Two Germans (and me) in a boat: finding my happy place in Sea Of Thieves

sea-of-thieves-multiplayer

I’ll go into this more in my full Sea of Thieves review (tomorrow, all being well), but my overwhelming feeling so far about Rare’s online pirate sim is that it’s a weirdly empty and inadequate game that can nevertheless be transformed into something oddly unforgettable if you manage to crew your ship with the right mateys. I’ve had many tedious or irritating voyages, defined by dull repetition or sudden gankings from other players acting like, well, pirates, but every miserable moment was thoroughly redeemed by my harmonious morning with The Germans. What a perfect sailing adventure it was.

By all accounts, the very best way to play Sea of Thieves is with a crew of IRL friends, up to four of you sharing the duties of nautical maintenance, combat and treasure-hunting, chatting away over mics to assign roles, scream for help and call out sightings of Kraken on the starboard bow.

You’ll bicker and blame and belly-laugh and all that good stuff, though the sword of Damocles hanging mercilessly over Sea of Thieves is whether or not that will still remain entertaining a couple of weeks from now. There are very, very few variations upon SOT’s handful of key activities, and so right now it’s a matter of whether or not simply providing a loose platform to have fun with your mateys is long-term game enough or not.

Then there’s playing solo, which… well, definitely give it a shot a couple of times, as it transforms Sea of Thieves into something of an at-sea survival affair, but it’s too thin and stressful to last much more than that.

In between those two stools is the most commonplace experience in Sea of Thieves – finding yourself on one of its tragically identikit boats with a crew of randoms. In my experience, this usually goes one one of two ways – either you’re saddled with folk who are bloody hapless, not communicating, not bothering with sailing essentials, and generally getting themselves lost, killed or both almost immediately, or you’re parachuted into the ranks of bloody-thirsty nutters who only care about lobbing cannonballs at anything that moves. Not to condemn either of those groups, of course, but playing that way does get old fast.

sea-of-thieves-fight

Then there were The Germans, who were almost instantly the high watermark of what I want from this game. I don’t know if the two of them were friends already, or just randomly partnered, as I was with them, by the winds of fate, but certainly they did not share banter or barbs. They were professionals, two people who had teased out the core workings of a game that barely bothers to explain itself and found efficient ways to manage them.

Not, I hasten to add, to the point of cultural stereotype: it was simply that they had a very clear idea of what they wanted from this game, and it swiftly became apparent to me that this was what I wanted too. I mention their nationality only because they shared a language that I did not, and this had a fascinating effect on my own behaviour.

I chose, rather than to get linguistically underfoot, to leave my mic off and make myself useful in silence. They weren’t terribly talkative either, speaking only when the situation required specific instruction to each other or to me. There would, I imagined, be time for smiles and laughter once our navigating and pillaging was complete and we were safely ashore.

My colleagues did speak some English – they flicked irregularly into it when they eventually realised that, despite my silence, I could understand and act upon instructions given in it. The only communication I would offer back is to use a handful of SOT’s canned dialogue while standing in the crow’s nest and scanning the horizon for trouble while they collaborated closely on wheel and sail. For instance, ‘There’s something in the water’, followed by my plummeting to deck then turning to face whichever direction I had spied threat or treasure in.

sea-of-thieves-sun

I would also solemnly mark upon our ship’s map the location of the next island we were searching for, should I happen to spy it before they, as quest-setters, did. In my every action, I strove to give the impression of thoughtful collaboration, and it was understood.

I roleplayed as, essentially, a deckhand, happy to do whatever I was asked but mostly taking the initiative, tapping happily into the wordless understanding between us about when to drop anchor, turn off the lanterns, patch hull holes or check the cannons are all loaded in case we need them later. We also charged shoulder-to-shoulder onto islands’ shorelines, stoically battling skeletons or refilling our stocks of cannonballs, planks and bananas.

sea-of-thieves-skeleton

This is, really, almost all there is to Sea of Thieves, propelled onward by the Skinner box tingle of mostly futile unlocks if one acquires sufficient treasure or skulls, but our well-oiled, mostly noiseless engine turned it into something else. Turned it into the game Sea of Thieves dreams it is but usually isn’t.

Unlike my more common random sessions, we did not pursue PvP trouble but instead kept a watchful eye out for it, maintaining a safe distance but manning cannons speculatively. There were no cries of relief or frustration if the potential enemy sailed on. Just a muttered ‘OK’ and then we would return to our usual stations, our usual jobs. And we were, mostly, pretty good at them.

