It’s well known that sea served as the setting for some of the most famous and memorable adventure stories of all times. But why are we so drawn to seas and oceans? Is it some relict of the past, an ancient atavism from the time when we belonged to that turbulent element? Why it affects us so much with a mixture of longing, wistfulness, and fear? There are many questions about the seas that remain unanswered to this day, but don’t expect enlightenment from Sunless Sea. It will stir emotions you didn’t even know you had, stimulate your desire for exploration, provoke your wanderlust, but answers – them it won’t provide. If anything, this curious blend of roguelike game and naval simulation will confuse you even more with its wealth of ideas, strange notions, and brilliantly but abstrusely written storyline.
The only thing that will possibly help you understand Sunless Sea is to realize that its closest cousins aren’t video games, but classic works of literature – Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Coleridge’s The Rime of Ancient Mariner, horror stories of Lovecraft, the prose of Conrad. These and other dark seafaring pieces had served as the greatest inspiration for its narrative and verbal escapades. Add to the list outdated pseudo-scientific theories, such as the one about the Hollow Earth, and a forbidding Victorian setting, and you’ll have a much better notion of what you can expect from this game.
Of course, before you dive deep into the nether realm of Sunless Sea, there is one final feat you must achieve: a suspension of disbelief unlike you’ve ever experienced for a video game before. You see, the game rests on the outlandish notion that in 1887, the whole Victorian London, complete with its suburbs, had somehow miraculously sunk a mile below the surface, into the vast subterranean world called Neath. These events were described in the previous title by Failbetter Games, which is fittingly called Fallen London. Of course, the story and setting of Sunless Sea wouldn’t be as half as interesting if it wasn’t the fact that Fallen London is situated at the threshold of a huge, unexplored underground ocean called Unterzee.
Now, ask yourself, if our everyday surface oceans still conceal unexplored spots and places, what unimaginable wonders, what infernal secrets could be hidden in the murky brine of the Sunless Sea? There is a whole exotic ecosystem teeming with giant crabs, dark swarms of vampire bats on the lookout for fresh blood, strange sharks bound in iron, jellyfish and other creatures that haunted the imagination of seamen for centuries. And, if all that zoological horror wasn’t enough, the Sunless Sea abounds with supernatural forces. In this game, hell is an actual place, not just a metaphor, and you’ll have the opportunity to encounter some of its colorful denizens and visit its sulfurous outposts – Hell even has its own elegantly furnished embassy in the fashionable district of Fallen London. The seamen revere a triad of gods called Salt, Stone, and Storm. True, their existence isn’t officially confirmed, but, just in case, thread (or, rather, sail) carefully – all your actions will be weighed and measured by these obscure entities.
Of course, where there’s a sea, there will always be seamen, or, in this case, zeeman. You are one of those courageous (or insane) individuals who are willing to brave the Unterzee in search of fame, knowledge, or wealth. At the beginning of the game, you’ll create your captain’s character by choosing his background and answering a number of different questions. You can play as a poet, natural philosopher, a former street urchin or some other profile which will grant you a specific starting bonus and a different member of the crew. Finally, after you’ve determined your ambition (i.e. victory condition), a preferred title and appearance (presented in a particularly dreary sepia profile) you’ll be free to board your steamer and travel whenever you like.
Considering all this complexity, abstract ideas, bold notions, weird concepts, and surreal imagery you’ll be forced to absorb at the beginning, the gameplay of The Sunless Sea is remarkably simple. At the Fallen London itself, you’ll visit various locations, such as Shipyard, different shops, the Admiralty’s Survey Office or University where you can take different quests. Random events also await you on the streets and docks of this sunken city, some completely trivial, others with the far-reaching consequences on the future events of the game.
You know how they say that the sea is a harsh mistress? Well, when you finally set sail, you’ll get the chance to acquaint yourself with Unterzee a bit better. Its dark waters are dotted by buoys which look like eerie bioluminescent organisms rising to the surface to hungrily slurp air. The sea is haunted by strange creatures from sailors’ nightmares and prowled by pirate ships – both would like nothing more than to send your vessel to the bottom of the Underzee, eat you alive, or plunder your cargo. Most of the time your only award for the drudgery and torment of exploration will be starvation, madness, and death (not necessarily in that order).
During your Underzee outings, you’ll gradually spend your fuel and food, which will frequently lead to disastrous situations. If you ever played any naval simulation, you know the importance of stocking up on rations and fuel. If you had imprudently spent all your fuel in the middle of nowhere, you’ll remain helplessly floating, unable to do anything except to feebly watch as the hunger and terror slowly overwhelm your crew. In these critical situations, all your ethical principles will be put to a severe test, and the choice between death and resorting to cannibalism will seem much more straightforward in the perpetual dusk of the Unterzee. Beware though, every encounter with the uncanny, every dread situation, everything out of the ordinary will result in the building up of your terror levels. Even the fact that you travel with your ship’s light off (which has its benefits, since you are less noticeable that way), will increase the terror of your crew. When the terror scale reaches a critical point (100), madness will ensue, and your crew will revolt, which mostly ends in your untimely demise. Thankfully, there is a number of ways to reduce the terror, the most obvious being to visit some hospitable port.
Of course, more often than not, the inevitable will happen – you and your whole crew will perish in the sea. However, death is not the end of the game, only of the career of your current captain. You’ll be able to continue the exploration of the Sunless Sea with another skipper, and even inherit some of your unfortunate predecessor’s wealth. In the best tradition of roguelike games, the map of Sunless Sea is procedurally generated, which means that its replay value is considerable, more so because almost every location, island or lonely windswept crag protruding from the water has its own story to tell and some ingenious quest to offer. The writing and dialogues in the game are truly sublime, written in the intentionally old-fashioned and convoluted language that will remind you of masters of Victorian literature. Another round of applause goes to the phenomenal soundtrack – moody, dark, and hauntingly beautiful, the music, even more than visuals, invokes the atmosphere of Unterzee.
Released in 2015, Sunless Sea is a cult classic that most players have skipped, which is a damn shame, because this exquisite black pearl offers much more than a short-lived gaming experience. Of course, like anything else in life, when it comes to games, we tend to aim for the things that are loud, flashy, and eye-catching, with a promise of instant gratification of whatever gaming urges we might be having at the moment. Sunless Sea is neither of these things, and its somber aesthetics, perplexing storyline, and the profoundly weird world certainly haven’t done much for its general popularity. However, if there’s a bold explorer thirsty for new and strange sights sleeping somewhere deep inside you, do yourself a favor and try Sunless Sea.