A young bride murders her husband-to-be the midnight before their wedding. With a tenderness known only by a lover, she removes his heart before vanishing in the sea, leaving nothing but a blossom of blood in the harbor waters and a floating thread of white lace.
In a small fishing village, every man and woman, save for a single child, stand from their beds in the dead of night and wade into the ocean. Their bodies are taken by the outgoing tide.
Such tales of terror as these await in Sunless Sea, one member of a special class of games that have an uncanny way of sticking in your brain. And what exactly is a game that sticks in your brain? It’s a game that lingers in your consciousness long after you’ve turned it off, or beaten it for the 10th or 20th time. It goes beyond serving merely as a form of entertainment or distraction, to be forgotten once you’ve turned it off and returned to your life. Instead, it becomes part of your life, either by illuminating an otherwise foggy corner of the human experience or inventing new ones entirely.
In Sunless Sea, that corner of the human experience is our innate fear and awe of the vast, boundless ocean. Anyone who has travelled long distances across the sea or looked out upon dark waves at night has felt a certain vulnerability. Felt a certain loneliness, with a hint of unsettling beauty, in the face of vast distances that have no discernable end. Sunless Sea masterfully taps into this sense of vulnerability, fear, and beauty. For this reason, it is a game that sticks in your brain.
Sunless Sea is technically a horror game at its core, but its unique in the genre because it is not a game about blasting apart monsters or fighting gruesome aliens. Instead, it is about seafaring, trade, and exploration. Remarkably, these themes turn out to be an unexpected, yet natural, fit for the horror genre. After all, hasn’t every sailor wondered throughout history– after weeks of voyaging through yawning stretches of ocean— what horrors may lurk just inches past where the last rays of light are swallowed by the deep?
The Sea of Statues is one of many genuinely creepy locales you will encounter in Sunless Sea.
Sunless Sea is set in the universe of “Fallen London,” an alternate history of the Steam Age where a sizeable chunk of England has sunk into an immense underground cavern known as the Unter-Zee. The Unter-Zee, filled with a Mediterranean sized ocean, is oft referred to simply as “The Zee.”
The Londoners, armed with their intrepid maritime traditions, set forth after the fall to explore and colonize the caverns, but the Unter-Zee has not been a gentle host. By the time you, the player, has entered the picture, London has long since declined in its glory. After a failed invasion of Hell, the Unter-Zee and its horrors have long since reclaimed most of London’s settlements.
You begin the game in Fallen London, the inheritor of a small steam powered vessel, a small crew, but large ambitions. You choose a past— a soldier or a poet, etc.— and then waste little time in setting off upon the Zee.
From the very beginning, Sunless Sea strikes you as a game set apart. Though graphically and mechanically humble in many ways, it is dedicated to storytelling and immersion and never breaks the act. There are no hints or nods that you are simply playing a game. No gamey mechanics. No big tutorial to hold your hand and treat you gently. And most importantly, there are no second chances. Like any inexperienced explorer setting out onto uncharted waters, the only way to learn is from your mistakes. There is only one message the developers give the player directly that isn’t nested in game mechanics, and its the very first line of text in the game: “Explore. Take Risks. Your first few captains will probably die. Later captains may succeed.”
With those… encouraging… words, you set out from London to explore the ports and locales nearby: the more “civilized” reaches of The Zee.
Your crew is always at ease so long as they can see the lights of London!
Each time you discover and dock at a port, you are confronted with a new “choose your own path” type novelette, often involving some unsettling local mystery or an opportunity that seems too good to be true. While the nearest ports are close to London and don’t seem very dark and menacing, the player realizes quickly that all corners of the Unter-Zee harbor secrets, even those close to home. It’s common to visit a port on twenty occasions, only to learn on the twenty first visit that all of those hints you brushed off on prior visits finally add up to something sinister: there weren’t any children in the settlement because they were being fed to giant angler fish; you learn that those two crew members who “accidentally fell off the seawall and broke their necks” may have been “helped” to their fate by some of the locals; the apparently hospitable island is not an island at all, but instead a colossal, patient sea monster that is encouraging settlement to visit so that it may one day devour them all…
As you explore these nearby ports and uncover their mysteries, you may encounter a few dangerous pirates or Zee-monsters, but you’ll quickly learn that the most dangerous adversary is neither cannon nor claw, but bills (and given that the only flying creature down in the Unter-Zee are bats, I’m not talking about the bills of some monstrous sea bird). Sunless Sea is very attuned to the details of a captain’s life, not the least of which is balancing the books.
