Game Log: Sunless Sea

Sunless Sea (2015) is an exemplar of a quality-based narrative. Its use of storylets and a complex network of interconnected qualities to guide their availability demonstrate how narrative elements can be remixed to create systems capable of generating new player stories based on only a few simple rules. At the same time, however, it shows how an overreliance on statistics within its design can strip an experience of a deeper meaning and encourage narcissist player behaviors in long-term play.

Cypher and the Zee

Sunless Sea (2015) starts with an explicit question and invites the player to try to answer an implicit one. “Who were you?” asks the game as the player starts a new life. Tied up into this question, and left to the player to discover based on random chance and knowledge of its world, is the implicit question asked at the start of each new life on the Zee: “And who do you want to be?” The backgrounds available to the player set a range of possible paths through their new life as a zee-captain, but this does not dictate everything. A player can, with enough knowledge of its systems and some good luck, be and do just about anything.

Set in the same world of its sister game, Fallen London (2009), the player is given command over a ship in the harbor of an underground city at the start of Sunless Sea (2015). The old city of London has fallen underground and become Fallen London, as it is now called. This fall, both literal and metaphorically, has spread out a series of islands and a mix of weird peoples caught up in their own survival and stories on each. The water that surrounds and connects these islands — the Zee — is home to a strange menagerie of creatures and threats. It poses much danger to those who are caught unaware. Sailing the Zee drains fuel to drive the ship forward, uses up food to keep the crew alive, and slowly fills a sanity meter. If any of those three amounts exceeds a certain range, the possibility of survival dramatically lowers. Death, however, is not the end. It is a beginning — again.

Each new life, be it from starting a fresh save, dying in a previous run, or being successful enough to retire in a previous life in the game, resets the statistics and the question is posed fresh: “Who were you?” A player successful enough in a larger number of past lives can pass down better statistics and starter items, but the questions remain the same regardless of privilege or past: “Who were you? And who do you want to be?”

Destinations over Journeys

The different starting backgrounds set before the player at their start give them a quest to drive their exploration, but talking to other characters and adventuring across the Zee often triggers others. Landing at a new, unexplored island dock may start a new adventure or unlock some new story content. The act of sailing itself, seeing the vast Zee and all of its offerings, slowly adds to a currency called fragments. Daring to adventure into the dark, unmapped reaches of the map always comes with risks and rewards.

As becomes evident quickly in Sunless Sea (2015), there is a strong focus on the act of sailing. Quests require visiting different places and often traveling long stretches of the Zee slowly at a time. All major quests, those used to unlock the ability of a character to retire and possibly help the next character in line, have the player navigate between islands using a series of ships, one slightly better than the last. Unless starting with a larger sum of money, a player must take on smaller quests, deliveries and other tasks, to build up their funds and unlock better ships, opening their range of sailing and allowing them to stay out on the Zee longer with each successful trip.

Exploration outside of the range of steady work soon takes on a brutal calculus for the player. Spend too long out on the Zee without food and your crew may consume themselves as cannibals. Push your ship too far without the ability to return for fuel and a cruel fate may await the captain and its crew. Being caught out in the open as pirates or creatures attack may force a quick escape or death out on the Zee. Unless prepared or knowledgeable of the risks, straying away from the goals suggested by quests and characters may be a fast reset, and the start of another life with nothing to show from hours of work to setup a better, future life.

Caught between the desire to explore and the harsh punishments for failure, players are forced into longer play sessions or risky patterns. Pushing too far may mean certain death, but not pushing enough means being trapped in making deliveries for many in-game hours of sailing back-and-forth between locations. This in-built friction creates a strong sense of the Hobbesian world it presents. Without strong guidance, a firm hand at the helm, the life of a zee-captain becomes one of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Para. 9).

Draw and Discard

Sunless Sea (2015), like its sister game Fallen London (2009), is a quality-based narrative. This means its content is governed by an interconnected list of qualities. Each unit of content, a storylet, is available to a player if its requirements are met. This makes more explicit the connection between inventory and epistemology to the player. Anything a character can “have,” from fuel to an ongoing romance, is a quality. The experience of a player, their narrative, is crafted by these qualities. Anything the game is tracking becomes part of the matrix of relationships, each combination of qualities and their current values unlocking different things and working to create a unique story each session.

Selecting options from the in-game journal when visiting locations shows the requirements — and often cost — of qualities to experience the content. Visiting a new island may generate a Port Report, for example, which can be exchanged for other goods back in the docks of Fallen London. Buying fuel decreases the amount of Echoes. Sailing and finding new places generates Fragments. Even knowledge itself becomes something sold to others. An experience of visiting the surface and its own cities becomes something to be bought and sold. Everything in Sunless Sea (2015) becomes something tracked, which gives it a value within the markets of the game. Even the crew of the ship can be exchanged for other things such as selling them into slavery for Echoes or consuming them as food when nothing else is available.

The officers of the ship represent this brutish calculus of the world in microcosm. At various points, driven by qualities and some degree of randomness, the player can encounter different characters requesting to travel with them. Taking these people on and assigning them to different roles on the ship such as Cook or Engineer grants certain bonuses while traveling. Each of them, in coming aboard, also opens different quests and triggers events in the larger world. As qualities themselves, the characters unlock more content. In representing fixed bonuses for the player, however, and regardless of any content they may open, these characters also become things to manage, things the player now has. Like adding new cannons to the ship or buying new fuel, an encounter might require new bonuses and officers can be rearranged as needed. In the ruthless nature of the Zee, characters are to be used, abused, and forgotten.

Be it either by design or a result of its systems, the buying and selling of everything in the world of Sunless Sea (2015) reduces its overall meaning. Officers can be used and forgotten because they will be revived and reset upon a new life on the Zee. Crew can be consumed because, like other qualities, they are merely another statistic. The long-term play of Sunless Sea (2015) beats upon the player until they too embrace its nihilistic view of the cosmos. There is no long-term redemption or a confrontation to end the suffering. You die. You sail. You die. You sail again.

A Cruel God Endlessly Sailing in Darkness

Through its rogue-lite systems and overwhelming emphasis on qualities, Sunless Sea (2015) provides the ability to revisit islands and discover new narrative content over time and experience. Through investing in life after life, the player can see new things and try out different paths through the world of the game and add to the qualities they have and can eventually pass to new characters. Eventually, through trial, error, and the influence of random encounters, the player can slowly master systems, quickly navigate its menus, and build an optimized path of quickly recovering the ability to sail the Zee without much issue through understanding which beginning tasks and quests will reward them the fastest, and allow access to the larger world upon reset.

The very optimization the game encourages becomes its downfall. The long line of unrelenting death the player creates drags them through a hell of their own making. Sacrificing a current life and its relationships becomes an increasingly viable strategy to creating better, future lives. Selling everything seems the only rational solution while clinging to a hope of making it to retirement and passing anything on to the next generation. No cost seems to too great if there are no long-term consequences beyond some slight hope. This becomes a systematic torture as a well-constructed life can end if the risks of a good-seeming gamble to explore or battle with a creature game can figurative — and literally — sink the life of zee-captain. If everything, including the death of the player-character, is a currency to be spent, there is no end to spending, no bottom to be reached. Spend. Die. Repeat. Sail again. Sail forever.