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.