This week sees the release of That Dragon, Cancer, a new game from Ryan and Amy Green. The game has already received a good deal of press coverage from outlets like The Verge and Kotaku. My own review is now up at Gamechurch. The game tells the story of Joel Green, who was diagnosed with cancer at age one; he subsequently passed away when he was five years old. The Greens invoke their faith throughout the game, and my review examines how their beliefs are integral to the story.
Steaming into the Unknown
Over the last week, I’ve lost at least five captains (maybe six) to the dangers of the Unterzee (a term that I imagine being pronounced with an absurdly harsh German accent). One ran out of fuel just off the coast of Fallen London and was too incompetent to successfully escape from the derelict vessel. Several have been sunk by pirates. One perished in an engine fire that was the result of a whim (how fast can this boat really go?). These are the few harrowing stories that have already developed from my time with Failbetter Games’ recent release Sunless Sea. What I’ve found remarkable about the game over the first week and half of playing is its unique capacity to communicate the precarious nature of lengthy nautical voyages.
Sunless Sea defies traditional game genres, and offers players a mashup of the top-down perspective of an RTS with the text-based narrative of interactive fiction. Sunless Sea is set in an alternate Victorian history in which London has sunk into a massive cavern called “The Neath.” According the game’s complex lore (which ties in with Failbetter’s web-based game, Fallen London), the “Traitor Empress,” sold the city to save her husband’s life. Readers of The Chronicles of Narnia will immediately recognize resonances with The Silver Chair, in which the children and their marshwiggle companion journey underground to find a civilization on the shores of a great subterranean lake called, you guessed it, the Sunless Sea. The video game’s interactive take on a subterranean ocean has all the magic of Narnia (there is one island on which warring clans of guinea pigs and rats are locked in a desperate conflict) with all the fantastic technology of steampunk literature.
Now, Young Captain, You Will Die
The game begins with a curious word of encouragement, which states matter-of-factly: “Explore. Take risks. Your first captain will probably die. Later captains may succeed.” This statement is quite true, as my introductory list of untimely deaths indicates. Sunless Sea‘s entire approach to nautical peril is encapsulated in this opening text. A famous phrase from Joseph Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea appears in the opening as well, “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” However, I think a later line in Conrad’s book offers a better encapsulation of how Sunless Sea creates its sense of ephemerality, “As if it were too great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean has no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory.” In either case, Sunless Sea presents ocean voyages as both dangerous and foolhardy.
At the same time, the rhetoric of the game works to alleviate the typical associations between death and failure. Indeed, the Steam version of Sunless Sea includes achievements for the numbers of successive captains a player has lost, making such losses goals to aspire to. This combination of constant danger and constant pressure to venture further captures an aspect of the economic and industrial development that typified the nineteenth century. Industrialization in Britain was a powerful force that both revolutionized commercial development while also serving as a breeding ground for some of the most destructive labor environments. Likewise, for players of Sunless Sea the consequences for losing a ship draws our attention to the sea’s paradoxical position as a site of both financial bounty and financial ruin, while mitigating the human cost itself. While each steamboat can be outfitted with more personalized officers, the majority of the crew are represented only numerically–making their positions not unlike those of faceless factory employees.
The Sea is Vast
The world of the Unterzee is remarkable for its scale, and also because the supernatural aspects of the ‘Neath include islands that move. This means that the map is randomized each time a captain dies, leaving players with a knowledge of what islands they might encounter, but all knowledge of their specific locations is lost. This particular design choice (which was introduced while the game was still in development and available to play as an “Early Access” title) increases the sense of uncertainty and despair that could accompany a long voyage. Travel has always been an area where video games have had to cut corners, temporally speaking, so that players stay engaged with the game. It wouldn’t work for a voyage between two islands to take hours (or days!), so times and distances are often compressed in video game worlds.
But how can a game place everything closer together without making players feel like they’re just playing with toy boats in the bathtub? Sunless Sea‘s map randomization offers a compelling solution to this problem. My exploration of the map has progressed farther with my current captain than any of his predecessors. But if tragedy strikes, then I’ll be reduced (once again) to a map of complete darkness. Chris Breault recently wrote a nice breakdown of maps in video games over the last year, and Sunless Sea also provides a helpful model for using a predominantly utilitarian device (the map) as a way to elaborate on deeper concepts that the game raises. Maps are typically indicative of progress and exploration–to place something on a map is to give it a static position relative to other known locations. Furthermore, maps are a vital method of transferring knowledge.
But because the Sunless Sea map is always contingent on the lifespan of the player’s current captain, its transactional value is eliminated. The last map is completely lost, with all its detail. As a result, each successive voyage actually feels longer than the last, precisely because players must fight against all the information that they had gained with their previous steamboat. The game’s penchant for asking players to find certain islands becomes even more challenging if islands cannot be reliably charted. The darkness of the enormous cavern that contains the Unterzee is replicated not only in the typical “fog of war,” the black shroud obscuring the map that players must uncover, but also in this constant reversal–returning the map to a state of veiled uncertainty. For a game that is ultimately about driving a small steamboat around a subterranean lake, the reversion of the map imbues the Unterzee with a sense of vastness that other nautical games struggle to simulate.
By putting the player in the role of historian and investigator, Return of the Obra Dinn could provide a foundation for students to think about digital research and the interpretation of evidence.