We harvested far more treasure chests and skulls than I had in any other voyage, and I am quite sure that, like me, my European allies were doing it not for money, but for pleasure. Figuring out this strange, often hollow game with its simplistic but initially opaque systems, getting good at it, simmering pleasantly in the ambient escapism of it. Hauling from origin to destination then on again to the next one, maintaining and refilling as we did – it became oddly similar to the pristine American/Euro Truck Simulator, my go-to game for pure relaxation and pleasant introspection.


(N.b. the above is a video of an older voyage, not the one documented here)

Best of all, during the long, empty stretches when we sailed across an abandoned sea to a far-off island, my comrades did not object when I ran to the prow, took out my squeezebox and played maudlin sea shanties, still my favourite feature in Sea of Thieves. They did not join in either: they were too busy with wheel and sail. I’m not entirely sure they understand why I would make time for such frippery when we had a job to do, but they said nothing to dissuade me from it. Perhaps they deemed it the price of my uncomplaining compliance.

I could have talked back. I could have gotten to know them, tried to lure them into shared jokes or more ambitious escapades, told them of my own desires and intentions for and from this voyage, but it would have ruined it. The balance we had found was so delicate, their economy of action and my wordless assistance, that I did not want to risk upsetting it even slightly. I was in my happy place, ambient but involved, with the beautiful benefit of two unprotesting people to lighten the burdens of manual labour.

We returned, a few hours later, to a settlement. Our hold was bursting with chests and skulls, and we now stood to lose far too much in the event another shipful of players hunted us down, so it was only prudent to turn them all in before heading out to find more. And we were nothing if not prudent by now.

It was understood, I believe, that this was not intended to be the end, but alas my other job – this one – called. I knew this shoreleave would have to be a final one. My finger twitched anxiously above the push-to-talk key. Now, surely, would be the time to break my silence, to offer heartfelt thanks and best wishes to this peerless crew.

But no. That was not the deal we had struck. That would only open up questions, even accusations. I reached, once more, for Sea of Thieves’ menu of canned lines, chose ‘Thanks!’ and logged off. I guess the ocean wind must have blown a little salt into my eyes as I did.

33 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    This is a fun story. It honestly reminds me of the one time I had any fun at all playing Rust.

    But this game does sound awfully bleak every time any of RPS’ writers writes about it. It’s always basically “I managed to eke a bit of fun out of this disastrous garbage” rather than “this game is fun”.

    Too bad, really. It sounded like a fun premise, but turns out the ocean is a mile wide and an inch deep.

    • Someoldguy says:

      You certainly can’t argue that they’ve lacked coverage. This is the fifth article in just over 2 days, with even more to come.

      I do think it odd though that Alec felt daring to talk at all and perhaps get more out of the experience would have ruined the mood. “… but for me, I’d rather try and fail, than never try at all, you see.” as William O’Brien wrote.

    • aircool says:

      Strange, just strange.

      Most of our European friends understand and can speak english, although it does go a long way to at least learn greetings along with please and thankyou in as many languages as you can (and it’s never been easier with the internet to help you out – so no excuses). I do find it strange that in a game which headlines its multiplayer intentions that you didn’t bother to speak. Come on, make the effort.

      I had another terrific afternoon with some people from all over the globe. Our crew was European/American/Asian and much fun was had by all.

      Like all multiplayer games that require teamwork, joining a guild/clan/whatever is the way forward.

      Surely I can’t be the only person who’s having a good time and not constantly getting ganked or griefed?

      • poliovaccine says:

        Just as a counterpoint, I used to enjoy multiplayer games a lot more back when microphone contact wasn’t quite so expected – back then I played the hell out of Enemy Territory or whatever that RTCW mod was, Starcraft, Age of Empires II, BF1942, etc, etc. But something about my composition as a person (probably the whole schizoid personality thing) makes me sort of uncomfortable at gabbing along with strangers…. So it’s always a relief to hear of a multiplayer experience that can get by without a Mic.

        I don’t necessarily think this sounds like that, mind – but I’d hardly say it’s a totally unwelcome perspective, even if my attitude is a little old fashioned. The most recent multiplayer I’ve enjoyed was that of Watch Dogs, wherein any communication would only blow your cover. That’s sort of my favorite way to go. Again, doesn’t really sound like Sea of Thieves is for me, but I’m always relieved to hear inviting these strangers’ voices into my head is not mandatory – in the past I made pretty fluent use of canned speech and emotes. I just… don’t sit down at my computer to play with other people, that’s just me. But sometimes I like MP cus it’s obviously more challenging than any game’s AI will tend to be.

        I kinda think I should be playing Friday the 13th haha. But yeah, just as a devil’s advocate, I tend to stay silent if I play MP, and the less that’s been the norm the less MP I play. So it’s handy to hear, anyway, even if that wasn’t the author’s intention in doing it that way.

    • Kamestos says:

      What I got from this story is “If you want to have fun at this game, hire a couple of Germans”.

