Do not look directly at these snippets of Sunless Skies’ cosmic horror

As we continue to turn the one known human-friendly planet against us, the rich and hopeful look to space. Mate, we’re purpose-built for Earth yet couldn’t make this work; do you expect we’ll fare better with what – and who – awaits us up there? Sunless Skies [official site, Failbetter’s follow-up the the oceanic horror of Sunless Sea, will let us explore that possibility. Announcing that their Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign will launch on February 1st, Failbetter have shared a few flavourful snippets of their cosmic horror. Would you believe they’ve managed to make black holes even worse?

Failbetter explain:

“Wells are Sunless Skies’ version of black holes. Wounds in the world. Fathomless. Hungry. Well-winds, flickering with candle-flames, push unwary captains into their pull. Certain unspoken cults gather at their rim to perform distressing rites. If an enemy is too inconvenient to kill, the courts of the heavens consign them to a well. Do not stray too close. Ignore any voices within.”

Good. Lovely. Not that planets are necessarily much better:

“To each thing its place. For all that thinks, a name. For all that lives, a death. These laws can – given the right circumstances – be reprieved, bent, or overturned. What holds true in our bijou corner of the universe may not be true everywhere. An example: beyond our solar system, planets are rare. They are places of expression and experimentation for the bright regents of the heavens; warded, prized, inviolate.”

Grand, I’ll go rile up some ancient space gods, shall I?

“Just like real space, traversing the High Wilderness is hard. It wasn’t intended for us, and our presence there is considered an act of aggressive hubris by the celestial powers. We are not welcome, here.”

At least it should provide pretty journeys for space touris- oh, no.

“This close, the light of the stars has a dangerous allure. Too much exposure can cause sky-madness. Skyfarers fit stained glass in their locomotives’ portholes to filter the light, and pad their brigs so an afflicted crewman may be confined in safe isolation until they can be offloaded at port.”

Hit Failbetter’s post for more. These may only be hunks of background information on the game’s world, pages out of a lore book, but Failbetter have proven with Sunless Sea and Fallen London that their ideas often turn into beautiful and awful things. I’m keen to explore this setting across quests and stories. All of this may yet change, of course. I have heard reports of the Button Moon theme song blasting out the Failbetter office.

February 1st is when they’ll launch a Kickstarter for Sunless Skies. It’ll be a fair wait before we get to actually play it ourselves.

If you too like to imagine yourself drifting in a void boiling away to nothingness before the eyes of uncaring gods, you might enjoy this recent article about William Hope Hodgson, a cosmic horror writer enjoyed by Lovecraft himself. The post’s is a bit sensational in places but hey, Hodgson was also a bodybuilder who saved a man from shark-infested waters so y’know he could be pretty sensational himself. This was the first I’d heard of him so I’ve made a note to check out his work.


  1. Viral Frog says:

    I hope this turns out better than Sunless Sea. Sunless Sea is a game that I really wanted to like. I thought the writing was superb, but the gameplay was absolutely dull. Hopefully that doesn’t turn out to be the case for this one.

    • Heavenfall says:

      I liked the gameplay, but took issue with the constant presence of choices that weren’t available. “You need 1 (PLOT DEVICE) to access this option” etc. Traditionally, such choices are hidden because you don’t need to know about the 10 quests that this person hands out rewards for until you actually have the quests. Instead, in this game you go up to a guy and find out about the 4-5 things you can’t do because you’re missing stuff, and maybe there’s one thing you can do.

      • lordcooper says:

        I far prefer Sunless Sea’s approach to be honest. At least this way I know what I can do with [Rare Item] once I finally obtain it, and knowing this gives me motivation to pursue it.

      • basilisk says:

        They actually mix both approaches. Some options are disabled but visible and tell you what you need to get to unlock them, some only appear if you meet the conditions (typically everything that is based on “Something Awaits You”, which is the game’s randomiser quality).

        Frankly, I can’t imagine the tedium of sailing all over the game world with every new item to see if it unlocked something. The game can be grindy enough even without it.

      • Ksempac says:

        Well, it’s a matter of personal opinion/taste, but for me the “you need that to unlock this choice” is part of the appeal of Sunless Sea and Fallen London.

        In many RPG/visual novel/games with lots of secrets, you are often unlikely to stumble upon the deeper parts of the game all by yourself. Because it’s usually something along the lines of “you need to be at place X, at time Y, with item Z, and skill level of at least a bazillion points”, you would need to be either extremely lucky to fulfill theses requirements by random chance, or would have to try to replay the game over and over again to try to figure out how to unlock (virtual) doors you don’t even know exist.

        What actually happens is that you get the info from an external source. Be it a game guide from the 80s, a magazine from the 90s or most commonly know, online. And usually theses sources would reveal you EVERYTHING, even the stuff you didn’t want to be spoiled about. And even trying to use sparely still give you the problem of “i’m doing something wrong, is there nothing more, or do i still lack something ?” and be tempted to refer to theses sources over and over again.

