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Sunless Sea: Try not to eat too many crew.

by Rampant Bicycle » Thu Feb 12, 2015 7:27 pm

Okay, so.

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.")

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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 a try.

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.

Spoiler: show
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.
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Re: Sunless Sea: Try not to eat too many crew.

by Bowley » Thu Feb 12, 2015 7:47 pm

Nice writeup. I still don't quite get what the game is, though.

Sight unseen, I'm imagining something that looks like the remake of Sid Meier's Pirates, set in D&D's Underdark, with an art style that look like a mish-mash of steampunk cliches and Pirates of Dark Water characters, with H.P. Lovecraft inspired sea monsters.

Close?

EDIT: Oh now there's photos, nevermind.
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Rampant Bicycle

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Re: Sunless Sea: Try not to eat too many crew.

by Rampant Bicycle » Thu Feb 12, 2015 8:08 pm

Heh. Sorry, Bowls - sourcing images took a bit longer. :)
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Re: Sunless Sea: Try not to eat too many crew.

by Beige » Thu Feb 12, 2015 10:22 pm

I got this. Lemme see if I can break it down mechanically. Part of the difficulty with this one is just how damn unusual the entire game is, not just the Zeefaring.

Imagine that Star Control 2 and Dark Souls got together with Sid Meyer's Pirates. Sure, that's as good a place to start as any. Then throw in a ton of Planescape style dialog where you have these really long really interesting reading sections where you ultimately make choice a, b or c and then live with the consequences.

Mechanically it's the Star Control Precursor ship all the way. Hop into ship, buy fuel and crates of food and supplies and cargo, head out onto the World Map with your WASD tank controls piloting your "Capital Ship" which is in actuality a Dinky Ship out into The Unknown. Explore the great black Underzee / Galaxy Map, meet strange people, strange places and bring back lots of minerals captain. Discover islands and distant shores where before there was only darkness: Thar Be Dragons. Naturally your ship starts with only the shittiest guns and cargo space possible, but you can upgrade it back in London, assuming you bring back enough Echoes. Echoes = Money. Good luck with that.

The rub is that unlike Star Control, Sunless Sea is trying to kill you constantly. Drive around with your lights on like a big floating 18 wheeler? You're consuming fuel hand over fist. Switch off the lights for fuel conservation or for silent running when you're sneaking past bad guys? Enjoy watching your communal terror gauge spike into the stratosphere like you'd dropped a tab of bad acid as the crew bumbles around in pitch darkness. Terror is managable when close to land and coasts -- terror is managable -- out in the blackness of the Underzee, shit gets crazy. You need those lights brah.

The tension between conservation of resources and the desire to just strike out and explore the darkness to find... one... more... island.... is strong. We had to putter home last night on a barrel of gas fumes with terror in the mid-90s (bad!) because we literally couldn't spare fuel to turn the lights on. Because our terror was so high, our captain was having nightmares, recurring visions, weeping uncontrollably for no reason. Terror resets to 50 when you berth in London and you can get tattoos that moderate it... but...

You know how in Star Control the gameplay was mostly just "strike out somewhere and hope for the best" but often your navigation was informed by a clue or hint guiding your next trip? It's like that. The first few sojourns you won't know the environment you will stick close to home and just try to discover landmarks and ports within the range of what you can afford to safely explore. As your comfort level and familiarity with the zee increases, your ship gets stronger and your zee-chart fills out you can start plotting out riskier and riskier courses. Sure, that rock way out in the middle of the zee might be a hive of scum teeming with pirates, but they sell fuel there. If you bring enough cash (ALWAYS HAVE A BUFFER OF CASH) you can afford to gas up and use it as a stepping stone into the Beyond.