      • MajorLag says:

        Given the direction of the economy with increasing automation and all, I could see “professional MMO companion” as a pretty viable occupation in the future.

        • unacom says:

          I used to slave away on a nine to five job, but now that I work from home as a german FPS/MMO-companion, I can earn 3250€ a week.

          EDIT: That comment of yours is just to good an opportunity to pass up… :)

        • Landiss says:

          You are too late, it has already happened. There are already people selling so called tutelage, training others in how to be good in some game, including X hours of paid companionship in a party etc. I think it started quite long time ago, but most recently I’ve seen that in World of Tanks, one of the popular youtubers was advertising such service. He would play with someone who pays for it, give them some hints in game and also help them win battles while trying to keep them alive.

    • ShakesMcQueen says:

      I don’t really see where you’re getting “eke fun out of disastrous garbage” from this.

      Seems more like people are struggling with the fact that SoT feels like something with a strong foundation, where they forgot (or didn’t have time) to build the house on top of it – yet they are charging for the house.

      SoT could be something great in another six months or year, if Rare keep updating it with new stuff (which is their announced intention). That doesn’t change the fact that charging $60 for what is currently in the box is way too much (thankfully I managed to get it for half that), or that the game currently feels unfinished. But “feels unfinished and devoid of content currently” isn’t the same as “disastrous garbage”. What is in the game, is functional-to-great. There just isn’t enough of it, or enough variety.

      The core of the game – sailing, naval combat, feeling of “place” – are rock solid. They just need to build more depth around that core.

      Thankfully, if you played it via Game Pass, you’re only out $10.

  2. M0dusPwnens says:

    “You’ll bicker and blame and belly-laugh and all that good stuff, though the sword of Damocles hanging mercilessly over Sea of Thieves is whether or not that will still remain entertaining a couple of weeks from now.”

    I hope it won’t. I don’t need every game to be something that I’m expected to play for the rest of my waking life. If it gives me a couple of weeks of fun, that’s great!

    I suppose some might demand months-long play for the price tag, and I think it is a pretty steep price for what’s there, but I’d rather have a good, memorable experience than a long one either way. I’d rather not pay so much for a game, but if I’m going to, I’d much rather pay for memorable ideas and experiences than a certain number of weeks of diversion.

    I’m honestly a bit surprised to see this concern on RPS. I didn’t see anything in the game that really suggested that the intended the game to be something you’d return to again and again for months and months. It feels a bit opportunistic – when a game has that perpetual structure, we get complaints about it; when a game doesn’t seem to, we get “I question whether or not that will still remain entertaining a couple of weeks from now.”

    • fish99 says:

      This annoys me too. I don’t know where it came from but there seems to be an attitude recently that every game with multiplayer must be able to be played forever, irrespective of whether it has a subscription fee or not. It’s a complaint I first saw leveled at Diablo 3 in comparison to Diablo 2. I’m sure the vast majority of those complainers never played hundreds and hundreds of hours of Diablo 2. Like me, they probably played it through a couple of times and then moved onto some other game. I actually got more hours out of Diablo 3.

      I suspect the attitude comes from people who grew up with WoW as their main game, but it’s not a fair comparison for games that don’t have subscriptions or that haven’t been around generating content for 10 years. People forget how much money they sunk into WoW in subs and expansions to pay for that content.

      • April March says:

        Nah, the complaint comes from cheap people like me. I want to play this game, but I don’t want to pay its full price. I’d like to be able to buy it at 75% off at some point in the future. If the game doesn’t take, by then it’ll be either empty or full of people who are so dedicated to the game they’ll be able to fly circles around my ship and kill me by passing gas. The truth is that, if the game doesn’t last longer than a few weeks, I’ll simply never be able to play it.

        • M0dusPwnens says:

          Having played it, the situation is thus: If you have friends to play it with, you’ll have fun and it won’t matter tremendously when you play it. If you don’t have friends to play it with, it probably won’t be very great regardless of when you play it either.

          If you’re nervous about there being enough people still playing for the random matchmaking to still be functional a few months down the line when it’s on sale, I would recommend skipping it even now. It’s tremendous fun with friends. I would never play it alone, and I think you would have to be preternaturally lucky to have a similar experience with random matchmaking.

          It’s worth pointing out that it’s really not an MMO. I would liken the PvP element more to Dark Souls – it’s there, and you might enjoy it, but it’s not omnipresent and for most people it won’t be the main draw, and it’s clearly not where most of the development effort went. If you’re worried about not having enough of it when the population dies down, if that’s a dealbreaker, the deal is probably already broken. Blackwake this is not.

        • ShakesMcQueen says:

          Game Pass. $10 a month. You can play the game, get your fill, and move on to the next thing, if it doesn’t grab you.

