Entropy and empires collide in Sunless Skies, the best game of 2019

, | Game reviews

For all the points of the compass, there is only one direction.  And time is its only measure.

–Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The eye has a powerful thirst.  It will drink greedily and without reservation whatever pictures you put in front of it.  But words sneak past the greedy eye with their own secret pictures. Pictures that no one showed you, that no one else can see, that no one else will ever see.  You, and the author of the words, and the words themselves conspired to create these secret pictures out of emptiness. The words are the breath breathed over the face of the black waters and what happens next is no less than the act of creation.  

Show me an asteroid slamming into the Earth.  Impressive enough. Now give me words to let me make my own secret pictures.

A rock larger than Mount Everest hit planet Earth travelling twenty times faster than a bullet.  This is so fast that it would have traversed the distance from the cruising altitude of a 747 to the ground in 0.3 seconds.  The asteroid itself was so large that, even at the moment of impact, the top of it might have still towered more than a mile above the cruising altitude of a 747.  In its nearly instantaneous descent, it compressed the air below it so violently that it briefly became several times hotter than the surface of the sun…

In the Yucatan it would have been a pleasant day one second and the world was already over by the next.  As the asteroid collided with the earth, in the sky above it where there should have been air, the rock had punched a hole of outer space vacuum in the atmosphere.  As the heavens rushed in to close this hole, enormous volumes of earth were expelled into orbit and beyond — all within a second or two of impact.

“So there’s probably little bits of dinosaur bone up on the moon?” I asked.

“Yeah, probably.”

That’s from journalist Peter Brannen’s conversation with a geologist named Mario Rebellodo, who studies the crater left by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.  Brannen’s book, The Ends of the World, details the Earth’s five mass extinctions as a way of considering what could be its sixth. To convey the magnitude of one of the extinction events, Brennan suggests building blocks that already exist in our heads.  Mount Everest. A bullet. The cruising altitude of a 747. Less than a third of a second. The surface of the sun. These invoke something more than merely big, fast, high, quick, hot. They invoke the unimaginable, and here we are imagining it, which is more powerful than anyone’s attempt to show us.  That’s what words can do.

Dinosaur bones on the moon is a flourish on top.  That’s also what words can do.

And that’s the power of Sunless Skies, my favorite game of 2019.  That’s the advantage it has over the spectacle of Control, the clever interaction of tools and obstacles in Void Bastards, the harmlessly violent delights of One Finger Death Punch 2, the cornucopia of thematic detail in Planetfall and Field of Glory: Empires, and the corporately cultivated meaningless splash of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3.

Modern videogame design is premised on our Skinner box response to rewards.  We crave the gratification of upgrading a gun’s damage rating, finding a +3 sword, or getting another point of dexterity.  Gratification itself is such a powerful compulsion that we might not even notice when it’s inconsequential. That upgraded gun just offsets the fact that we’re shooting monsters with more hit points.  Mechanically, nothing has changed since we were shooting weaker monsters with a gun that hadn’t been upgraded. The upgrade was an illusion, but the gratification was real. Anything to drip a drop of endorphins into our anxiety-addled bodies.

But the draw of Sunless Skies — and Cultist Simulator, Sunless Sea, and Fallen London before it — isn’t just a psychological trick.  It isn’t just what it creates on a screen. The draw, as with reading a novel or hearing a poem, is how it and I collaborate in the act of creation.

“She beams at you, delighted, as innocent as a Gatling gun,” Sunless Skies says about a character hiding a secret.  The pairing of innocent and Gatling gun is new to me, and something only I can see. It’s not even a picture, actually.  It’s more. It’s a feeling. It’s something that didn’t exist for me before Sunless Skies. It’s a creation. Sunless Skies consists consistently and constantly of this creation.

Imagine a circus.  Now make it a sad circus.  Now let Sunless Skies do something no level designer or filmmaker will ever be able to do.

The Humiliated Magician’s trap-doors fail to open, leaving his glamorous assistant notably un-vanished.  The Bereaved Acrobat swings from a single trapeze, the other hangs lonely and unused. The Pensive Clown’s fire-juggling act ends in disaster, and not the humorous kind.  The less said about the lion tamer, the better.

The Strong Woman picks up all sorts of heavy things, but the audience is unimpressed.  

The only thing she cannot lift is the mood.

You step in to cover for the lion tamer.  

Afterwards, the Ringmaster claps you on the shoulder. “Excellent!  Well, terrible. Never do that again.”

Upon visiting the attractions along the midway: 

You gamely make the most of them, from the Hall of Mirror (there is only one) to the Whack-A-Rat game currently closed due to the rats having unionised.

Moving on from the circus, imagine an inventress with a workshop of questionable inventions like this:

The clockwork lens array that offers superhuman levels of telescopic sight, provided you can insert all six sharp brass hooks under your eyelids.

There’s a device in the corner.  “That’s not mine,” says the inventress, “Not entirely.  I’m still working on that. Complicated. You know if you know.  If you don’t, I shouldn’t say.”

In a place full of spiders and webs: 

From the blue and white pattern of one bundle, it appears a spider has trapped a teapot.

At a nature reserve occasionally used by big game hunters:

The fauna around here is shy when not being hunted.  It doesn’t even try to steal your scones.

