Fifteen minutes. I’m mostly looking at my phone, very occasionally looking up to adjust my course. It’s a straight line from London to an island of apes working on a Zeppelin for which I, against the express wishes of the Admiralty, am supplying fuel. Admittedly, not as much ‘supplying’ as using my sharp tongue and analytical skills to persuade the simian residents of the Isle of Hands that they shouldn’t get hung up on all this ‘fuel’ business. Of course I have an ulterior motive: something awful wrapped in bandages wants me to find him, it, colours and is willing to pay big. The apes are undoubtedly- undoubtedly, hiding something. Perhaps I’m still regretting selling one my soul for a mere 200 echoes, and sore from the apes’ refusal of my gift of fresh souls unsullied by my unfortunate cannibalism habit.
Sunless Sea has me speaking to friends about my wanderings- I wouldn’t call them adventures- in a cavernous underground sea as if they were in any way normal. It has me thinking about my crew, and hoping that they’re okay. They didn’t ask to be captained by a soulless cannibal with sloppy time management- the latter a much greater risk to their well-being since I far more often find myself adrift and out of fuel. The game takes the Dark Souls-ian ‘you will die’ approach, but unlike From Software’s magnum opus, dead really does mean dead, and necessitates starting over in the basic ship with all your completed missions reset, the map faded back to black and perhaps some money in the bank if your predecessor bothered to set some aside for you.
A tentacle has just reached onto the deck of my frigate, the Undauntlessable, and pulled one of my crew to his death. Best to ignore it and move on. Also, it doesn’t seem that people die here, only change. Into what is a question I’m trying to ignore.
Sunless Sea is that kind of survival game, the kind that presupposes your death and never allows you to settle in to a mid-to-end game state where your stats and equipment have made you a nigh- Schwarzeneggerian powerhouse. You will always need fuel and supplies, you will always go insane after spending too long at sea. Despite being ostensibly a rougelike with influences from Elite, activities like trading and combat are not viable paths to wealth. There also doesn’t appear to be a central story as such, although the full version (it has been on Steam Greenlight for some time) does have what appears to be a central quest revolving around finding your father’s bones. In practice this quest-line doesn’t have any more weight than the monkey-Zeppelin, the fungal spores, the chess game, the pirates trading in honey made from memories.
No matter how far you upgrade it your ship will always feel heavy and slow. A ninety degree turn will always take far longer than you want and combat, which should be avoided in most cases, isn’t dogfighting as much as it is the trading of body-blows until one combatant falls. After perhaps fifteen hours at sea and upgrading to a mid-level frigate with high-level weapons I only feel confident in engaging about a quarter of the game’s enemies. When they appear I kill my ship’s lights and try to pass undetected.
There’s something called The Dawn Machine squatting in the south-western corner of the map. I know that if I go near it my crew are gripped by terror, and I know that I had inadvertently aided it in a deal on construction materials that I didn’t fully understand. I’m hoping that if I ignore it The Dawn Machine and its vassals won’t do anything awful, like end the world. That seems like something it would do.
But then you’ll only be at sea (at ‘zee’, in the game’s parlace) for half of your time. The rest is spent ashore, where the game changes to a choose-your-own-adventure. Should you have certain items or traits new options will open up and there are chance-based tests of your character’s stats. This part of the game, that could have been built on any computer going back to the ZX Spectrum, is where the game really shines. The writing is amazing. The world-building is subtle and, for something set in an alternative 19th century, surprisingly progressive. Gender and sexual identity is fluid, women occupy positions of power, there are few if any sexist tropes. It’s refreshing to just be able to have fun with rolling one’s eyes at worn-out plot devices and reach-arounds to a presumed audience of teenage boys. Yet, as great as the prose is, these sections can be maddeningly opaque.
The game, at times, can be staggeringly un-fun, never providing constant stimulation but always needing just enough of your attention that you can’t do something in another window until you’re across the map. Game-breaking events like the loss of enough crew that your ship can only move at half-speed happen regularly, but not regularly enough that you’ll want to stop playing. Making money from anything other than quests is difficult to the point that you find yourself selling the items that you need to complete said quests just to buy enough fuel to make it to the next island. When you think that you’ve found a steady income stream, like the explorer who will pay for easy to obtain trade items, it can disappear.
I pass a Particularly Tormented Bound Shark, a megalodon in brass bondage-gear with significantly more health and manoeuvrability than the Undauntlessable. Who bound it and why it is ‘particularly tormented’, I will never know.
Despite being a naval vessel with fifteen crewmen and multiple weapons my ship is an inch-long sliver in the centre of the screen, nearly always smaller than its assailants. There’s no power fantasy here. Sunless Sea wants you to feel weak and afraid. Though its squamous, unnamable horror is pure Lovecraft and its socially-aware steampunk aesthetic borrowed from China Mieville, its metaphysics, its deepest core, might be Kafka. The individual is less often at the mercy of Elder Gods than bureaucracy and broken systems, especially the purposefully broken game mechanics that ensure that there is no good way to play, that you will never have enough and you will never feel safe.