Virtual Stowaway

Sunless Sea and the Long Voyage

Alone at sea

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.

Sunless Sea and the Abbey

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.

The Map in Sunless Sea

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.

Verse and Controller at Unwinnable Weekly

Wizard's Companion Poem

The final pages of Ni No Kuni’s Wizard’s Companion.

This week, Unwinnable Weekly is publishing an article I wrote on the intersections between poetry and video games. I’ve reprinted the first paragraph below, and you can find the complete article at Unwinnable Weekly.

I was a poor reader of The Lord of the Rings. As a young teenager fascinated with all things fantasy, Tolkien was of course one of the first authors whose works I devoured. Indeed, I was so adept at devouring that I did very little savoring. Every time I encountered passages of the poetry scattered throughout Tolkien’s fiction my instinct (and practice) was too take a deep breath, scan quickly and move on. In my thinking, the poetry was little more than a distraction from the really important story – the adventures of Tolkien’s characters as they travelled through Middle-Earth. Why waste time reading some stilted poems?

Of course, poetry was in many ways at the very center of what Tolkien was trying to create, a fact that I appreciate more now that I study and teach literature for a living. Still, I bet my teenage self wasn’t alone in avoiding the poetry in Lord of the Rings. Yet Tolkien’s professional life was steeped in poetry, and one of his greatest admirers, W. H. Auden, was also one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets. Why is it then that the poetry of Middle-Earth can be so tempting to gloss over? Perhaps in some ways poetry is more likely to be disregarded when it’s presented within some other medium.

Read the full article at Unwinnable Weekly.

Exploring the Obra Dinn, a 19th-century Ship

The style of authenticity almost suggests that the Obra Dinn was an actual ship lost in the early 19th century.

Nothing pleases me more than when I get to write about video games that overlap with my interest in nineteenth-century literature. Just last week Lucas Pope, who also created the game Papers, Please, released an early development build of his new project, Return of the Obra Dinn. As you can see from the promotional poster for the game, it is set in the early years of the nineteenth century and concerns the ship, Obra Dinn, which was lost at sea in 1803.

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.

"Dublin Bay." (1853) Edwin Hayes, National Gallery of Ireland. via Wikimedia Commons

“Dublin Bay.” (1853) Edwin Hayes, National Gallery of Ireland. via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Technology and Memory, or, Memory Technology

A tower of used books

What to make of Memory

The course I’m teaching this semester, “Narrating Criminal Memory in Literature and Culture,” examines narratives of criminal memory, or narratives that relate the story of a crime, often from the perspective of the perpetrator. As a result of this focus, I have been thinking quite a bit about how we gather evidence in criminal cases, and in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, what constitutes evidence of a crime has become even more important. Today, we often think of how technology is used as a kind of crutch for our memories, as a support system that can be used to correct, supplement, or even supplant our recollections. Of course, even the presence of such technology does not guarantee consensus. As a result, the relationship between memory and technology becomes crucial, especially since our lives are increasingly mediated by devices that are designed to record our experiences for us, whether through video, photography, or sound recording.

Georgia Tech has asked its incoming students to read Ted Chiang’s short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction,” which imagines a future that is completely dominated by a product (Remem) that combines the recording capabilities of headset cameras like Google Glass with the search functionality of Google’s Gmail client. In other words, Chiang asks his readers to consider the possibility that video records would become so pervasive and so easily searchable that our own memories would begin to alter. He also raises the specter of tampering and the implications for us if video records were altered in some way. In discussing this story with my students, I found that they were eager to consider the ways in which technology impacts our memory–questions that will continue to resonate in the course as a whole.


Of course, studies have already shown that technology is influencing the way that we remember. In 2011 a group of researchers posited a kind of memory called “transactive” memory. In essence, the authors of the study found that people with near constant access to the Internet and its search capabilities have changed their memories away from storing specific information. Instead, our minds recall where to go to find information, rather than the information itself. In other words, we remember “wikipedia” or “IMDb” much more easily than specific details about a historical event or movie. (The abstract for that study can be found here.) Yet these discussions only highlight the fact that “technology,” although often conceived of in terms of contemporary gadgets and computers, encompasses much that we now consider non-technological, like books.

