Once upon a time, London fell.
Why it did or how it did we do not know; but here we are, in the Neath. Civilization, such as it is here, consists of tiny, scattered outposts in the vast darkness of the...Sunless Sea
...or, as it is known to the captains of the brave vessels that sail upon it, the Unterzee. (Or, more casually, "the zee.")
It's an eerie place, full of adventures, strangeness, and chance. As the game's opening screen warns you, "your first captains will probably die. Later captains may succeed."
And on that note you arrive at the character creation screen: choose a background and an overarching goal for yourself. Is it fabulous wealth that you seek? You can make that your victory condition. Or perhaps you long to become foremost in the Unterzee's brave (and by definition foolhardy) explorers, and set out to scour the corners of the zee for material you'll one day use to write your masterwork.
You might become a pirate, stalking other ships on the dark waters to claim their goods and fuel for your own. You might become a smuggler, delivering questionable goods to even more questionable parties. You might forge a relationship with Hell (THAT Hell? Perhaps - we don't know them well enough to say), acquire a dubious reputation in the Khanate, or execute daring commissions for the Admiralty.
Perhaps you will cultivate a relationship with the zee's mysterious gods. Perhaps you will do this without knowing that you do this; their attentions are capricious and their actions frequently inexplicable.
Perhaps you will succeed.
Or perhaps only the Fathomking will ever know what became of your bones.
Failbetter Games is presenting us here with an interesting beast, to be sure. It is as though The Call of Cthulhu
, Dark Souls
, and China Mieville's The Scar
went out for drinks one evening, and after a few too many margaritas The Scar
began a giddy expostulation of how glorious it could be if the three of them all teamed up on a project together.
The results are...interesting. One begins by loading a ship with fuel, supplies, and crew, and strikes out into the literal black void for...well, for whatever the void may happen to contain. It's not quite a procedurally-generated world; there appear to be SOME rules governing approximately where things might appear, and the western and southern borders of the map are always going to be the same, but as a general rule when a character dies the map of the Unterzee will change. (Try not to think about how it is that the Unterzee is literally different for everyone who ventures into it, even those who inherit the legacy of a previous character. It is as if it is formed from the expectations of those who sail upon it...)
Once at sea - excuse me, at zee - one sails about looking for matters of interest. New islands and ports of call. Odd land features. Pirates or zee-beasts to fight. A helpful zee-bat functions as a kind of radar, occasionally bringing news that a port or landmark is near.
And eventually, one will again return to Fallen London with spoils. Or die. Dying's actually pretty likely, especially as you learn the ropes.
Is it a roguelike then? Sort of: there is only one save file (at least in the default mode) and particularly when setting out it is very, very easy for a small misstep to doom a ship and crew. At least one can always leave something for the next captain to come along. Half the value of one's highest stat, perhaps. Or wealth. Or, sometimes, one's chart, a truly precious inheritance (though passing this on will mean that the next captain gains no experience for discovering any already-charted places.)
But the real inheritance is the gradually-growing knowledge of the player. While the layout of the zee is somewhat randomized for each captain, the stories available to each captain persist: This time, I will know that that Searing Enigma I can gain from doing this is better offered to this mysterious being. This time, I will be sure not to let the customs men stamp that crate. This time, I will head straight for the area where I can vaguely expect this island to be. This time, I will think twice before accepting this bargain. This time.
And make no mistake, it these stories and not the gameplay that are the game's most compelling asset. The top-down ship-dogfights aren't bad, and for a player more skilled at such battles than myself may even be quite enjoyable. But that's not why I'm here.
I'm here for the really rather remarkably evocative world Failbetter has constructed. Or perhaps I should say "expanded upon"; the world of Sunless Sea
is an extension of the world first built for their free browser game Fallen London
, and having an account in Fallen London can both expand on the lore of the world and also (it seems) potentially trigger interesting crossovers between games. (I am currently playing Fallen London casually, and recently had the option to sell something to "a zee-captain of my acquaintance"; I have yet to see how that will play out in Sunless Sea
, but am curious to find out.)
It's a kind of dark-fantastical mirror of the Age of Steam ("Steampunk" doesn't seem quite the right word, though fans of the aesthetic may find something to like here.) Exploration and encounters are paramount; most of the game's narrative meat comes in storylets available at the various ports. Something in the manner of a visual novel or choose-your-own adventure book, you'll read a situation, and then choose a response; sometimes the random number gods will be called upon to adjudicate the results of your actions, with bonuses available based on your stats.
And it works. It works, and it gives me a bit of a feeling that I have not had since a very, very young me tinkered with interactive fiction. My choices here are more constrained, but there is that sense of mystery, of exploration and experimentation, and occasionally of delight at some unexpectedly-pleasing turn of phrase or some bizarre and imaginative scenario.
If that sounds at all appealing to you, I suggest giving Sunless Sea
And swap me a zee-story if you do.
The below description is of our first captain's death; spoilered in case anyone reading this wishes to go into zeefaring with the most blank possible slate.
It was our own fault for not buying enough fuel.
As the engines sputtered to a stop, leaving us adrift and helplesss, we could all feel the ripples of terror through our group - the wary eyes, the slightly crazed laughter.
I do not know what mad impulse drove us to call on the god Salt, but we did: a frantic, whispered prayer for aid that was, unexpectedly, answered.
The ship heaved, and with it the fabric of reality; we clung nauseously to the rail as the world blurred and shifted. When our vision cleared, the Kingeater's Castle loomed above us, seemingly demanding sacrifice. It was impossible; we found ourselves literally at the opposite end of the world from any sign of life or hope.
But we had a small amount of fuel, and despair made us reckless. We set out...
...and promptly found ourselves set upon by strange and shining ships. Before their weapons our hull was as tissue paper.
It was as the explosions shredded our ship, as all but one shipmate had perished in the onslaught, that we heard the singing.
The Drownies. They circled us, offering peace, release. An end.
Before the final blast could come we flung ourselves into their waiting arms.
P.S. Be careful out there; it's easier to commit acts of accidental cannibalism than you think. That shark wasn't shark, damn it.