No one encapsulated the failure of No Man’s Sky better than Tom Chick with: “Exploration isn’t about exploration. It’s about discovery. No Man’s Sky doesn’t understand this at all.”
And no game encapsulates what NMS should have done better than Sunless Sea.
I first played SS back when it came out in early 2015, and I praised the game for its uneven but innovative systems. I recently dived back into it with the release of a new expansion, Zubmariner, and once more got sucked into this incredibly weird vortex of a game. SS is difficult to describe because there isn’t too many games out there like it. The closest comparison I can think of is Sid Meier’s Pirates (the 2004 remake), in the sense that you sail a ship around a big open map while periodically stopping at ports, managing an inventory, and tackling a massive set of an entirely optional quests at your leisure. But unlike Pirate’s sunny Caribbean backdrop, SS takes place in a steam punk, Lovecraftian world where a chunk of London dropped into an underground ocean (called the “Neath”) where the laws of physics are in disarray and Hell has a client state filled with anarchists (among other strange occurrences).
This sleeper indie hit does everything NMS does, but better. Ok, SS doesn’t have NMS’s budget, or incredible universe-generation engine, but both games have the same core design philosophy: they each present an alien world (both “alien” and “world” can be metaphorical here) and unleash the player to explore it at his own pace and for his own reasons. They are both wildly experimental games with broad exploration as the primary driving force behind the player experience. But while NMS ended up being… well, No Man’s Sky, Sunless Sea is largely a successful product.
“Exploration isn’t about exploration. It’s about discovery.”
I wrote out a longer version of this argument here, but to summarize…
Exploration is a theme, not a mechanic. The whole point of exploring something is to discovery specific things, items, events, etc. You may not even necessarily know what you’re hoping to discover if you set out to explore a specific space, but you should still hope to discover something. If exploration were really a value in and of itself, then (to borrow Yahtzee’s analogy) there’s no reason why you shouldn’t spend your precious time exploring the endless details of a blank sheet of paper rather than wondrous video game worlds or real life locations.
NMS is an exploration game with almost nothing worth discovering. It’s the largest game of all time, but all the things in the game which are worth discovering can be found in the first 5-10 hours of gameplay (at most). The core gameplay loop of travelling long distances while constantly stopping to collect more materials so you can keep travelling long distances is an empty, pointless chore. The few side-objectives the game offers (upgrades, alien language learning, discovering animals, etc.) are all shallow, and quickly become equally laborious. Worst of all, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no compelling reason to continue the empty slog masquerading as “exploration.” Ultimately NMS devolves into an abyss of a game.
SS is also extremely slow paced. It’s also opaque and confusing at times. It also involves fiddly inventory management. But SS is filled to the brim with stuff to see and do!
In SS you can hunt sea monsters, hunt pirates, find new ports, set up trade routes, interfere in local politics, steer grand geo-politics, smuggle contraband, get cursed by gods, serve kings, set up spy networks, help friends fulfill their deepest ambitions, sail off the edge of the map, explore ancient ruins, and die only to start a new voyage as your deceased former protagonist’s son or daughter.
I won’t claim that all of these mechanics work all the time, or that they always provide sensory stimulation (most of the game’s story content is delivered through pictures and textboxes), but when added together, SS provides a cornucopia of ways to truly explore the Neath. It captures that wonderful “just one more turn” feeling created by Civilization and Paradox games where there is always another event, development, or upgrade just over the horizon. Every time the player launches his ship from its home port at Fallen London, he has a plan in mind. Maybe it’s a route through uncharted waters, or a series of port hops to follow up on multiple quests, or a trade route based on mushroom wine and captured sunlight, but no matter what it is, there’s always more to do.
But SS doesn’t just trump NMS in sheer quantity of content, it also absolutely crushes NMS in terms of atmosphere, context, and motivation.
The universe of NMS is half baked. There are three alien races with vague backstories that contain glimmers of an interesting sci fi world, but ultimately whatever intriguing concepts or conflicts might have existed are drowned in a crushing sense of stasis. The universe of NMS doesn’t move. I think the alien races fight each other and have territorial claims over planetary clusters, but that hardly matters when the sum total of interactions with the aliens is treating them like worthless vending machines at stations and seeing their useless motherships clog up the air space above planets. There’s no sense that the universe of NMS contains living, breathing entities, let alone dynamic societies. The game not only lacks a space opera, it lacks any sort of sense of a greater world of conscious beings whatsoever. Once more, the game is an empty void.