What Counts as Technology

Last week, I read a delightful article that to me was a kind of ode to the book in prose. In his discussion, the author, Craig Mod, offers a wonderful picture of the fact that books are very much a technology. Although we rarely think of them in that way, books remain a highly advanced form of information storage, organization, and retrieval. Indeed, I remember the first time that I saw someone bring a Kindle to a reading group discussion. The rest of us had purchased physical copies of the text, but this participant was taking advantage of his new technology. While we all quickly turned to a specific page, he leaned over and glanced for a scrap of text that he could then type into the search box. As he was waiting for his Kindle to catch up to us, a wry emeritus professor of history quipped, “This is codex technology,” referring to our books, “and that is scroll technology,” pointing to the Kindle. We all laughed, but his point couldn’t have been clearer–not all technology improves upon what we already have.

origins english novelOf course, e-readers will improve (and have), but if memory and technology are so seemingly intertwined now, they must also have seemed so when books were the cutting edge of technological progress. Indeed, Michael McKeon points out in The Origins of the English Novel that the introduction of written records into legal discourse was specifically designed to provide a more reliable form of record-keeping than memory. Perhaps our relationship with technology and memory is always vexed; one moment we are highly suspicious of the changes that technology will bring, the next we are hailing the newest invention as the hallmark of a new era. In either case, it seems clear that human history and culture is not one of memory and technology, but one of memory technology. Each has been influenced by the other, to the point that our memories and our technologies are perhaps so interdependent that it would be difficult to extract one from the other.

Spoiler Alert: A Conference Tale

Walking Dead hug

An odd thing happened at the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS, pronounced “inks”) conference that I attended last week: in the middle of Q & A, I demanded that a participant stop talking.

To be honest, it was a moment of panic. I was worried that this participant, one Roger Whitson, was going to reveal details about the second season of TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead. Never before in my professional life has the possibility of plot spoilers worried me so much.

Once you enter literary study as a profession, you’ve given up the right to complain about having the ending of a book revealed.

See, in Victorian or nineteenth-century studies, I’ve always assumed that spoilers sort of go with the territory. There’s no way any one person, especially an early career academic like me, can have read everything, and attending panels and reading papers inevitably results in a few plot spoilers here and there. In other words, once you enter literary study as a profession, you’ve given up the right to complain about having the ending of a book revealed.

It may sound silly, but I think that recognizing this reality was one of the more difficult moments I experienced as a graduate student. Rather than relishing the delightful mystery that was each new book I read growing up, literary scholarship can become, in some cases, an exercise in reading for an ending that I already know is coming. At times, I must admit, knowing the ending had the unanticipated effect of enhancing the experience, as in my recent reading of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was aware (and I suppose now would be a good time to point out the spoilers are imminent) prior to beginning the novel, that Maggie and Tom were doomed. In a way, I found myself relishing the moments of their relationship, always with that sense that this was a familial relationship destined to end tragically.

The Walking Dead's cast of characters

The Walking Dead’s cast of characters

Spoiler Alerts and the Digital Humanities

I think we can all remember a moment when a narrative was spoiled for us–how we so wish we could go back and cover our ears, or at least forget what we heard. While now it may seem trivial considering the direction M. Night Shyamalan’s career has taken, when I was in high school friend inadvertentlyrevealed The Sixth Sense‘s ending. To this day I can feel that sense of being cheated.

I hope that my work will inspire others to pursue their own encounters with videogames, stories, and novels

Years later, some of my recent research has led me to explore the intersections of Victorian psychological theory and videogame narratives. And now, all of the sudden, I feel as if I have a professional responsibility to offer spoiler alert warnings. Because the digital narratives of videogames are more recent, I want people to be able to experience the pleasure of pursuing the story on their own. At the same time, feeling the need to constantly offer warnings about potential spoilers can seriously hamper the flow of conversation and debate.

In the case of my conference presentation, I actively prohibited a contributor from making a point using an example that I had not yet had the chance to enjoy. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, but in an academic community where having narratives spoiled goes with the territory, it was a welcome change of pace to have a legitimate reason for arresting a line of discussion that might have revealed narrative details that I still would like to relish free from prior knowledge.

As a Victorian scholar, digital humanities offers a unique connection to the present that is exemplified by this particular (and admittedly minor) conference experience. Of course, academic work in Victorian literature has regularly traced significant movements through to the present. But the issue of spoilers, which seems to have been exacerbated by digital media (many of us have seen “I haven’t seen the new Game of Thrones yet!” posts on Facebook). In the end, I hope that my work on digital narrative will both inform and inspire others to pursue their own encounters with the videogames, stories, and novels I have studied.