Imagine the biggest single thing on earth. I bet you imagined a mountain. But a sea can swallow a mountain. In fact, it already has; a sea contains many mountains. There is nothing on earth vaster than a sea. The defining characteristic of the sea is its size. We’ve known this from the very first moments we’ve seen seas. Among the earliest folly and greatest ambition of humanity is the act of setting out for the horizon of a sea, the hubris of thinking you can get to the other side of something so vast. This is the legacy of the Phoenicians, the Vikings, the Portuguese, the Spanish. For every Magellan, there were thousands of doomed mad men who we remember in enduring myths like the book of Jonah, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, and Jaws, stories that remind us that seas are hungry and ultimately far worse than malevolent: they are indifferent.
In science fiction, space stands in for what seas once were. We intuitively understand space, not because we can understand space, which is far too vast for us to understand. Instead, we understand space because we know the sea and we remember what it meant before we conquered it with ships and submarines and transcontinental flights.
After the jump, how can we know the sea in videogames?
How can videogames live up to the book of Jonah, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, and Jaws? How can they recall the feat of Magellan? How can they create the biggest single thing on earth? How can a videogame, which we more and more expect to be a thrill ride, present something so vast and empty and indifferent?
The answer is mostly that it can’t. One of the best recent seafaring games is Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, which embraces its thrill ride nature by imagining a sea packed with little islands and activities and storms and leaping whales and a constant flotilla of criss-crossing ships to be plundered. Ubisoft knows the modern gamer, so their sea is carefully calculated for spectacle only, a cavalcade of the sea’s Greatest Hits, one after the other, with no downtime. Theirs is a sea with no time for vastness because it’s busy being what we expect the sea to be in a rollicking adventure. It is ridiculous and glorious. Plus, their sea is the Caribbean, which is pretty intimate as far as seas go.
I more fondly remember the Caribbean of Sid Meier’s Pirates, also packed with a constant flotilla of criss-crossing ships to be plundered. But Sid Meier’s Pirates didn’t shoulder the burden of being cinematic. It didn’t do spectacle because it was from a time before computer games did spectacle. It could afford some downtime. It could even afford an occasional long empty stretch of trying to cross a sea. This wouldn’t happen very often, as you were usually island hopping along a chain of close-set islands. But when it did happen — say you had to get to the Yucatan from Tortuga, and you were going against the wind — it couldn’t help but convey a sense of a sea’s size. But Sid Meier knows attention spans, so his Pirates games were well within the parameters of the average gamer’s attention span in 1987. And later with more color and faster in 2004.
The bravest Zelda game was Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, which dropped you into a sailboat in a sea that was pretty large for a Gamecube game. The sailing was divisive in Wind Waker. Actually, it wasn’t the sailing that was divisive, it was the size of the sea. Many Zelda fans didn’t want to sail across open water, which involved waiting to get somewhere, even if it was lovingly cel-shaded. So the HD remake for the Wii U scaled back some of the sailing with new double speed sails and, more importantly, rejiggered Triforce quests so you didn’t have to sail back-and-forth to chase solutions. Nintendo lost the courage of the developer’s conviction and shrank the sea in favor of more accessible gameplay. It’s a rare game that has tolerance for the size of a sea.
One of the things I always liked in sub simulations was the willingness to be about downtime, which was a direct consequence of the size of a sea. Trying to find enemy ships on the open sea — enemy ships that didn’t want to be found — was literally a whole lot of nothing. Sub sims got around this with time compression that let you adjust the ratio of nothing to action. Spend five minutes to simulate five weeks of fruitless searching and then spend hours playing cat and mouse with your target. But the idea was intact that you were spending days upon days in a vast sea.
So all this is to say that it takes a very particular type of person to appreciate developer Failbetter’s attempt at gameplay in Sunless Sea, an arguably tedious and poorly tuned rogue-like about sailing a sea, created by a company just getting its feet wet when it comes to gameplay.
Sunless Sea, Failbetter’s first game that isn’t primarily text, is the first spin-off of Fallen London (nee Echo Bazaar), a free-to-play game composed of bits of superlative prose that do an amazing job of worldbuilding. But to make sure you don’t just read all the bits in one sitting — Fallen London is a game, not a book — you have to deal with a waiting period for your actions to refresh, unless you microbuy more actions. It’s a fair enough model, mainly because the writing and worldbuilding are so good, and it manages to fork generously enough that it feels like a game instead of a book. One of my issues with Telltale’s heavily narrative games is that they feel more like animated comic books than games, marching along their inevitable storylines with occasional options for character A or character B to die. But Fallen London has room to range far and wide. The sort of far and wide that’s a good fit for setting out to sea.
The setting of Sunless Sea isn’t exactly a vast sea. It’s more of a lake densely populated with dollops of terrain, if not activity. But the going is slow enough that it will feel vast. This is a game with a lot of negative space in terms of terrain and gameplay. It translates the downtime of a free-to-play game to the exploration of a sea. Instead of waiting for your actions to refresh, you have to slowly sail to the next story beat. It will take a while. You might not even know where you’re going. You might, in fact, never get there because your ship ran out of fuel, or your crew starved, or pirates sank you. Since this is a rogue-like, you start over when you die. And since this is a rogue-like, you’ve hopefully hit some milestone for the meta-game that gives you a leg up.
But the rogue-like model is questionable. A rogue-like relies on replayability to keep you coming back when you lose a character, often by shuffling the landscape. But much of the landscape in Sunless Sea is baked in even when the map changes. You’ll find the same major cities, regions, and landmarks in the same place, as you work your way along the same story beats. This means the early stages of your careers will consist of a lot of tedious repetition, made all the more tedious by the downtime it takes to cross the sea, not to mention the risk. Sunless Sea is willing to be difficult, and even willing to let you shunt youself into dead ends. It teases you with a bunch of awesome upgrades and options, and even the most minor of them can be hours of gameplay away.
Perhaps this sort of nautical exploration isn’t ideal for a rogue-like. For all its brilliance — and you can be assured that the brilliance of Fallen London is evident in Sunless Sea — the pacing in this game is nothing if not slow, and if there’s one thing worse than slow it’s slowly playing through stuff you’ve done before.
The sailing looks great, with its sullen blue/black/sickly green palette, intricately drawn terrain, and hearty little ships puffing smoke and churning up tiny wakes. But at what price? Despite all this detail, Failbetter was unable to relate the sailing to the larger needs of actually exploring. You have to constantly open a separate map screen to check where you’re going, whether you’ve unfogged an area, and what’s in the vicinity. Your zeebat scout flitters about and sometimes gives you a hint of a nearby landmark. But Sunless Sea is in dire need of a minimap, or a more zoomed out view, or some way to keep me from having to constantly toggle a map screen and kill the already non-existent pacing. I’m okay with a slow game. I’m not okay with an inconveniently staccato game.
But I ultimately approve of what Failbetter has done with the turgid pacing, negative space, and deliberate repetition. A sea should be prohibitively vast and discouragingly indifferent. If it takes questionable gameplay decisions to do this, have at it. I have enough games that put a premium on pacing. In fact, I’d say pacing is the main focus of modern game design. The primary mission of most game designers is to keep your interest, no matter what, lest you decide to go play something else. Few and far between are games like Far Cry 2, Alien: Isolation, and Sunless Sea. If you want a thrill ride, there’s always Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. But if you want an incredibly well written adventure across something approximating a sea, there is no game like Sunless Sea.
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Take the helm of your steamship and set sail for the unknown! Sunless Sea is a game of discovery, loneliness and frequent death, set in the award-winning Victorian Gothic universe of Fallen London.