Watch your fuel, don’t squander all your food, and keep a close eye on your bank account!
Steaming in circles near the safe waters of London without turning a profit will punish a new player very quickly. Fuel and supplies come at a steep price and if you don’t set your mind squarely to earning money through trading, treasure hunting, piracy, or earning favor with London’s Admiralty, a career at Zee might last no longer than a few days. In fact, you’ll probably discover that no one source of income will ever be enough, alone. Running a ship, paying a crew, and keeping everyone fed is expensive. Fail to do so, and salvagers from the Echo Bazaar will be tearing your ship apart long before a giant Zee-crab does.
I learned this lesson well in my very first game. While I managed to get myself and my crew back to port in one piece, I didn’t earn enough money to purchase the fuel and supplies necessary to mount a second expedition. So rather than lead myself and my crew to certain doom, I sold off my vessel and retired. I surmised that a life of poverty— dreaming of what could have been— is better than a death at Zee.
With my former Zee captain at least escaping with his life, I started a new game and assumed command of a new ship and a new Zee-captain. From there, I decided that I needed to be bolder. I choose an “ex-soldier” as a captain for the added combat stats and set out for Gaider’s Mourn, the pirate haven. This time, I tried my hand at stealing, and who better to steal from than thieves? My second game would be even shorter than my first, and I learned that while poor planning might lead you to financial ruin, its just as likely to lead you to a watery grave.
The expedition started off promising enough. I chased around a few pirate frigates, attempting to seize their ill gotten cargo. I even managed to win a few victories and add some pricey bales of spider silk to my inventory.
Combat involves maneuvering and using landscape and light to your advantage.
On my way home, though, things took a turn for the worse. I was so excited by my acquisitions that I failed to notice we didn’t have enough fuel to get to back London. Miles from shore with no light anywhere on the horizon, my ship stalled out amid an abyss. The ship’s lights flickered out, leaving us in total darkness. The crew began to panic. Suddenly, I was met with four options, all of them desperate.
The best option I had was to throw everything that was flammable into the ship’s steam furnace in the hopes of getting us close enough to shore. That’s the one we took. I cringed as our expensive rope, food, and furniture went up in smoke. I cringed again when we stalled out a short time later, seemingly no closer to land.
With all of our food and supplies now gone, I resorted to the second “best” option. An option that was far, far riskier than the first: I prayed. As any experienced Zee-captain will tell you, no sane mind unweighed by desperation would ever voluntarily attract the sinister gaze of the Unter-Zee’s gods. So I prayed. But they were just words to the wind. Neither the gales of the Storm god nor the tides of the Salt god would push us any closer to shore.
Perhaps it is better that prayer failed. There are some fates worse than death, after all…
At that, I had just two more options. The first was to sit aboard the ship and slowly starve to death with my shipmates. The last option? Abandon ship. Seeing as how I was unwilling to sit in currentless seas and draw straws among the crew to see whom would eat whom first, we all broke into separate lifeboats and set off into the darkness. With enough luck, we’d find our way back to London, penniless, but alive.
And so for the third time, I started the game over from scratch.
Now, Sunless Sea may sound punishingly difficult, but that’s not what helps the game stick in your brain. It sticks in your brain because it approaches the player with one singular purpose: to make you feel as though you really are a Zee-Captain, out to seek your fortune. The second you head out to the vast, black Zee, life out there is just like real life: you only get one chance. In the same way that a long and productive life won’t save you from a single, ill fated car crash, 50 hours of in-game progress won’t save your Zee-Captain from a disaster at sea. And just like in real life, the world not only refuses to wait patiently while you try to get your act together, it more than likely will take every opportunity it has to kick you while you’re down. Stall out just a mile away from London with no food or fuel? Salvagers will tow you the rest of the way to shore… after you’ve signed over your ship, your cargo, and all of your worldly possessions. So much for Good Samaritans.
