Sunless Sea – Analysis

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After playing Sunless Sea for about ten hours, I strongly considered stopping forever, or at least not playing it again for a year. About two weeks later I was back at it and my current Steam time counter is at 41 hours.

Sunless Sea is a tough sell. The majority of its gameplay consists of driving a boat very, very slowly around a huge map between ports to pick up reports for a harbor master. There is combat, but it’s one dimensional, uncommon, and rarely worth doing. The menus are a mess. The rougelike elements are completely broken. The most fun part of the game consists of branching choices and dialogue options during various encounters at sea and ports, but it exists entirely through text screens.

And yet Sunless Sea is kind of fascinating. It’s a great example of a new, or at least rarely utilized, mode of gameplay. The game’s isn’t about combat, and though the choose-your-own-adventure content is important, the core of the game is really exploration. While plenty of games these days dump the player in a huge sand box and ask them to explore it for content (ie. pretty much all open world games these days, especially those made by Ubisoft), I’ve never played a game where the rest of the world is such a big, black, unknown.

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The idea is that a chunk of Victorian steam punk London fell into the earth and happened to crash into an ocean that is entirely contained in a massive underground cavern (hence, it’s a sunless sea). The inhabitants of the newly christened “Fallen London,” as well all manner of profit seekers and adventurers from the surface soon colonized the various other islands in the sunless sea and created their own societies. However, for whatever reason there also seems to be touches of magic and unexplained mysteries in the cavern which makes everything a bit… off. Or a lot off. So in addition to a crumbling British Empire, there are also sea monsters, (mostly) friendly zombies, sentient monkeys who barter souls, real Gods who intervene in mortal affairs, and a literal portal to hell. And the coolest thing about all of this is that you know nothing about anything when you start the game.

You begin Sunless Sea in the port of New London, which is the only revealed speck on a huge map. You are a sunless sea-captain who is nominally employed by the Fallen London harbor master to collect reports from other ports, but despite selecting a far-reaching ultimate objective at the start of the game (like finding your dead father’s body, or becoming wealthy), really Sunless Sea is just a sand box for exploring and getting into adventures. So you spend most of your time sailing into the great unknown, finding new settlements, mingling with the locals, and trying to make money for upgrades and more adventuring.

If you like steam punk, Lovecraft, sailing stories, or really any dark fantasy, Sunless Sea is the game for you. The writing is excellent and paints vivid pictures of the bizarre places and people you encounter on your travels. Most of the quest lines were interesting enough to complete for their own sake, though of course financial compensation is appreciated. I imagine writing this game must have been a blast. The islands may exist in an over-arching world of weirdness, but their affairs are typically self-contained, so every settlement can have its own insane population, culture, economy and politics. Why not have a rat-guinea pig civil war on one island? And another city can be inhabited by conscious clay men built solely for the purpose of industrial work. And another port can be occupied by manic devotees to a giant light producing machine. It all works.

If there is a problem with the lore, it’s that the writers left a bit too much up to the imagination. They sketched out so many wonderful concepts but pushed the “adventures into the unknown” angle so far that I literally do not know anything about much of the entities which inhabit the world.

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I found driving a boat very, very slowly around a huge map so I can very, very slowly accumulate money to marginally upgrade my ship surprisingly fun and addictive as long as I was swimming in lore at all times. However, I also nearly swore to never play the game again about ten hours in. Most of Sunless Sea’s short comings can be attributed to its low-budget and grand ambitions, but it does have one feature which would be completely crippling if there wasn’t a way to disable it: Sunless Sea is a roguelike.

(A “roguelike” is a videogame subgenre in which death or failure is permanent and results in the player having to restart the game. Typically roguelikes also contain procedurally generated content, so the payer has to adapt consistent mechanics to changing challenges. The most famous recent example is FTL: Faster than Light, one of my favorite games of all time.)

On the surface, making Sunless Sea a roguelike seems like another daring, original idea from the game’s developers. What better way to foster a fear of the unknown in the player than to make death really matter? When a player glimpses a sea monster in the distance, he’ll think twice before approaching. When a local village chief offers some weird food to the player, he’ll think twice about eating it. Permadeath is the perfect way to connect the player to his character’s adventures through a mysterious and scary land.

On top of the interactivity benefits, making Sunless Sea a rougelike makes perfect sense narratively. The game harkens back to those times when men took multi-year voyages around the earth to strange and exotic locales. Death at sea was common and romanticized through song and story. The game even has a really cool twist on permadeath to incorporate this element. Instead of just dying and starting the entire game over, the game lets you have a child, write a will, and bequeath a chunk of your assets (your ship, its add-ons, your money, your map, your crew, etc.) to your heir if you die. So a sense of continuity is born and you can feel like you’re continuing a dynasty when you take up the mantle left by your father at the bottom of the sunless sea.

