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State of the Art: Sunless Sea and the world of Zubmariner

What you'll see Unter the Zee

Sunless Sea‘s [official site] first expansion, Zubmariner will be released on 11 October bringing with it new ports and cities to explore and tales to be told. Or as developers, Failbetter, put it: “agonising choices presented in beautiful prose.” But it wasn’t the beautiful prose which caught my eye in recent dev blog entries, it was the undersea (or rather, Unterzee) flora and corals. That’s why I’ve been asking Failbetter CEO and art director, Paul Arendt to tell me a little more about how the art works in the game.

For the images in question, just use the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard or click the arrows just next to the pictures!

The big thing which I wanted to know was how art works in relation to the rest of the game. Sunless Sea exists so much in people’s minds thanks to the rich prose so how does an art team grapple with that, framing the stories but still leaving space for the player own imagination?

“This is something we grappled with in the early days of Fallen London [Failbetter’s earlier, story-rich browser game which shares a universe with Sunless Sea], and we dealt with it using tarotic approach – a picture of raven could signify death, or flight, or it might just be, you know, a raven,” Arendt says.

“In Sunless Sea, the art does a lot of heavy lifting on the environment and the atmosphere, but most of the actual story happens in ports. So you approach an island, and the art gives you an idea of the mood of this place, but once you dock, the words take over. We might give you a clue as to what a character looks like, but the action happens in the prose and the player’s imagination.”

The image which I’ve been returning to repeatedly in the last couple of months is this hypnotic gif where green weeds waft in the water’s current:

That’s the image which made me want to take a closer look at Paul and his colleagues’ deep-sea floral stylings, but there are also smatterings of fauna and wrecked vessels which he included and which have that definite Failbetter flavouring. Let’s go through the gallery and examine some of what’s lurking below.

To start, just press the right arrow key or scroll back to the top where navigation arrows await your mouse clicks! If you want a bigger version of any image you can enlarge them by clicking on them as well.

I’d say it’s far better to use the arrow keys, though – it means the image size won’t affect your ability to navigate :)

ONWARD!

A collection of weeds, anenomes and coral. The flora of the Unterzee remains largely unclassified, due to the fauna’s habit of eating distracted naturalists.

Carcass of an elder megalops crab, perhaps destroyed by a lucky captain many years ago. Considerably larger than those found on the surface. An intrepid zubmariner may investigate these carcasses for loot, but ware parasites.

This is an early concept for Dahut, the garden city of the Drownies. A hollow relic of the Surface, created for the Drownie King’s amusement. The water is breathable; you may wander in the coral fields and visit the grand cathedral

Fluke needles ­discarded spines of the deadly Lorn Flukes. Approach with caution ­- they’re pointy.

Another concept: this is the city of Hideaway, which rests on the back of the gargantuan creature Temtum. Hideaway welcomes visitors, even those who are unwelcome anywhere else.

Mood concept: the ship of a luckless zee captain in a forest of kelp, now host to a cheerful variety of marine life.

The Neither. A swift dark serpentine thing with wriggling cilia, like a moray-­millipede. Creatures of the Unterzee are often eyeless, there being so little light to see by.

Nook: basically a giant mouth on the seabed, seen in this concept from within. The inhabitants live in hollowed out caves in the teeth, and eat lots of lungweed to aid breathing.

Oasis. A rare and welcome sight for Zubmariners, the fiercely oxygenated water around an Oasis allows a vessel to refill its air tanks. But don’t linger too long, you may not be alone…

Thalatte. An exposed­-looking collection of wattled and shining organs, like a half­-completed vivisection, with a fanged orifice at the front. The Thalatte can move rapidly, ram, and spit gobbets of acid.

Triskelegant. A three-­mouthed, radially symmetrical beast (said to defecate alternately through each mouth) with a very rapid turning circle. Like many Unterzee creatures, it emits a gentle phosphorescence. It is an unfortunate fact of Unterzee life that shipwrecks packed with treasure emit a similar glow.

Victorian life underwater. One of the more challenging tasks in designing Zubmariner was working out how 19th century submarine cities might actually work. This was an early attempt at visualising them.

Concept for Wrack, a wreckers’ city. Ships lured by false promises and lights litter the zee-floor. The broken hulls also allow the growth of a plant, reserved only for the greatest wreckers: to taste it is to know love.

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Philippa Warr

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