What’s more, behave carelessly or plan poorly and you’ll find yourself in the jaws of a giant moray eel, knifed on a dockside, or stranded in some dolldrum, boiling the ship’s mascot and your very favorite pair of boots for food so that you don’t have to eat your shipmates… yet.
Tip #1 for not getting knifed on a dockside: don’t accept free gifts from “generous strangers.” Why? Because accepting gifts means owing debts, and when the holder of that debt politely requests that you ship a crate of wailing souls across the Unter-Zee. Failure to smuggle those souls then results in a not-so-polite knife in the stomach.
But Sunless Sea makes you feel like a Zee Captain in a million smaller, subtler ways, too. The game is deeply atmospheric and offers the player scores of fine details and exquisite descriptions; little tidbits of the captain’s life. For instance, as you sail across lonely expanses of water, your captain jots down eerie details of the voyage in his log or muses while in pitch black solitude.
“Eyeless dolphins flit about in the ship’s wake.”
“Way up on the surface, the sun warms the Earth… or so one assumes.”
“A rock bobs through the waves like a Zee-monster… Wait, it IS a Zee-monster!… No, wait, it’s just a rock…”
Sunless Sea’s nod to immersion is reflected also in your interactions with the crew:
Sometimes you must argue with them, if they disagree with your actions.
Sometimes you must encourage them, if bad omens shake their confidence.
Sometimes you must discipline them, if they aren’t staying in line.
Sometimes you must sacrifice them… though I use the term “must” a bit liberally.
After all, if you had to make a choice between sacrificing an easily replaceable sailor or losing those three barrels of highly valuable blackdrop coffee beans, what would you choose? If this decision doesn’t seem obvious in favor of blackdrop coffee beans, then you haven’t learned that life on the Unter-Zee necessitates a bit of frugality when it comes to notions of morality.
At times, you come across crew members that aren’t as easily replaceable as your average dockside drunkard or bright eyed, pimple faced kid. You’ll also pick up officers on your journey as well.
Up above is a few of said officers, including surgeons, engineers, and cooks. You can even have a ship’s mascot, though they are generally more inclined to bite you than to raise your spirits. On the upside, you can request that the ship’s chef cook them up if food were ever to run low (or if you simply have a hankering for some boiled ferret or feline).
With officers, you can form relationships with, as opposed to your general crew who are mostly faceless men and women that swab the poop deck and shovel coal into the engine. You get to know your officers, help them with their troubles, or kick the lying scoundrels off your ship when they put the entire voyage at risk. Just like you, officers have their own agendas and as often as they might help, they might also bring along secrets, dangerous habits, or ulterior motives (all of which have a tendency of bringing along trouble at your expense). On more than one occasion you’ll be attempting to discern who (literally) sold their soul to whom… or who angered what evil god of the underworld… or who blew a hole in the bottom of your ship with an experimental weapon… or who keeps helping themselves to “seconds” from the ship’s pantry. In the end, its hard to blame your officers for not being 100 percent worthy of your trust. After all, neither are you 100 percent worthy of theirs. Still, as you sail the Zee, it’s nice to have company to share your nightmares.
And nightmares there are. Let’s not forget, Sunless Sea is a horror game. A horror game that does an exceptional job of getting under your skin. Curiously, though, it’s hard to explain exactly how it achieves this end. Sunless Sea is not a graphic, explicit game like Doom or Silent Hill. In fact, it doesn’t even involve many graphic descriptions of blood or gore. For instance, the game will describe a crew stranded at sea, forced to eat one another, and without describing any blood or guts will somehow leave you feeling more nauseated than if it had. Or you’ll arrive at the most beautiful, serene place in all the Under-Zee, only to shudder when you find motionless, bare skeletons sitting together in summer chairs as though enjoying an afternoon party.
In the finest tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and Alfred Hitchcock, Sunless Sea generates fear and eeriness from what can’t be seen. Or from learning that terrible things were lurking all along in well-lit places you’d been a thousand times before. Or from learning that terrible things lurk in you.
And of course, in the finest tradition of RPG’s you invariably do a bit of cave spelunking as well.
