would have awful in an already very punitive game. But that light combat system in Sunless Sea? For me it hit exactly the right spot. It’s easy enough that it’s a nice change of pace, while still providing a worthwhile and satisfying challenge when you start tackling thoses tougher enemies.

      Finally the travelling, yes at the beginning it’s tough to optimize fuel and not get stranded. But the more you play the more you will figure out the many ways to go further away, and ensure a steadt stream of fuels and ressources.

      When i started, i thought it was ridiculous for the game to expect me to go from one side of the map to the other. Now? I regularly make around the world trip without being the least worried about fuel or supplies, because i know so many ways to manage these.
      That’s a very satisfying feeling, to go from being scared for your survival, thinking that every trip could be your last, to mastering the sea and going where you want, and then to start figuring out how to win the game, and finally coming up with a plan to do that (i have yet to win though)

  3. Rizlar says:

    Great stuff, glad I watched it till the end cos there is some interesting discussion about tone in the Q&A. And the Constant Companion… D:

  4. Ben King says:

    I’m really looking forward to watching this talk, and have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of sunless sea’s stories and strange strange world… to throw my $0.02 in the “grind” debate I’d say yes, it absolutely involves grinding, but the grinding allows you to learn the pretty simple currency and game stats, the figure out what high and low risk moves you can make with a captain. Any particular trade loop will have a lot of repetitive elements, but the motivation to ply a trade route isn’t to pick up spare fuel or coin, but to take in newly unlocked story lines, forge new trade deals, or try a new gamble. All of this would definitely be painfully boring if you don’t enjoy failbetter’s style of whimsical fantasy writing, but I kind of enjoyed watching my zailors get horribly consumed by soft amber, giving my soul to a lonely deviless, and being led to my death by a beautiful and ghastly mermaid.

  5. InternetBatman says:

    The game has way too much grind. Upgrades are sparse, and engine upgrades consume more fuel (except for Serpentine). I gave up on the game when I tried turning off permadeath just to see more of it, and still faced the inevitable resource drains and constant backtracking to and from London. They would have been much, much, much better aping Freelancer, Privateer, or even Star Control 2 would have been far better gameplay guidelines than what they chose.

    The game is designed to railroad players into exploration (distant quests, better rewards on paper for going further, limited events that burn out close to London); however, it does not give rewards nearly commensurate to the effort. And the game’s defenders ignore the very real tedium of backtracking. You spend far more time going from and to London through places you’ve explored already.

    I may play it again if someone mods out fuel costs. Terror and supplies at least involve more conscious decisions, and not just a steady drain. Really, in general the game is crying out for a competent gameplay designer to implement a better trading system, add significantly more ship upgrades, and add a better way of making money than compiling port reports and picking up diceroll items.

    • Muzman says:

      It’s a tempting idea, but I think a hub system would defeat the point. You are shackled to London both practically and ideologically and that is as it should be.

      We think “exploration” means a jaunty tour from one safe point to another, carefully balanced for some relative stimulation in between. Good lord this was never the case. It’s about the thread stretching out thinner and thinner until a breeze could break it. Our pursuit of perfect mechanics have made us all very dull seekers of rote experiences.

      The game does this rather well and must keep it. It’s too rare a thing in games to lose. So what does it need instead? Hard to say. I was thinking something like a bit of Pirates where you can beach yourself and hunt around for resources if you’re really stuck. Maybe do some fishing. That’s a bit of a help anyway.

      Most criticisms do run to “I wish it was a far more elaborate game I could play any way I wanted to” which is probably unlikely for a small team anyway.