  3. CyborgHobbit says:

    That was beautiful, Alec.

    The first group of hostiles my partner and I encountered called us the n-word in voice and quickly killed us. Later, after being killed by a different group, I ran into the the vocal offender from earlier. He recognized me and kindly said it was fun fighting us earlier.

  4. Spungles says:

    I enjoyed that tale. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how it plays with friends and solo but not many reports of random crews. I suppose that often works best when games like this are new while everyone is learning the ropes.

  5. bfar says:

    Unfortunately 99% of online players are not like those two guys :(

  6. Morcane says:

    After playing it for about 10 hours, I think I’m done. It’s boring as hell now, and killing the same people over and over again (or be killed by the same people over and over again) gets incredibly stale. SoT is boring empty dead game world design from the ’90-ies, hoping people will miss that by having ‘players create their own fun’. Yeah right.
    I’m done with randoms too, most of them are cocks.

  7. BooleanBob says:

    I think we need a name for this new genre of sandbox multiplayer games, where strangers are thrown together and the chief attraction is seeing how unexpected situations turn out (or retelling them to your readers.)

    Other examples being Rust, Day Z and the like. ‘Anecdote generator’ perhaps?

  8. revan says:

    I got burned on this type of game and pretty much steer away from multiplayer. Too much negativity and mindless violence.

    This article sounds like something I’d enjoy too.

  9. Chairman_Pow says:

    Whatever this game lacks in content (arguably an awful lot) I can look past for what it does offer: something which feels wonderfully, genuinely new.

    I’ve been playing solo so far with mixed, but always interesting, results. I may venture into the RPS forums to find some better shipmates.

    I’ve paid £7.99 for a monthly game pass and feel like I’ve already had my money’s worth. If it keeps me playing, I’ll renew or pay full price. If not? I’ll walk away with a bit more sea salt in my blood and happier for my time spent enjoying something original.

  10. Ethelred Unread says:

    There’s a group of like minded souls looking for shipmates on the RPS Discord:- link to discord.gg just use the @seaofthieves tag in “looking to play”

  11. SanguineAngel says:

    Gosh I have been having a similar amount of fun the last couple nights. I think a companionable team is a must.

    My friend and I have been playing and having a great time hunting treasure and really just in the pleasure of working well together towards a common goal. Like with a lot of good boardgames it’s the social aspect that makes it truly special. I am reminded of something like Captain Sonar really.

    The highlights for both of us on our sloop have been: marvelling at the slightly nausious feeling as we rock through the swells of rough seas, admiring the water and the moonlight shines through the wave peaks, setting a course and playing music together as we watch the world go by, tacking into the wind or jibing with it, (The sailing mechanics are arcadey as heck but to me feel like they do just enough to /feel/ like sailing without simulating it /at all/.), passing other ships at a distance and yes, the occassional scuffle has been fun.

    There is definitely a thrilling tension in spotting other ships. You wonder if they’ve seen you, if they are hostile, if they are valuable. Usually we saw galleons and so felt a little trepidatious as they significantly out-gun us. Could we lose them in the mist? Put ourselves around this island out of sight? Navigate these rocky shallows if they take chase? Or get the wind in our sails and try to outrun them?
    I was really reminded of those slow paced chases in Master and Commander or Hornblower.

    More often than not, it’s been ships passing in the night and that’s been fine as the fun has really derived from our time contemplating our actions rather than engaging with other players.

    Unlike Rust or similar, where you might glimpse another player and then they’re gone and it can all happen quite quickly, here you move slowly and the tension is… different. You might glimpse them briefly then lose sight as you enter a swell but you will then come out again and reacquire visual which has its own thrill. Then you’ll watch them for a while, trying to work out if they’re coming about or not. Oh it’s a fun way to create player stories in an almost wholly subjective manner.

    It really really IS a simple game, empty of any substatial content but at the moment I think that’s what actually makes it special. There’s distraction of objectives and motivations from the core emotional connections we’re making with the game.

  12. Ross Angus says:

    This is a wonderful article, which has made me giggle at work, which is very embarrassing.

  13. MajorLag says:

    I feel like if the best thing you can say about a multiplayer game is “it’s really fun if you find the right group” then it probably isn’t worth anyone’s time. Any game is fun with the right people playing it.

  14. Kunstbanause says:

    Haha, wir waren das!

  15. Tafkap says:

    Sounds like you had exactly the opposite experience from when I played Wolfenstein recently.

  16. Harahel says:

    Was anybody else distracted by how effed up their sail trim appears to be in that screenshot?

  17. Reblosch says:

    Truck simulators are your games of introspection, that’s funny.

    Mine are Hitman and GTA V…

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