Lately I haven’t been able to pull myself away from Sunless Sea, it usually huddles in the back of my mind when I’m at work, waiting for me to get home and return to my ship and crew. If you haven’t played yet, Sunless Sea is an exploration and survival game in a Victorian Gothic/horror setting. Everything takes place in the Unterzee, or the “Under Sea”, which is a massive ocean beneath the regular ocean. It may sound absurd, but the setting fits the genre; if you imagine that you’re in a different dimension than our own, things begin to make more sense.
Sunless Sea is an elaboration on Fallen London by Failbetter Games which is a choose-your-own-adventure type browser game. You have a set number of moves which replenish every real-time hour, which is good for playing in bursts and then waiting to see the outcome of your decisions. Since the story is isolated to the port city of Fallen London, Sunless Sea provides a wider view of the world and even the “surface” where you can visit cities in Europe. The game boasts beautiful artwork and a tranquil, haunting soundtrack which really immerses the player. Each character’s portrait looks softly painted and the general palette is blue and green, very cold colors that resemble being underwater. The music is eerie and lonely but very soothing; frequently I would turn off my background noise of Netflix to relax into the game more.
When you set out with your crew from Fallen London, you go through a simple character creation menu, choosing a background, an ambition (how you’ll win the game) and a form of address for yourself. One of my favorite things about the character creation was the silhouette that represents your character; most of them are what you’d expect from a Gothic setting, but there are some that belie the weirdness undermining the game. Naturally I chose the lady with the tentacle hat.
The objective of the game is to achieve your ambition which ranges from immense riches and power to a collection of stories you’ve gathered from your voyages. You take a step closer to this goal by fulfilling the requests of Fallen London’s Admiralty Office: usually exploration missions and a general gathering of knowledge of other cities and places. Along the way you’ll be approached by a variety of characters that need your ship, from twelve mummies that want to tour the world to a mob boss that wants you to illegally smuggle a crate of souls to a Northern city. Each mission has a risk, some worse than others and not all of them pay off. The creators of Sunless Sea recommend playing on “Merciless Mode” which means you rely on autosaves alone and have no chance to manually save when in port. I think the idea is that you’re being held to your choices for better or worse, and many of those choices impact the delicate balance between your ship having enough fuel, your crew being fed and nobody losing their minds. The last part especially is difficult: there are a lot of big, scary monsters in the water and sometimes the gods of the Zee like to up the ante.
The storylines and exploration alone make this a fantastic game in my view, but there is something that takes it to another level for me. The Isle of Pigmote. When you discover Pigmote, you also find yourself in the middle of a fierce battle…between rats and guinea pigs. You must make a decision to help one instead of the other and help them establish their colony on Pigmote. Being a cavy lover myself, I opted for the guinea pigs and was rewarded with an armored pig as my mascot.
Aside from the adorable island of cavies, the other islands and coastal cities are alternatively horrifying and fascinating – sometimes both. The Chapel of Lights is full of cannibal priests, while the Hunter’s Keep will sustain you via the three sisters that live there but you have to sit through some very weird dinner conversations that grab the attention of the gods. Each destination provides an opportunity to collect stories, lose some of your crew, make a sacrifice to one of the Zee gods or resupply. Being unable to predict how helpful visiting a city other than Fallen London will be creates more challenges. I lost a lot of saves because I ran out of supplies and was too far from anywhere that would let me restock. Compounding this is the fact that the map regenerates in a different configuration each new game. Places are typically in the same area each time, but when you travel straight North to arrive at Codex and then realize that it’s actually Northeast, it can be a fatal use of resources you can’t spare on that trip.
Despite all I’ve said about this game, I haven’t gotten all that far in it yet – Merciless Mode is brutal. I’ve died several times, leaving lovers and children behind in Fallen London and sinking to the depths of madness and the Unterzee. I can only begin to imagine what terrible and wondrous things await me if I can make it just a little further, even if it means chewing on the leg of my first officer in order to get there.