Simulating Age in Video Games and Poetry
The game is still in its earliest stages, but in this development build players can explore the Obra Dinn, which has mysteriously returned after having been lost at sea. Pope has opted to present the game in a style reminiscent of old grayscale video games, like those available on the original Game Boy. The only difference, is that this game provides a three dimensional vessel that the player can explore; in a way, then, the game marries an older style with contemporary technology, drawing upon the evolution of video games as a medium to suggest the age of the vessel within the narrative. It strikes me that this approach is suggestive of the style in which Coleridge first wrote The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (as the title was originally written); Coleridge gave the poem a sense of age by spelling many of the words in the poem in a way suggestive of Chaucer’s Middle English. The poem was later revised to more contemporary spellings, but I always appreciated the effect of Coleridge’s original text, because it does give the poem a sense of age and permanence.
As it is now, Return of the Obra Dinn tasks players with deducing the fates of every person on board the ship, most of whom, it seems, have either died on board or been cast into the sea. Even with only the snippet of the game that is presented here, I’m excited to continue exploring the Obra Dinn. The game seems to capture many elements of neo-Victorian narratives, but presents them in a way that is uniquely suited to an interactive medium. The dotted shading alone almost necessitates a familiarity with the history of video games to be effective, since the sense of age that it conveys will be more palpable to those who recognize its gesture to the medium’s past.
Students as Digital Investigators
Depending on how the game develops, this would be a great addition to a class on sea literature in the nineteenth century. Students could play Obra Dinn alongside Michel Maxwell Philip’s Emmanuel Appadocca, or, Blighted Life: A Tale of the Boucaneers (1854), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), or William Clark Russell’s The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1877). In many ways, then, the presentation of the centuries old Obra Dinn could be read through the tradition of sea literature that developed during the nineteenth century. By putting the player in the role of historian and investigator, Return of the Obra Dinn could provide a foundation for students to think about digital research and the interpretation of evidence.
Of course, Pope’s project is still a work in progress; so we will have to wait and see how it develops toward its final publication. But at the very least, I’m impressed by how much potential is in this very short demonstration.
In the mid 90s, my best friend’s family got a new computer–it was a Compaq, but what I remember most was how often I heard these three numbers: 486. I didn’t know much about computers then, but the way my friend, Sammy, said those numbers told me that there was something magical about this computer. This computer would be able to do things other computers could only hope to accomplish. This computer had something called a CD-ROM–you could play CDs right on your computer! I couldn’t wait to see what this magnificent machine was capable of. And while our parents may have emphasized that the computer was primarily meant to be used for school work and projects, all Sammy and I heard was “Blah blah blah COMPUTER=GAMES!”
There is one game whose very name, to this day, evokes a sense of wonder for me: Myst. What did it mean? In those days, games often came with an little booklet offering players a glimpse into the game world while they waited for installation to complete. I remember reading the insert from my friend’s copy of Myst and being immediately transported.
For a kid who had spent a lot of time reading books on the bus to school, the idea of this brief introduction fascinated me. Books were already a portal for me; they were like windows to other worlds, and here was a game offering the opportunity for us to realize this experience in a whole new way. Myst’s opening cinematic didn’t disappoint, as the book’s centrality became even more clear, while also evoking a keen sense of curiosity. Who was this man, and what led him to lose his book in the first place? Why did he expect the book to be destroyed? And then we landed on the iconic island of Myst.
Unfortunately, Sammy failed Myst. This isn’t to say that he didn’t reach the endgame, because he did. For reasons I never quite understood, Sammy used the Prima Strategy Guide to play Myst, which allowed him to discover that the game’s ending could be reached on the first island, without visiting any of the other ages. He proudly demonstrated how quickly the game could be beaten and concluded that he had “finished” the game. For the next few months, whenever I would visit, I tried to surreptitiously re-install Myst just to get a glimpse of the game where books took you to strange and wonderful worlds. Sammy found my fascination with Myst exasperating; after all, once he had completed the game, why go back?
At the time, I was saddened and frustrated that Sammy didn’t share my enthusiasm for Myst, but now I think that his attitude was understandable. We were raised in an era of video games when, for the most part, the goal was to get to the end. Anything that aided that goal was good, even if it allowed you to skip large portions of the game (like the magic flute in Mario 3). In Sammy’s case, I think this logic contaminated his experience of Myst. But for me, Myst’s significance was about much more than simply completing the final puzzle. Unsurprisingly, the moment that my parents decided to (finally!) buy a computer, I immediately asked Sammy if I could borrow his copy of Myst. Along with the game, he offered me a journal that had come with the game, which remained blank after his speedy completion.
When I think back on how a kid who loved video games and books ended up pursuing a graduate degree in English literature, part of the influence certainly came from that journal. Today, I’m often annoyed if a game requires me to pull out pen and paper to write down a code or record a quest detail, but at the time I saw the Myst journal as a creative opportunity. After all, Myst was about writers and writing–with the journal, I could be a part of that community. I filled that journal with details of my explorations, at times writing them out as if I really had traveled to this strange world. All the puzzle solutions and notes were there, meticulously mapped and explained. In the intervening years I lost track of that journal, but I would love to get a chance to read through it again. That lost journal is a part of who I am today. Myst’s influence in the gaming world may have waned, but its significance in my life continues to resonate through the years.