As Captain Gustavus, I started the line. Since then, eleven generations of my descendants went to zee. Many, like Gertrude and Ganymede, had short careers that ended with their untimely deaths, lost to the depths of the Unterzee. Gunther was driven mad and killed by his crew. Gladys, one of the lucky ones, led a simple life of trade and profit before retiring to her zeeside mansion. For most of the family, though, the zee was a doom, compulsive and unrelenting.
Even the great explorer Grosvenor, who surveyed every island in the known world and whose charts are still passed down from generation to generation, found his final rest beneath murky waters in the claws of a giant crab. An ignominious end for such a singular zee captain.
I took them all to zee, I guided them and, ultimately, I failed them.
This is the alternate Victorian-era of Sunless Sea, from Failbetter Games. At the helm of my trusty steamboat, I explore the Unterzee, the strange, lightless ocean deep under the crust of the world, populated by magnificent fungi, strange magic and a hungry darkness.
The zee is lit only by the dim phosphorescence on the cavern ceiling far above, the occasional signal buoy and the dim flickering of my ship’s deck lights. Steer too far from shore and isolation presses in on me. As my tiny ship chugs along at its ponderous pace, my crew grows ever more frightened.
They are right to be scared. Coming across a sea monster or a pirate ship could easily spell the ship’s doom, even when I’ve outfitted it with the most powerful weapons. Run out of fuel (an easy thing do since I have no idea where the next port might be) and we’ll drift at the mercy of unseen currents.
Run out of food and we’ll resort to cannibalism. Even if we should make it to port, there is no guarantee it will be free of danger. Men of clay, intelligent rats, soul-eating monkeys, exiled devils, spider worshippers and worse haunt the wharves.
The core of the game’s inspiration clearly draws from Sid Meier’s Pirates. In the many versions of that game, your view from the heavens centers on your ship, which you sail from port to port in the Caribbean. Along the way, you have the opportunity to do all manner of piratey things, from capturing merchant sloops to fighting in bars to making alliances with local governors. It is a game very much focused on adventure, a bright, uncomplicated revel in the romance of the golden age of piracy.
There is not glory to be found on these low zees, though only death. Sunless Sea revels in death.
While Sunless Sea’s shape mirrors Pirates, its tone is much different. My ship is fragile, my crew superstitious. The atmosphere of the strange ports and the behavior of their eccentric inhabitants, both human and otherwise, borrows much from the language of Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, with its delirious sense of decay and its preoccupation with mushrooms. There are hints of other writers, too – the apocalyptic squid cult of Kraken, by China Miéville, and the magic-steeped streets of London in The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, spring immediately to mind. I would call Sunless Sea steampunk but I do not wish to diminish its quality upon the treacherous rocks of that pseudo-genre’s ludicrous gears and goggles.
Born of such gloomy fiction, Sunless Sea is preoccupied with darkness, loneliness and terror. The title screen says it bluntly: your first captain will die. Of course, it neglects to warn that your second, third and fourth will likely follow suit in short order. Every time they do, you begin again with a barely adequate ship, meager supplies and scant money. Worse, unless you’ve inherited your previous captain’s charts, you will find that none of the islands are where you remember them. Where there was once a familiar port with familiar dangers, now there is just uncertainty at the edge of the map.
If you can manage to complete a lengthy quest, the game often rewards you, not with riches, but with the option of choosing a special death. True, your journey will come to an end and you will have to start all over again, but when you do, that lucky descendent will have some small boon, some new advantage that will get them just a bit further. Every extra inch benefits your next descendant, and so on. It is a grim sort of evolution.
This is the basic tenant of the rougelike, the strain of games descended from punishing RPGs like the genre’s namesake Rogue and NetHack. Yet, in those games there is a kind of predictability and a merry sense of havoc. They are difficult in the same way as running an obstacle course – much of your success is down to luck and the speed of your forward motion. And even the hardest roguelike has a final battle and a chance for absolute victory.
Sunless Sea is slow, sometimes agonizingly so. Unimpeded, a journey from one edge of the map to the other can take an eternity. And while there is some luck involved in battling the monsters and pirates, the majority of the game is deliberate. It makes you choose your flavor of attrition. The zee is cruel and terrible. Death is inevitable. In this way, Sunless Sea becomes a lesson in futility. It is teaching you to embrace the crushing cold of the ocean’s depths.
For all the gloom, there is an alien beauty to behold in the unterzee – cities carved from massive stalagmites, submerged colossi, the bizarre machinery of dawn. The promise of the next wonder pulls you forward. And when every choice brings you one step closer to dying, you discover something like freedom. It endows every moment with import and meaning, makes every story unique.
So, in this, perhaps Sunless Sea is really about living.