Sunless Sea [official site] is a sort of naval roleplaying game, set in dark fantasy world where London has been whisked away to an underground ocean peopled by assorted monstrosities and governed by strange and delicate politics. The master of your own fragile ship, you must make a living, battle horrors and seek a destiny of sorts. It's been in Early Access since last year, but graduates to a full, finished release today.
I sigh every time Low Barnet appears on the horizon. Low Barnet! A clump of rocks just barely below water, nowhere to dock, nothing to do, but seeing it is like seeing a friend standing on the dock after years at sea. The sigh is part relief, part frustration. If I am at Low Barnet, I am almost home: relief. But if I am at Low Barnet it means this trip is at an end now. I have returned with so little, and must spend what few coins I have on replenishing fuel and food in order to do all this again: frustration.
That clump of rock and that name on a map means so much, because I am a weary traveller who has come to know these waterways intimately, and the sad, sinister settlements scattered about them are both waypoints and friends.
Low Barnet says home from a trip to the far North is minutes away, and so panic may cease. Van Horn Harbour means cheap fuel and large, murderous patrol ships. Hunter’s Keep means tea and dark gossip with the sisters. Venderbright means a little money, but most of all the point where the Northern seas begin to turn truly treacherous.
Every place has a meaning, both in the sunless sea and in my mental map. Increasingly, I do not look at the map proper, but recognise rock shapes and beacons, knowing which destination they mean I will reach next. With each trip I voyage a little further out, adding new places to that chart in my mind’s eye, each with its own meaning, its own risks and its own rewards.
Sunless Sea makes a cartographer of me. We are in an era where the map is perhaps the central aspect of so many games – strewn with icons, which some neat-freak demon at the base of our skull demands we methodically clean up until we're fully unfettered of its emblems, and yet these are never really about maps. They are about following directions. Sunless is about the gradual creation and then memorisation of a map which, though it may have much in common with other players’ maps, is just for you. An atlas of an imaginary place: sketch it out, have those grim ports and sunken towns become destinations with meaning.
Sombre art, strange faces, implied menace in sound and in words, and an imaginary map: Sunless Sea does all it can to make me feel as though I am eking out life in its Fallen London, a city collapsed into the sea and into darkness. Grim, lonely, dangerous, perhaps even futile. A game with this much focus on aesthetics and on the import of names often does so at the expense of what some feel is ‘game’. I have no interest in exploring the is/isn’t debate, other than to say that, in Sunless Sea’s case, there is no shortage of what even the least accommodating mindset would call ‘game.’
It has statistics to raise, it has supplies to manage, it has conversations which unlock bonuses, it has monsters to fight, it has upgrades to purchase, it has quests to fulfil and characters to romance or rescue. My in-game journal is a delicately-presented collection of specific objectives, some directly-stated, some hinted-at. It is, for all its unusual and careful style and sometimes glacially slow pace, a roleplaying game, in which a small iron boat is the protagonist.
There is more than enough there that I could simply follow instructions if I so wished. I find, though, that they work in tandem with my own personal, slowly shifting objectives – to reach further East, past the Salt Lions at last; to earn enough to buy the weapons which will enable survival against the living icebergs in the frozen lands around Brite and beyond; to one day accrue enough fuel to brave the ascent through the Cumaean Canal and into the unfallen land above this black, cruel, subterranean sea. I absolutely do not have to follow any objectives, in other words. I go where I want (or where I can) at my own pace. I do not necessarily even have to fight anything if I do not want to, although I will need to employ great caution at sea in order to ensure this.
FTL lurks somewhere near Sunless Sea’s core, but this is danger-strewn travel as a long, drawn out sigh of mingled terror and contentment. It never pushes you, never brings up danger right behind you or has it materialise right in front of you – you direct every action, every voyage, so when trouble arises it’s always your fault. When things go horribly wrong it’s invariably because you’ve overreached yourself, tried to travel too far with not enough fuel, tried to battle something you weren’t prepared for, spent all your money on an upgrade you were hungry for, and not because unseen dice did not roll in your favour. (Though there are narrative events at port which carry a chance of success or failure, but this is clearly dictated by your various skills, and you can simply choose to not do one for which you are unqualified). The greatest danger in Sunless Sea is not having enough fuel or food, and running out is only ever a result of your own miscalculation, complacency or impatience.