Planning is a HUGELY IMPORTANT aspect of zeefaring, which I like as it reminds me of Herman Miaville *cough* Melville. 10 barrels of oil, 5 crates of hard tack. Expect to eat 2 or 3 jellyfish we catch along the way, save room for salt cargo. Yeah, I think we can make the Iron Republic on that. Initially, until you start unlocking quests and learning the zee, money is very tight, forcing hard choices each time you make port. Food? Or hull repair? You can't have both. Early income is derived from runnning shit recon jobs for the Admiralty, scanning ports of call and getting "Port Reports" which you can deliver for a pittance back in London, based on distance traveled and difficulty obtaining the info. Every now and then you might discover something of Strategic Importance, which the Admiralty will pay big bucks for. Even better is collecting info on "Moves in the Great Game". Good luck with that.

Unlike most trading games, Sunless Sea WANTS you to be overconfident and die horribly through bad planning. The game encourages this, leans on it, with plenty of random popup FTL style events that can drastically affect your ability to survive. Planning preemptively for emergencies saves lives. 2 nights ago we BARELY survived being teleported across the map into the depths of uncharted waters because we were being fresh with things we aught not. 1000 echoes in the hold (a fortune! a ship's worth!) was shaved down and mercilessly converted into food and supplies at the only port we could chug to (the goddamn Khanate, where we are hated and our suspicion level is 10 and the dialogue option SPECIFICALLY SAYS "buy goods at OUTRAGEOUS prices?") leaving us with just enough coins to rub together once we hit London to do repairs. BUT. WE. SURVIVED.

More than once we've been flat ass out of fuel and been choiced with throwing cargo into the furnace or simply getting down on one's knees and praying to the Zee Gods of Storm, Stone and Salt for a flat-out miracle. Protip: If you expect this to succeed, you had better have done something prior to attract the attention of the Zee Gods towards you. PRO Protip: Zee God miracles are not always good for you and doing things that get their attention IS FREQUENTLY A BAD IDEA. Nothing beats docking at a port of call and having what you **think** will be a routine encounter with a customs officer suddenly turn into a -50 sanity ravishing Lovecraftian horror show. Big BIG difference between being way out at zee with 30 terror as opposed to 90. One, you're chilling with the crew, the other you're having to deal with crazy oracular-zee bats that might or might not be real perching on the rails, demanding you succeed on absurd skill checks in order to stop throwing your crewmembers over the board. Salt loves you, the drownies love you, join us join us.

I very much endorse the stats your character has in this game. They are:
Iron: "Fighty stuff and toughness"
Veils: "Skullduggery and sneaky stuff"
Pages: "Scholarly stuff, book learning"
Mirrors: "Perception, magic, the Mystical"
Hearts: "Morale stuff, empathy, communication"

Most challenges you perform in the game will require you check against one of those stats. As you level up by exploring and collecting "fragments" (each fragment is 1/100th of a "secret") you gain the ability to improve those stats through spending "secrets" through conversations and sidequests with ships officers. These officers can be recruited onboard by completing quests and discovering this-and-that through FTL style encounters and dialogue and through various adventures. Each officer and character has their own Bioware style side story that you can follow up on or not to unlock hilarity. Our current navigator needs us to find a clay doll in the shape of a human being at the moment. Good times.

Each check has a percentage of success based on how good you are with stats. Make your character a priest and you start with a high Heart stat, therefore tasks such as recruiting crew at bars is easy and friends come naturally. Be a veteran of the campaign of '68 and you begin full of Iron like Alain Quartermain which enables your ships guns to do lots of damage initially and means you can take a lot of punches and succeed at physical challenges such as being thrown in a hellish arena-pit. Actually all the stats affect combat in one way or another, even outside of the FTL choice system.

There is a fascinating range of currencies in Sunless Sea, most of them hovering somewhere between fiscal unit and cargo unit - hundreds of individual doodads that you can posess, trade, steal for, spend, hoard or what-have-you. Some of them sit directly in the cargo hold, others are more ephemeral despite being "spendable".

