Sunless Sea

salt and darkness

I’ve been watching recent release Sunless Sea’s slow journey through early access beta since its beginning in the late summer of 2014. Its premise was often sold as some sort of Lovecraft-inspired FTL, and that tantalizing idea caught more attention than the game itself. I even checked out its sire, Fallen London, a simple browser game that is based on limited, but regenerating energy—not unlike Farmville or the Mafia Wars of my own nostalgia, but with decidedly more writing and imagination.
Sunless Sea sought to take that imagination and apply it to a more immersive and navigable game, rather than a simple text-based browser game, and to expand that setting a good deal. Fallen London only takes place in the titular city, which was stolen straight from the Victorian Period’s grasp when it was sold to the mysterious and powerful Echo Bazaar, placing it far below the Earth’s surface, into the Unterzee, a massive subterranean ocean without end. Except possibly North, because reality ceases to exist up there.
This world is undoubtedly the game’s great strength. Your captain’s log fills with omens, warning you of cities where nothing is dead, places where reason ends, or hunger grows. And that’s before you pull into port. From the shapeshifting tigers of the Carnelian Coast, to the drowned immortals of the Fathomking’s court, there are no shortage of strange and extraordinary characters to interact with.
The gameplay, however, is a strange and difficult matter. Sunless Sea is a punishingly difficult roguelike, where manual saves are penalized but not forbidden, death is the end of all your accomplishments, and making ends meet is brutally difficult. This can work in favor of immersion: being constantly worried about dying is a great way to feel the fear of the Unterzee. However, it often creates strong obstacles to advancing exploration of the sea that’s randomized on each death. Particularly dangerous to the immersion is the amount of strategy and cutthroat practicality it takes to survive in Sunless Sea. The mystery and detail of the setting makes you want to explore east and solve the riddles of gods and monsters, yet to start, you really ought to be trading coffee beans and clipping coupons out of the newspaper. And as one does eventually grow and explore, you find out that some methods are better than others, and then what happens when this captain dies? The next one will have to repeat the golden strategies again and again.
However, even though Sunless Sea has earned its 1.0 release, it’s far from done. The developers at Failbetter Games release new updates frequently, some with minor touches, some with major ones. There is talk of expansions and “Zubmarines.” Failbetter Games proves to be aptly named, because there is no shortage of effort, nor any lack of ideas. From what I’ve seen on forums, this applies to balancing as much as content.
The tricky balancing issues and somewhat conflicting elements of the game can make it seem like the work of a novice, still learning and patching up its tracks, but the palatable dread and endless curiosities of a sea where secrets are the most valued commodity shows a masterful touch of worldbuilding and immersion.
I am not done watching, nor playing, and I am glad for it.