Old men in a hunting club smoking cigars and sipping port.  

They chunter of the old days and how very much better they were.

You loot a crate of munitions from a shipwreck: 

This will fetch a handsome price; the Heavens do not lack for murderers.

The clipped British wit and drolly observed detail are of a piece with Failbetter’s earlier games, as well as Failbetter spin-off Weather Factory’s Cultist Simulator.  But the game design part of those games got in the way (arguably an issue with Sunless Sea) or just made itself scarce (Cultist Simulator and Fallen London).  

Sunless Skies finds the middle ground.  It cannily negotiates the space between player and prose.  The distance between ports and the speed of your flying locomotive, and especially the randomly seeded discoverables along the way, make the world more accessible than it was in Sunless Sea.  The economy of fuel, starvation, and upgrades is more manageable. Ultimately even safe. Once you understand how to use bazaars and bargains, financial security is assured. Prosperity inevitable.  Barring untimely death.

Combat is easily enough avoided if you just want to flee.  Often advisable. But it’s enough of a test of skill rather than brute upgrades that you eventually won’t have to flee.  Bear in mind there are weird things out here, and they’re not afraid to get weirder. The thrill of exploration and the dread of permadeath are more carefully balanced.  The permadeath is more tolerable. These games expect you to die, because death should be a part of any grimly Victorian storytelling. But Sunless Skies is more carefully tuned and paced in such a way that death stings instead of crushes.  Where there had previously been a fair bit of fumbling and sheepish shrugging, here is a solidly designed, bona fide game. Here is where Failbetter are at last game designers as well as fiercely talented writers.

Fallen London was about London itself, the shadowy glittering crown jewel of the British Empire.  And then Sunless Sea was about the naval reach that afforded London its empire. Now Sunless Skies — there’s a reason the title is plural — is about the divided and crumbling soul of the British Empire in all its dissolute glory, pulled apart by distance.  Centers are not holding. Everything is splitting, splintering, spinning away into separate corners of the sky. Tacketies and Stovepipes, the Assembly and the Throne, the officious scribes of the Windward Company and the rabble rousers in Victory Hall, the forgotten Parliament and the ineffectual Ministries.  It’s the right angles and order of an Old World bleeding out into the verdant chaos of a New World. Empires dying their sad slow deaths, trying desperately to hold out against inevitabilities. As the Genial Auditor explains from his office in London:

A mill makes grain.  A factory makes, I don’t know; socks and so forth.  We, my lord, make Britishness. A priceless commodity here in the heavens.  It must be cradled, nurtured and nourished. Without it, we would lose ourselves. We are very small, do you see?  And the sky is so very big.

If you bend your head alongside Sunless Skies and squint your far eye closed, you can peer along the trajectory from Churchill to Thatcher to Blair to Brexit.  This London may have been raised from the depths, but it’s running out of time. Westminster is unmoored, adrift, forgotten, with its clock tower lopped off, gasping occasional peals like the head in a basket beneath a guillotine.  The most iconic clock in the world, severed and untuned. Now dwindling time is a non-renewable resource, mined from the Mother of Mountains in the distant freezing Reach.

The mountain’s slopes are veined with the unmined hours the Enduring Empress hungers for.  They are dug from the stone as geodes, minutes growing within them like salt. Most geodes are the size of a walnut, but legend says Old Tom excavated a whole century, the size of a whale.

You can tell the miners who extract time by “the baby-soft hands that come from regularly handling unseasoned Hours.”  Time is saved in a bottle, sold, traded, and hoarded. During a mishap when you have to quickly jettison Barrels of Unseasoned Hours that you would have sold in New Winchester:

The crew hurry the hours to an exterior hatch and pour them out.  You watch as a month spills, glittering, into the night.

Time is carried back to London and refined by debtors and child labor, where the Chief Horologist, who fastidiously syncronizes clocks from London to Lustrum, holds forth while aligning the gears in a watch:

Despite the imaginative claims of certain penny-dreadfuls, hours can’t take you back to yesterday, nor leapfrog tomorrow.  But with the use of hour-looms, a week’s journey can be made to take a day, or a prisoner can endure the ten years of his sentence while only one year passes outside his cell.  A workworld can perform a month’s labor in a week. A lifespan can be stretched. The Empire, my lord, runs on hours.

Sunless Skies isn’t just the gameplay realization of Fallen London’s dizzying kaleidoscope of lore and metaphysics, sins and souls, nightmares and inevitable terrors.  It is mortality, writ large. In a poem called Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day, New York poet and Chelsea Hotel casualty Delmore Schwartz wrote:

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away…

Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

We spend time when we play these games.  We pay with our most precious resource to see new worlds, explore new systems, observe and learn stange new patterns.  Did you spend your time watching another animation of a dying demon or adding another point of dexterity? Did you spend your time taking delight from these chuntering hunters, unionised rats, and doomed skyfarers?  As Failbetter has been teaching us for as long as they’ve been making games, there are no wrong answers; there are only our decisions.

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The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2
2. Control
1. Sunless Skies

  • Sunless Skies

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Failbetter finally balances smart gameplay and ingenious prose in this poignant saga of mortality, writ large.