Echoes are your rough dollar equivalents and the easiest currency to understand, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Stories, for example, are also currencies, often broken down into bizarrely specific divisions. "Tales of Terror" are not the same currency as "Zee Stories" nor are they the same as "Shocking Revelations" although you can collect all three and more. Crates of souls (stamped or contraband!) are currencies, as are dreams, nightmares, grungy mogs, octopus flesh, moth-masks, etc. NPCs will totally trade for these things ALL THE TIME and often require them as prerequisites for quests. There's an entire town that just trades in stories exclusively, no cash, both buy and sell.

You often have to spend these weird currencies during exchanges - example: having lunch with a particular set of NPCs requires that you bring at least 1x "Current News" with you beforehand, an easy-to-acquire currency which you accumulate by reading the newspaper in London (natch) each time you dock in port. Spend your 1x"current news" here and you can't spend it at the next port over. So sad.

Another great example: Docking in London gives you a currency called "A Free Evening" (x1) which you can use with each visit home to carouse or sleep in the hotel or get a tattoo or something suitably nautical. Most encounters have some kind of hard cost (20 echoes) and some kind of soft or cargo cost like sharing a secret or swapping stories or trading whale flesh for saphires or some damn thing, so if you expect to pry Port Reports from the mouths of dour fishermen be prepared to hand over both money and Zee Stories for it. Most weird occurances that happen to you out there in the world will randomly generate Zee Stories of course -it's a common currency. Successfully succeed at some crazy chess battle against a devil? That's a zee story. Escape the clutches of a giant squid? Oh man, that's sure as hell a zee story.

Admiralty favor is a currency. You can "spend" it to do things ranging from coaxing free fuel from the government (a hearts challenge) to repairing your ship to what have you. You can't spend more favor than you've curried though - currying favor from the Admiralty is a big part of the early game.

Roguelike fans and FTL heads will either love or hate the aspects of the game that surround player death. Can your *character* survive after death? No. Can certain aspects of your legacy survive? Absolutely. I love the mechanic where, on death, you must choose the relationship that New Character had to Old Character. Are they your old character's.... Rival? Crewmate? Corrsepondent? Heir? (Note: requires you to have *actually* produced an heir in-game). Did this heir inherit and now live in your character's old mansion? (Note: Requires you to have built a mansion). Wills are totally a thing you can make in this game. Fantastic. Passing on the Map will help you know where you're supposed to be going in the next life, but letting the zee reconfigure itself on player death will allow you to accumulate all those XPs again. Choices!

Each of these decisions affects how you begin Playthrough Next. Nick Ninefingers (our current character) is a stealthy rogue who served as a crewmember with our previous character, the Priest Adolphus. This is awkward because (as we know) Adolphus perished at the hands of his mutinous crew after he went insane and started seeing tentacles everywhere and raving about Eyes. Nick doesn't discuss this.

I guess what I'm saying is that we're having a whale of a time with the Sunless Sea. It's weird as hell (SRSly) but the atmosphere is bang-on China Mieville-meets-Poe-meets-Lovecraft and the exploration mechanics are well realized and super compelling. Combat is.... eh. It's OK. No Spathi Eluder that's for sure, but not bad for an early access title who had its turn-based combat engine ripped from its guts at the 11th hour. Stupid entitled gamers, always wanting... THINGS.

It can be grindy and sluggish to get from level 1 to level "I can actually do things!", but it's worth your time. Don't know if the bloom goes off after Death #10 but we've managed to keep character #3 alive for 3 whole nights so that's saying something. I appreciate that the greatest knowledge you pass on to the next life isn't in-game but is an aspect of your own player experience.
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Re: Sunless Sea: Try not to eat too many crew.

by Beige » Fri Feb 13, 2015 2:19 pm

I spoke too soon. Crew rebelled, murdered Nick within two inches of the London lights on a particularly difficult ride home.

Guys, GUYS., If you can read the harbor signs, there's no need to get uppity.

*sigh*

Let's hope Alice has more luck.

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