It is a dark night for Sunless Sea players in Fallen London. It’s not like you can easily enjoy the sunlight, down there, so that doesn’t really tell much. But the Dark-Spectacled Admiral requires your services tonight: and if you do well, you might even live long enough to see the precious surface, that legendary place your heart longs for.
You may be a savage pirate captain, a lord, a particularly enthusiastic militaire, or even a poet with an unstoppable desire for knowledge and discovery. It doesn’t matter who you are, in Fallen London: sooner or later, you may perish just like all the others. But you would’ve experienced some extraordinary storytelling in the meantime.
This is the #LoveIndies week, a perfect time to celebrate all the Indie developers we gamers love and respect. In my case, I decided to write about Sunless Sea, a true masterpiece of video game writing developed by Failbetter Games, available on PC, Mac, Linux and even iOS.
I recently came back to Sunless Sea after at least one year – to my deepest regret, especially since I remember playing it with such wonder and pleasure not too long ago. My first impact with Sunless Sea was, indeed, of pure wonder: being a writer, I couldn’t ignore the wondrous style adopted to tell the stories of Fallen London, a living, breathing universe on the edge of the gigantic underground ocean “Unterzee“.
Coincidentally, it also takes place during a distorted and quite original take on the Victorian Age, which is a huge source of inspiration for my own stories.
But this review will be far from “mere” personal taste consideration. It doesn’t matter if you love the Victorian Age, Lovecraft, gothic horror, or not: Sunless Sea goes beyond its most interesting sources of inspirations, by building a dark world filled with loads of incredible imagery. And, most of all, an unparalleled quality of written prose.
Sunless Sea – Reading a Game
Gameplay-wise, the concept at the core of Sunless Sea is quite simple; if we had to identify the game inside a genre, we could easily encapsulate it in the RPG one, with some survival elements: navigate with your ship, find resources, upgrade and evolve, repeat, and try to survive in the meantime.
However, the truly curious feature of Sunless Sea is that, if you try to reduce it to its main core, it’s not much more than a fancy text-adventure game, with elements of survival and naval action along the way. Along with a range of effective and thoroughly designed gameplay mechanics, text lines and prose have a gigantic impact on the whole game, and probably stand for a solid 80% of the overall experience. Although fun and extremely rewarding, I realised that the true potential of Sunless Sea doesn’t reside in its combat mechanics (and, hear my words carefully, I would still spend hours and hours to effectively upgrade my ship nonetheless!), but rather in exploration and in all the incredible stories told by the game world.
Every dock is a new adventure, every adventure leads to new experiences with incredibly imaginative landscapes and artistry (the waters around Fallen London are, by far, among the most inspiring dark-Steampunk locations I’ve ever witnessed in a game), and all of this is usually wrapped up by a few dodgy characters along the way, everyone gifted with their own goals and curious features of character.
Even the protagonist has its own story, depending on the “class” chosen at the beginning: being my favorite background “Poetry”, for instance (I do love writing and literature after all – what can I do), my “Main Quest” was to find the bones of my father and return them to Fallen London, in order to finally give him a proper burial and win the game.
From that point on, the game evolves from dock to dock, and goes on story after story, line after line, successfully capturing the player in its dark, gothic universe. Sunless Sea is wonderfully crude, exceptionally mature, and surprisingly not afraid to dare with its writing choices, occasionally bringing the player on the edge of cannibalism – and we love it that way.
Sunless Sea needs to be read carefully, other than being played. That is its most interesting feature, one that will keep you glued to your chair for hours and hours of gameplay.
And I wilfully choose not to speak about the breathtaking design of the sea monsters, who are as lovecraftian as they could ever be. I just don’t have the space to talk about how wonderful they are.
The Beauty of Video Game Writing
As a writer deeply in love with RPGs and adventure games, I pay an almost maniacal attention to the quality of writing in most games, and I am always thrilled to find a new project capable of drawing my eyes to the screen. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my first impact with the writing of Sunless Sea was of pure wonder – and I probably didn’t even know that I wanted to walk the writing and game writing path, at the time.
When I think back, I am always surprised to find out that the guys at Failbetter Games have been, indirectly or maybe not so much, a huge source of inspiration for my works ever since I played Sunless Sea for my first time, and they most likely provided that special sparkle that allowed me to say “I can do it too“, a few years back. Their writing team is extremely talented, and the guys behind the code surely know their stuff as well: that was enough to get me going, aiming to reach at least an equivalent high level of quality in my own works.
Of course they weren’t the only ones (Uncharted and Naughty Dog had a huge part in all this too), and I am still pursuing my dream, for sure – but it’s good to be aware of where it all came from: a dark adventure across the Unterzee, from the shores of Fallen London to a land of icy wonder, called “Frostfound”. That is when I deeply fell in love with Sunless Sea, its art, and the beauty of its stories: a stunning example of video game writing, beyond being relevant in the indie scene, bound to remind me every day how wonderfully fancy and beautiful the English prose can be.
And the guys at Failbetter are located in my same town, too – is there really anything else we can ask for?