The Bestest Best Words Of 2014: Sunless Sea
Failbetter have been writing the bestest best words in gaming for a while now and in Sunless Sea they have created a worthy vessel to carry those words to new audiences. There is horror, humour and haunting in the cavernous depths, and through it all, your ship cuts through the waters seeking new mysteries and fresh hells.
Adam: Worse things happen on the Sunless Sea.
When I spoke to Failbetter about Fallen London many moons ago, it didn't take long before the conversation turned to the studio's next project. A "proper game!", I was told, "a 2d, top-down roguelike trading game". That sounded like the best of both worlds. The exquisite writing and weird world of Fallen London translated into a game inspired by Elite as much as the Dickensian gloom, The Ancient Mariner's rheumy rimes and Captain Ahab's doomed dreaming.
Fallen London can be a hard sell, despite being entirely free to play. It's a sprawling piece of interactive fiction with RPG elements, but the method by which portions of story are rationed out may be offputting to some, even when the prize is the most delicious collection of words in all of gaming. Sunless Sea staggers the delivery of its fiction in different ways, by providing the titular abyss to explore, with parcels of prose scattered across its surface.
Narrative is a currency of sorts in Sunless Sea. As you explore, you'll trade in all manner of odd goods (it starts with living corpses), and you'll confront pirates and monstrosities, but the fragments of folklore that you gather are the most valuable discovery of all. The water is thick with mystery, some of it lurking below, much of it residing above. Distant pinpricks of light might be the glow of a factory's electric hum or the lantern in the window of a lonely dream-haunted manor house. They might be the dangling bait that leads into the maw of one of the dread gods of the deep. Whatever strange shores and terrible tides you discover, there will be stories to tell when you return to safe harbours. If you return to safe harbours.
Despite its nautical theme, Sunless Sea doesn't strap its stories to a single mast, seeing the waters as a place where all manner of fictions can rest among the flotsam. Like much of the best writing, Failbetter's shows an appreciation of genres but skims across them. It's often horrific and grotesque, but often raises a smile even when plumbing its most sinister and repulsive depths. And it's never boring.
As well as finding a voice in Fallen London's streets and alleys, Failbetter learned effective pacing methods. Sunless Sea has many tales to tell but it doesn't regurgitate them whole, instead coughing up a bone here and a chunk of gristle there, leaving the player to stitch the pieces together. Without pages to turn, Failbetter have managed to reinvent the pageturner.
Except that's not really the right label at all. These are words to chew over and to revisit. Sunless Sea's brilliance is that it marries the exemplary writing of Fallen London with a game that is its equal. Not just a satisfying experience, but one that contains combat, trading and management, but uses words to knit the pieces together into a delectable whole. As well as being a thoroughly entertaining entity in its own right, Sunless Sea is a gateway into Failbetter's past and future works, whether they be (un)interactive fiction or otherwise. And that is priceless.
Alec: Failbetter's lonely drowned world does very much have the best words - its surface sprinkled with unsettling written concepts, petals on a wet black bow - but it would be remiss of us to ignore what else it does so well. Careful, charismatic art and sound power the maudlin chugging of the small ship across the yawning black ocean, circles of light offering both hope and doom and backed up by a soundtrack which evokes solemn purpose in an unfathomable and treacherous world.
The ultimate goals of Sunless Sea - the ever-expanding circle of exploration, the acquisition of wealth and upgrades - are perhaps secondary to simply existing in Sunless Sea. The moment-to-moment doomy determination of it, that sense that the journey is as important (and deadly) as the destination. It's FTL inverted; rather than concerning itself with what happens at each new objective, Sunless Sea is the fear and introspection that grows en route to each new objective.
And the words. Such wonderful words. Visual ideas picked from across fiction and genre, blurred wryly together then let out to play, unhampered by the need to recreate them in substantial image. A grotesque in every port, but Fallen London is a place where no-one blinks an eye/cavity where an eye used to be at such things. If you survive a voyage in Sunless Sea, your reward is discovering more of its dark denizens, and strange new places whose descriptions are so evocative that you can smell the seaweed and fear.
Douse the lights. Full steam ahead.
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