As the game progresses, all horrors, large and small, begin to cloud your mind and judgment. As it turns out, the resources at your disposal in Sunless Sea aren’t just money, fuel and supplies. One of the most essential resources of all is sanity. As you sail the Zee, there are scores of ways to lose your sanity, but precious few ways to restore it. Witnessing grotesque events, listening to frightful stories, and simply sailing far from shore for too long are all things that chisel away at the soundness of your mind. When fresh and well rested, it is easy to contend with the horrors of the Unter-Zee, but as your mind becomes more and more tainted, it becomes harder and harder to maintain your discipline.
At less flattering moments, a high level of terror will make you want to weep like a baby. Be careful, though. Nothing slicks your descent toward insanity more than tears.
You awake from sleep in a panic, erroneously believing that your shipmates have abandoned you.
Sometimes, crew members leap over the side and swim for a shore that only they can see.
Sometimes, you begin to see all manner of ghastly things in the darkness of the Zee, unaware of whether they are real or imagined.
Sometimes, an attractive officer in a flowing gown— The Lady in Lilac— might appear on your ship… an officer you believe has always been there. Only you can see her. You set a new heading at her behest as your crew stare at you in stunned silence.
The Lady in Lilac is the most formidable officer you can have aboard, appearing only when your descent toward insanity is at its swiftest. Is she there to help you back to shore? Or to help you to your end? Is she even real at all? Whatever you do, just don’t take her to bed.
Events like these, induced by greater and greater fear, serve only to induce ever worse hysteria. Insanity begets insanity.
And so paranoia is inevitable. You grow suspicious of your crew, whether they are plotting against you or not. You begin to wonder whether one of them is a spy. Is that why your favorite quill went missing? No, no, it must be a CONSPIRACY among the crew to take your quill! Is it the beginning of a mutiny?! Should you kill the dastardly traitors first (after all, they must be plotting, must they?!) before they can strike?
These fears aren’t always unfounded either because if you do find yourself in a rapid spiral toward jibbering madness, your crew very likely will rise against you, leaving you to plead with them in desperate diplomacy or attempt to fight them off single handedly with pistol and cutlass. Even a master diplomat or seasoned soldier is unlikely to succeed at either.
In many ways, when you are far away from port with your sanity in tatters, your fragile state of mind can be a greater risk than low fuel or rapidly diminishing food. Fortunately, these various resources can sometimes be fungible. Are you and your crew growing too fearful? Head ashore to that island over there, take a break, and give everyone double rations to raise their spirits. Is your fuel getting too low but the crew is mentally refreshed? Turn out the ship’s spotlight to conserve fuel, even if it means that fear will grow quickly as you skim along the Zee in pitch dark. Conversely, if fuel is high and sanity is threadbare, you might take a longer route through the Zee to get back to London: a route that keeps you near that lighthouse and away from the featureless abyss. Every minute, you are faced with these types of decisions while out at Zee. Struggles, small and large, abound behind every wave.
Should you find yourself far from home and low on sanity, it’s best to follow the light of a lighthouse to ease the nerves of the crew.
What’s fascinating about Sunless Sea’s metric of success, though, is that riches aren’t necessarily exclusively found after a player has vanquished a monster or succeeded in a challenge. Sometimes, the struggle itself is the reward. Yes, the player can accumulate different kinds of monetary currency, but there is a wholly different kind of currency that Zee-captains can acquire and trade in: stories. Even stories about your failures.
Like sailors of yore, the things you’ve seen and stories you’ve heard at Zee can be just as valuable as the treasure you’ve seized. And stories can come from the greatest of triumphs or the most terrible of tragedies. You might have a story about that time you won that great victory over that mighty Zee-beast, or you could also have a story about that time you witnessed a woman and her baby thrown from a cliff as a sacrifice to the God of Salt. Or that time you heard about those two brothers who were stranded at sea and drew straws to see which one would live, and which one would go into the cooking pot.
Sometimes, even misfortunes that befall you and your own crew can be spun into valuable tales. Like that time your most valuable officer dueled that giant, vampiric Zee-bat… and lost. Or the time the whole crew ate double rations, then learned there was a hole leading from the ship’s latrine to the ship’s pantry. Sure, those awful things wore on your sanity at the time, but you survived those mishaps and what gripping stories they’ve made!
