You're Going to Need A Bigger Boat
Failbetter Games' upcoming Sunless Sea has cannibal crews and Lovecraftian horrors. Delicious.
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Hello, delicious friend.
I was sold the moment Fallen London implicated I would taste good. In a time when adventure games were just beginning to make their resurgence and browser-based titles were equated to the Devil, Fallen London was a bit of an anomaly. A mildly social role-playing game that could be entertaining and not obtrusive? It was like an incredibly eloquent BigFoot you couldn't help but want to share with your friends.
Set in an ineffable, Gothic-Victorian London three quarters of the way to hell, the game bristles with style, incredible prose and Lovecraftian references. People loved it. People still love it. However, as is the case with all mortal inventions, it could not be the apple of its creators' eyes forever. Over the years, Failbetter Games, the creative minds behind Fallen London, have branched out to other pursuits. These, of course, include an upcoming comic and the 'make-your-own-Fallen-London' engine StoryNexus. And while their upcoming venture is still all about fantastic writing and incandescent wit, Sunless Sea diverges from their usual lineup in some rather interesting ways.
For one, it's not free-to-play.
"Creative restlessness!" Chief Narrative Officer Alexis Kennedy trumpets when I ask him about the switch from the free-to-play paradigm to its downloadable opposite. " We've been doing this for four years and we all want to stretch ourselves, not stand still. And we all love video games as well as text games, and we want to make things that build on the games we admire. The switch from F2P is simply because F2P doesn't fit the design we have for Sunless Sea. It'd probably make us a bit more money if we bent the design to fit, but it'd be ugly and cynical and we know what kind of game we want to make."
For context's sake, the Sunless Sea is Failbetter Games' upcoming 'exploration and trading' top-down 2D game for the PC and draws inspiration from the likes of FTL, Don't Starve, Sid Meier's Pirates and a handful of roguelikes. Intrigued yet? You should be. Though Kennedy tells us that we shouldn't expecting Planescape:Torment-level NPCs, that narrative masterpiece serves as a guiding light for the company.
"A company of teasers," Kennedy goes on to describe some of the characters players will acquainting themselves with. "The Nacreous Herald can make a fine Cook: but would you really want a Rubbery Man making your stew? Who does he speak to on deck at night? And what is that scar? The Carnelian Exile is blind, which is an unusual characteristic for a navigator: what did she see that took her sight? Why does she always want to press on eastwards? And how did she know your name?"
He adds, "As ever, story is our thing. This shows up in Sunless Sea in two really important ways. One is the implicit, environmental narrative: an atmospheric, detailed world is way more fun to explore than a generic ocean environment. The other is the explicit, choice-based narrative: the choices you make around your own story (cross the zee to the lands beyond and never return? free the colonies? found a pirate princedom?) and the stories of your crew - like strong NPCs in a good CRPG."
But it's not going to be all talk, it seems. Juxtaposed against the intricate narrative is what Kennedy has labeled as 'harsh resource management'. I ask about two of the game's more well-known influences: FTL and Don't Starve, both of which are notorious for their unforgiving disposition. " I once heard a Blizzard designer explain that they put falling damage in cities even though it's basically cosmetic because it 'enforces respect for the world'. I love that phrase. If you can treat a world contemptuously, it feels like a toy. If the world has rules you have to follow or fail, and if the world plays fair, it's instantly more immersive. And it has to play fair. In FTL or Don't Starve, it usually feels like your fault when you die, although it may be because the game tempted you into taking a risk."
And risks there will be. Kennedy hints at half-mad crews and strange islands, malignant golden crystals, floating cities, an empire of cave-monkeys, a missing parent and glimpses of what may well be Ry'leh. But why a visit to the subterranean? Kennedy says it's because Failbetter Games had asked their fans over 3000 of them demanded an ocean voyage. " There are really specific narrative reasons why we can't do Hell yet. And the zee - besides being a wonderful venue for art - is full of and surrounded by amazing stuff that people have been agitating for for years. The Elder Continent! The New Khanate! NORTH! Not to mention the new lore like the Empire of Hands and the Dawn Machine."
(If you haven't done so already, you need to go check out Fallen London. Seriously. Do it. Do it now.)
Most importantly, perhaps, is that as dark as a London filled with licensed soul-trading and memory-harvesting bees may be, Sunless Sea promises to be a bleaker adventure still. " A city is a bright and crowded place, even underground. But in Sunless Sea, here you are out alone on a black salt desert with only your crew and your ship-lights to save you. We always want you to feel that you're gonna need a bigger boat."
All hands on deck! If you think all this sounds bloody smashing, be prepared to chuck some money at these good people sometime next week. Sunless Sea will be looking for funding on Kickstarter and, well, I will be sad if you choose to ignore them.