And with all that said, Sunless Sea‘s rougelike elements are a disaster on pretty much every level. The number one problem is simply that the game is too damn long. Rougelikes are supposed to be short so the permadeath penalty isn’t too severe; that’s why most rougelikes take one or two hours to complete. But Sunless Sea probably has 30+ hours of standard content (and maybe twice that for insane completionists). I don’t care how romantic a death at sea may be, I do not want to replay twenty hours of content because I drifted too close to a hostile, sentient iceberg.

The second major problem is that roguelikes and the choose-your-own-adventure gameplay don’t mix. Roguelikes are mechanically intensive games because the setting never considerably alters, thus they focus on the player’s ability to achieve ever higher levels of mechanical precision to adapt to procedurally generated obstacles. On the other hand, replaying Sunless Sea’s decentralized branching narratives feels like rereading a series of short stories over and over again. Oh sure, you can make different choices, but the consequences of said choices rarely leave the bounds of any individual story in a significant manner. It just doesn’t work.

The only procedural generation Sunless Sea offers are minor changes to the locations of maybe 40% of the ports on the map. However, these don’t even effect games carried over after deaths, they only come into play when starting completely new dynasties. So each play through feels exactly the same aside from your starting assets.

On top of all that, it doesn’t help that Sunless Sea can kill the player rather arbitrarily. The aforementioned sentient iceberg and various sea creatures can be stumbled upon and chase the player down with little granted recourse. Lots of branching texts are based on random number generators and have unclear benefits and penalties for succeeding or failing a challenge, so players low on supplies can accidentally trigger death spirals with seemingly innocuous curiosity.

Undoubtedly some Sunless Sea defenders will claim that all random sea monsters and negative branching storylines are avoidable if the player uses proper caution. That is mostly true, but it also means turning a very, very slow game into an excruciatingly painfully sluggish game as fully cautious players would have to drive slowly, take wide arcs around monsters, and never progress in a branching storyline without optimized inventories and stats. Whatever benefits would come from the rougelike elements of the game are not worth turning Sunless Sea into an epically dull time sink.

To the developer’s credit, they give the payer an option to turn off ironman mode (which enables the player to save at any time) so permadeath can be entirely avoided. On the other hand, when first turning on a game, the player is actually presented with a message from the developer imploring the use of ironman mode because the game is meant to be played as a roguelike and save scumming fundamentally undermines the whole game. Apparently the developers actually recanted this position in an interview after the game came out (though for some reason I can’t find the interview).

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I died fifteen minutes into my first round of Sunless Sea. I think my next two games lasted between 45 minutes and an hour. I never got far enough in either of these three rounds to have a child, so I just kept starting from scratch. Six and a half hours into my fourth attempt I had finally built up an impressive nest egg, I had completed a couple of key quests, and I proudly bought my first new ship, which was bigger, stronger, and had more cargo and crew capacity than my prior ship. However, I had almost no money left after the purchase and I couldn’t afford to buy many units of fuel or supplies for my maiden voyage. A little while after leaving New London, I made a bad turn, and ended up drifting farther away from any income source. I ran out of fuel, and then food (both of which were consumed faster than I was used to because my ship was heavier and I had more crew members to feed), and my captain pathetically died at sea due to logistical ineptitude.

I put seven hours into that playthorugh and lost everything right after taking a huge step forward because I made two stupid mistakes (spending all of my money and taking a wrong turn). I felt awful. I really wanted to see the rest of what the game had to offer. I wanted to know more about the beautiful lore, I wanted to get the next best ship, I wanted to help my crew members with their specific troubles, I wanted to conquer the sunless sea… but I did not want to grind through seven hours of nearly the same exact questing before I could get back to new content. While I knew a new game wouldn’t be identical – I’d be more efficient in my outings, I’d make better choices in the stories, and I’d avoid the stupid mistakes I made last time – I also knew these minor alterations would not motivate me through a lengthy climb back to my lost perch. So I figured I would put the game down, uninstall it from Steam, and maybe come back to it in the distant future when my blood stopped boiling… or maybe I’d never play it again.

But just a few weeks later I reinstalled Sunless Sea and started the adventure all over again. I couldn’t help myself. I missed the tense voyages and I desperately wanted to see the rest of the lore. With ironman mode disabled, I slogged through the first seven hours again proceeded to experience a delightful 31 hour playthrough (and counting). I take this as a testament to the very worst and best Sunless Sea has to offer.

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Overall I liked Sunless Sea a lot, despite its frustrations, and I recommend it to anyone who might find the lore interesting or wants to try a truly exploration-based game. But what really excites me about Sunless Sea is the potential for this genre with bigger budgets and more polish. Imagine a third person action game in which you can sail a ship around a massive map, land on islands, explore the local environment and societies, and then get in Bioware-style adventures. Perhaps No Man’s Sky’s de facto endless universe of procedurally generated alien worlds will be what really brings this genre to the next level. Or maybe Failbetter’s next game after Sunless Sea will warrant a higher budget. Either way, there is tremendous potential in this genre for exploring a new and unique aesthetic realm with video games.

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One thought on “Sunless Sea – Analysis

  1. Pingback: Sunless Sea is what No Man’s Sky Should Have Been – Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

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