Each time something ghastly or remarkable happens during your journey, you accumulate those stories as a kind of currency. Currency that can be exchanged with curious scholars for money, used to impress foreign sailors, or to spur the imagination of your children back home.
If you want your kid to go to Zee one day just like you, tell him or her stories about the things you’ve seen: far away lands, tale of the Zee, or even that one time you saw real sunlight…
Sometimes you can exchange stories or recent news from London for desperately needed supplies or fuel. You might even bump into other adventurers and get into a one up, bragging match with another Zee-captain about the horrors you’ve bore witness. Top their craziest story and you might just find some of your sorely needed sanity returning to you… after all, nothing makes you feel better than knowing you’ve been through worse before, right? In some strange corners of the Zee, you can even exchange vast anthologies of your stories for treasures like no other.
And currency of this abstracted nature doesn’t just stop at stories. There are revelations, strategic information, hearsay… and secrets. The Unter-Zee is filled with rival factions, many of whom can be subjects of your spies. Spies that feed you valuable information that can tip the geopolitical scales of the Unter-Zee to your personal advantage. Want to prop up London’s waning empire? That’s one option, but you could just as easily take the precious strategic information London’s Admiralty entrusted you and sell it to London’s rivals.
Who will you side with, when push comes to shove? Will you remain faithful to London? Side with their rivals? Support the Anarchists? Feed secrets to the agents of Hell?
The choices you have and the currents you may ride in Sunless Sea are many, but it’s important not to lose sight of the (figurative) shore. Despite all of the adventuring, the purpose of the game isn’t specifically to kill Zee monsters and explore exotic locales. All of the “action” is just a means to an end. Your purpose in the game actually isn’t any different than that of any independent, Victorian age trader or explorer who might sail upon the high seas. The purpose of reaping riches and earning prestige is to start a family and one day retire in the warm company of your wife and kids. What’s the point of earning fame and fortune if you can’t hand it down to your kids, after all?
Each time you return to London with wealth from a long voyage at Zee, you not only have the option of buying new ships, new equipment, and useful cargo. You can also invest in property, build an art collection and estate, write a book of your adventures, and if you’ve managed to marry and produce offspring, fill your child’s ears with all of your glorious adventures. Yes, a Zee-captain might have but one life to live, but if you can raise a child and then inspire them to follow in your footsteps, they can inherit your estates, some of the skills and experience you’ve earned, and then strike out to Zee on their own should you retire or meet your end. Once your own journey ends, you start the game anew as your child and then build off your prior captain’s successes.
Even if you perish at sea, you can still continue the game as your heir… that is, if you sufficiently paid London’s money grubbing lawyers to draft you an iron clad will. You DID draft a will, didn’t you?
Interestingly, there are plenty of rational reasons to retire that don’t involve destitution or financial ruin, too. Sometimes, you just need to quit while you’re ahead. Perhaps your captain has accumulated too many scars on his body and soul, thus the Zee-life has simply become too risky for an old man. Perhaps your captain’s career is on a slow decline and you don’t want to pawn away your child’s inheritance for the sake of financing any more failed expeditions. Whatever the case, it’s surprisingly gratifying to pass the baton off to your kid so that you may start a new game with more wealth and better attributes than your original captain started with. Isn’t that the aspiration of every, proud parent?
In time, while you play as your offspring, they too might start a family of their own so as to continue the dynasty and reach levels of prestige and wealth that your very first captain never could have imagined. Continue the dynasty long enough and you can even eventually found a port Kingdom of your own or pursue many of the game’s other, very challenging goals. Or you could just buy that Zee-side mansion and fill it with wealth and curiosities. The currents of the Unter-zee can take you many places.
If you don’t feel like you fit in with any of the geopolitical powers of the Zee, make one of your own! Bring in supplies and settlers to the strangest corner of the Unter-Zee to make a port of call you can call your own!
All of this “starting anew” might sound as though it could get tedious, but surprisingly, it isn’t, even if you don’t have an heir and you end up starting from complete scratch. Because Sunless Sea harnesses our innate fear and wonder of the ocean— because its a game that’ll stick in your brain— there’s something strangely compelling about opening your Zee-map, charting a course off into the unknown, and wondering what risks and riches lie obscured behind each new wave.