Do you like interacting with interesting, crazy societies? SS has dozens of ports, each with their own cultures, allegiances, problems, and strengths. They player can support a revolution against the Temple of Mirrah in Varchas, or back the oppositional conservatives. Or the player can go panhandling for sapphires in Carnelia, digging for ruins in Mount Palmerstone, or play chess at Port Cecil. On top of all that, there’s the grand power struggle between the major players of the Neath. The British Admiralty, the horde-like Khante, the anarchists of Hell, and the mysterious Dawn Machine all vie for power, and only the player can ultimately decide (though a serious of extremely complicated maneuvers) which one will end up on top.
Or maybe you prefer the ethereal wonder of something like NMS’s Atlas to petty human affairs. At least Atlas starts out as a decent mystery. It’s some sort of 2001 monolith-god entity thing whose true nature is beyond our comprehension. So if the player accepts Atlas’s guidance and follows him around the universe for 20 hours of mind-numbing tedium, he can add the roughly 18,000,000,000,000,000,001st star to NMS’s universe in the player’s name. Wow, what a satisfying conclusion.
If you liked the concept of Atlas, then you’ll love SS’s strong Lovecraftian influence. The game contains innumerable mighty, but elusive forces which the player simultaneously knows little of, but can always interact with in some way. There are multiple gods which can curse or reward the player depending on his conduct. The player can become infected with reoccurring dreams or torturous visions of other dimensions, of sunlight (a magical essence in the Neath), or even hunger for human flesh.
But even if SS actually gives the player content to explore, what motivation is there for the player to find it? NMS couldn’t come up with a better motivator than vague promises of adventure and wispy stand-ins for lore-based objectives. Meanwhile, SS accomplishes the remarkable task of simultaneously giving the player multiple potential motivations for exploration, while making nearly all of them actually fun. Some players will want to increase their stats to become the strongest, smartest, sneakiest, most visionary sailor in the Neath. Some will pursue one of the end-game objectives like founding a new colony, locating your father’s bones, or communing with an elder god. Still others can create their own objectives like fighting the strongest sea creatures or getting the best ship and equipment (all of which actually makes a difference besides inventory space in SS). All options are not only fun, but perfectly set up by the vast mysteries of the Neath.
Both NMS and SS present the player with a gargantuan video game space to explore, but only the latter game bothers to actually put something in it worth exploring. But even more importantly, SS conceives of compelling reasons for exploration, both in the short run (side quests, trade runs, revealing new parts of the map, etc.) and in the long run (main quests, long term upgrades, etc.). No Man’s Sky is an attempt at exploration that fails because of a lack of discovery. Despite having an incomprehensibly smaller game world, Sunless Sea is an exploration game with nearly endless potential for discovery.
Sunless Sea is not a perfect game. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a significant number of players who try SS won’t last more than a few hours before throwing in the towel. The writing, while generally fun in a convoluted Lovecraftian composition, can be opaque to the point of incomprehensibility. The inventory system is a bit of a mess and suffers from a lack of transparency (wtf is a “searing enigma” or “docile blemmigan”). The rougelike elements are broken and should be entirely ignored by all players unless you want to go as insane as most of the inhabitants of the Neath. And the game is slow. Really, really, reeeeeally slow. Seriously, don’t buy this game before watching a youtube video on the gameplay so you know what you’re getting into.
Yet one of the biggest advantages of SS over NMS is that the developers knew they were making an experimental, flawed, indie game for a niche audience. And so they adjusted their price point accordingly.
At release, SS sold for just $19.99 on Steam (and has since dropped to $18.99). That’s a perfect price for a game that has a ton of content but is also a risky purchase for a lot of buyers. For those who find the game too strange and slow, $20 was probably worth the risk. For those who find the game compelling and can’t stop playing, $20 is a steal (I just reached the 65 hour mark across two main playthroughs). And over a year after the initial release, the developers released the Zubmariner expansion for $9.99, a fair price for the size of the expansion which will likely only be purchased by people who already bought and enjoyed the base game.
In contrast, No Man’s Sky’s developers infamously opted for the AAA price point of $60. Of all of the bad design and promotional decisions surrounding NMS, I believe this was ultimately the single most damaging decision to the game’s critical reception and legacy. If NMS had humbly released at $20, it would still have been lambasted for being over-hyped and promoted by misleading marketing, but at the very least consumers would have begrudgingly admitted that its price point indicated its status as an experimental indie game rather than a AAA blockbuster. But given the $60 release, it’s hard to see NMS’s late development decisions as anything short of a cash grab.
If No Man’s Sky had even a fraction of the content and vision Sunless Sea possesses, it could have been a fantastic game. Actually, that’s pretty much what NMS was marketed as. We were told there would be intergalactic struggles, dynamic civilization clashes, and endless planets filled with interesting nooks and crannies to discover. Instead, we got an amazing technological breakthrough filled with nothing but empty skies.