I am glad to have a game where, even if its world is deadly, I get to set the rules and speed of engagement. I do have one major reservation, though that is not a certain reservation as it will change from game-to-game and with time. Initials forays out to nearby ports are easy enough, while far-flung trips mean greater rewards, but the middleground is a problem.
There is a sort of black belt around to the sea’s loose centre, within which relatively few ports of import can be found. That this means scant opportunity to resupply is one thing (and, really, you should only be buying supplies from places where they are known to be cheap anyway), but that there is nowhere to check in and grab a port report which you can submit back in Fallen London for reasonable rewards is a greater one. I have hit the wall in Sunless Sea a few times because I simply cannot earn money to fund a trip further out, let alone buy upgrades.
Very slow attrition, hitting the same few ports over and over will gradually bring in enough money and chance rewards to buy enough fuel to reach further flung territories, but at times I have found this too onerous. With a starting ship, the speed of travel can be so slow, the waiting maddening. An accurate representation of the life Sunless Sea means to evoke, but it does mean some players may bounce right off it a couple of hours in.
There is an ‘easy’ mode which allows manual saving and reloading, but Sunless Sea is designed to be played with permadeath on. This means that when you perish, while you can choose to pass some of your money, crew or (most precious of all) your map to the next character, you must repeat all the work of the ever-widening circle required to explore the further reaches.
In time, clearer strategies to cope with the middle-sea spread will emerge and become commonplace, or perhaps one or two more ports (‘stories’, as the game’s updater calls it) will be added to ease players over this hump. It is by no means a critical issue, but it is one that will cause frustration in those who do not have great reserves of patience.
Perhaps they wouldn’t have taken to Sunless Sea anyway, for it’s also a game which asks a great amount of reading from its player. You will never see a human beyond a still icon of their face, and you will never hear a spoken voice, so to get a sense of their characters or of the finer details of the places they inhabit you will have to read. There are some quarter of a million words in Sunless Sea already, with more due to be added over time. In tone and theme they borrow liberally from Lovecraft, Gaiman and Meiville, and any number of other inspirations from across the spectrum of both low and high culture, and while I don’t believe that Sunless Sea is pretending it’s invented a language of its own, I do think its writers are enormously skilled and the result is enormously characterful.
From lascivious descriptions of freakish faces or desolate places, down to brief lines such as how the crew appear anxiously on deck once they sight home waters, the text and dialogue works and works and works to make Sunless Sea’s intricate but often static environments so much more than the sum of their sunken parts. This is a game, and a world, to lose yourself in and revel in the little, playful details of. That’s why I stay, even when it’s giving me a hard time. That’s why my heart always skips a beat whenever I see Low Barnet. Nearly home. And home means something.
To some degree, Sunless Sea’s wonderful worldbuilding and shaggy dog’s tale-weaving is in spite of itself. Its interface is a touch plain and overly clicky, it suffers for the lack of any zoom function (oh, to simply scroll out to see the main-screen-as-map, or to zoom in to make a skirmish with a giant crab that little more exciting), and sometimes the item requirements to fulfil a quest or even engage a character in conversation seem so many, so involved and so time-consuming that there’s almost a touch of Farmville to proceedings. While its map is refreshingly icon-free, its journal and some of its conversations are effectively long lists of icons. Sometimes this shatters the illusion, reveals a certainly utilitarianism at the game’s heart, and I can almost see the parts Sunless Sea was made out of.
Then I see Low Barnet, I know that home is close, a nautical-gothic tune strikes up, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. Except, perhaps, for out there, in the fog far, far way, on dark waters I'm yet to explore.
Look, Sunless Sea isn’t for everyone. It requires patience, and it requires no small amount of imagination. For those who have those qualities, or are prepared to try and acquire them, I would say that Sunless Sea is an uncommonly rewarding roleplaying game, and an essential one.