        For a good example, of a good game that is ruined by theses hidden tests and mysteries, see “Long Live the Queen!”. It’s a visual novel that is all about hidden tests, and some of theses tests happen super late in the games, but requires you to do very specific steps right from the first steps of the early game ! After a few deaths, it’s not too hard to reach a decent ending. But figuring why you couldn’t manage to get the best ending ? it’s almost impossible without external help.

        Meanwhile, in Sunless Sea (and Fallen London) the greyed tests remove all theses issues. By hinting that it might be interesting to come back to a place later on, it gives you pointers of what you should do if you happen to get a particular object. But it can also be hints about stuff you can do/try and items you can find.

        And despite all theses hints, it doesn’t remove the sense of mystery and discovery, because the hints are clever. First because for the very deepest part of the games there are still hidden options. But more importantly because in most cases, the greyed options are merely hints, rather than full directives. Often you will see a requirement with a weird name and an image, but it won’t be obvious what it is at first, you will need to think about it before understanding what that thing could actually be and where you could find it.

        I actually figured out the path to an hidden ending and reached that ending thanks a few greyed out choices. They were in different storylines and places, and seemed unrelated, but suddenly took a deeper meaning once i figured they were correlated. And one of the greyed out choice was the hint I needed to understand how to make another choice of the greyed choice available. All that was done by myself, without wiki or other external source, and that was much more satisfying than following the “25 steps to reach the ending you want in Long Live The Queen” (despite the game actually being fun to play the first few times).

    • LapsedPacifist says:

      I’m exactly like this. I kickstarted the game, and at a very high tier, and I am not sorry about it because it has brought some magnificent words into the world but by all the Judgements, was the game unfun. Just the finest words trapped behind an interface that hated you[1], and gameplay that didn’t want you to play. I’ve browbeaten and bullied a lot of friends into getting the game and they all came with much the same impression: great words, totally unrewarding getting to them.

      Oh, if only it was even so much as a middling RPG, I would have sunk hundred of hours into it. Please make this one fun Failbetter. It’s already brilliant. Just give me a game I can actually play.

      [1] If you have poor sight like me it does.

      • klops says:

        You can change the text size nowadays. That doesn’t change the clumsy UI, though.

    • strummer11 says:

      This is a definite wait and see for me as well – question is whether the gameplay is as half-hearted and poorly developed as it was in Sunless Sea.

  2. Tetrode says:

    Wow, that article about William Hope Hodgson. What a guy! Going to have to check out his work now, his books sound awesome.

    • iucounu says:

      Carnacki is brilliant and needs an occult detective game based on him (all out of copyright now, I am pretty sure.)

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        john_silence says:

        He’s even a bit macho and very technical in his occult practice, which would suit the current video game landscape very well.

    • dreadguacamole says:

      Like John_silence, I can vouch for House in the Borderlands and Boats of Gren Carrig. House is gloriously weird, and Boats is pulpy and fun as hell. I remember his prose to be a bit of a chore to get through, but if you’ve plunged through Lovecraft it should be fine.
      The article is great, didn’t really know Hodgson was such an interesting character.

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    Serrit says:

    Ah good ‘ol Mr Spoon. Used to have that theme on an SP, complete with a Hotpots B-side. I daren’t re-acquaint myself with either…

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    john_silence says:

    Hey, Carnacki is my Battlefield user name! John Silence is another supernatural detective (by Algernon Blackwood).
    Of Hodgson’s work, The House on the Borderland is weird and amazing, somewhere between A Machine for Pigs and Lovecraft’s own Kingsport tales (which Hodgson’s story actually inspired). Highly recommended.
    The Boats of the Glen Carrig and The Ghost Pirates are great too: oppressive, unpredictable travelogues with a Defoe-esque streak of survival ingenuity.
    The Night Land, though? Both fascinating and infuriating, a heroic fantasy über-novel, viciously repetitive in its themes and style, spanning the range from brutal to mawkish within the space of two paragraphs. A real test of endurance… which I failed.

  5. qrter says:

    I’ll be interested in this if they mechanically move away from roguelikes, and move more towards an RPG. Sunless Seas was a real turn-off to play.

  6. Corwin71 says:

    Since most comments are along the lines of “story was neat, gameplay blew”, I feel like offering a dissenting opinion. I love the gameplay in Sunless Sea. I’m playing it again currently, having recently bought “Zubmariner”, and I’m enjoying it just as much I did for the 40 hours I played a year or so ago.

    Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of grinding in games. It’s boring. But then most games present you a generic world with very little atmosphere. In Sunless Sea, I play the entire thing with a feeling of tension, relief, tension, relief. I love the sounds, the quiet, the music when it’s not quiet. And, of course, the text, which does the job for me of paying off those moments where I’m just piloting my ship back and forth across the Zee, laden with Sphinxstone. I agree with those who argued that knowing the options one potentially has is a key. It guides the player toward goals without (remotely) removing the sense of discovery or mysteries uncovered. I hope for much the same formula in Sunless Skies.