The year is 1888 and you are a street urchin, poet, war veteran, philosopher or priest turned ship captain. You prepare to cast off from Fallen London, a city once graced by the sun. Here in the Unterzee the city knows only the lights of oil lamps and those of the false stars that cling to the ceiling of the massive, underground cavern you find yourself in. You set sail to trade, to find your father’s bones, to make a fortune or write an epic made up of tales from the Unterzee and its many shifting islands. You can be these people and you can do these things. One life does not exclude you from the possibilities of another, nor does it force you into a preordained role. Sunless Sea is built on choices that make up the story of a life in a strange, dark world.
The act of navigation makes up the majority of Sunless Sea, whether it be navigating your ship from port to port or navigating the moral dilemmas and difficult choices that face a Captain in the Unterzee. How many barrels of fuel will suffice? How many supplies will you bring aboard? The game presents simple choices at first but your decisions quickly form a personal narrative. Will you burn your supplies when fuel runs low? Will you eat a crew member to ensure the survival of others when supplies dwindle? Will you return to Fallen London when terror reaches dangerous levels, or will you continue on in order to ensure that once you finally do return, your trip will have made you a profit. What constitutes a profit to you? …Money? …Knowledge? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to make that profit? …your crew? ….your morals? ….or perhaps your sanity?
The Unterzee is a dangerous place. It chips away at both body and mind until all that is left are the cold calculations of a Captain that wants desperately to return home. And yet once you do return to Fallen London, it is not long until the call of the unknown becomes more enticing than frightening, when you feel that the knowledge gained from the previous trip will shield you from the horrors of a future one. Death will come to you in Sunless Sea. It will come early and often at first but every new story lasts a little bit longer. You may even get to uncover some new tale that urges you to continue your explorations in another life. I say another life because many Captains will die before they have seen all that the Unterzee has to offer.
I’ve had captains fall at the hands of terrified mutineers just a few short miles away from returning to wife and child. Another Captain was forced to return to Fallen London to seek repairs and was met by an angry individual who reacted violently to a deal left unfulfilled due to the early return. Captains have died in the waters populated by pirates and strange creatures that come in the forms of familiar bodies perverted by the water’s darkness. Death was frustrating, as it should have been when feeling so personally connected to each life and the story that you’ve been building for each one. And yet many Captains find themselves breaking self-made promises to never again sail those dangerous waters.
The death of one Captain means a slightly better start for the next. Each new playthrough bestows upon you the gift of a previous life’s bounties. Will you inherit a weapon? …an officer? …a sea chart? …their wealth and home? Every sudden end at sea or land is a new handhold for future playthroughs. Progression in Sunless Sea is more often measured in inches rather than miles. It is fortunate then that each inch of Sunless Sea is packed with so many great moments built by Failbetter Games’ deliciously arranged words. There will be a lot of reading to do in Sunless Sea, it will be your main method of absorbing the world and its stories. The art is intentionally minimalist, allowing shape and silhouette to assist imagination. The music is optimistic and upbeat at times and appropriately subdued and dark when terror rises or when fuel, crew and sanity are on the decline. Ultimately, these components of the presentation all exist in order to lift up the words on screen.
Perusing a list of goods I could purchase I came across a sack of coffee beans. I hovered over the item and a description of it read, “All the fire of Hell, and all the aroma of Heaven”. Seeing something as mundane as coffee (in a world where coffins with living passengers and boxes of contained sunlight are also tradeable commodities) being described in such short, evocative prose lends the impression that a care and love of words has been given to all aspects of Sunless Sea, and that impression would be correct. While one might skip the text and dialogue in another game in order to get to the content, the words themselves are the content in Sunless Sea. Most things are kept relatively short and impactful although Failbetter is occasionally prone to moments of lengthier storytelling. However, that’s easily forgiven when the paragraphs greeting you tell the tale of a war between anthropomorphic rats and guinea pigs or a mysterious series of chess games played out with hypnotic pieces.
There is a surprising amount of humour to be found in the Unterzee, especially given the game’s clearly telegraphed love for the Lovecraftian. Of course these moments of levity are welcome islands amidst stories of cannibalism, sacrifice, murder, mutilation, trafficking and things dark and unknowable. It’s a difficult balance to obtain, especially in a game where most anything can be experienced in any order depending on which direction you decide to set sail. It’s truly impressive how each story that you build upon in Sunless Sea feels completely and wholly your own.
In one playthrough, multiple visits to an island ended when a fire swallowed a mansion built upon it. A decision of mine led to the rescuing of someone inside and a momentary diversion to another location concluded that story in the most appropriate way I could imagine. And yet none of that would have happened if I had only visited the mansion once, or if I decided not to risk my life to save this person, or if that decision ended in failure based on my character’s stat allocation. And what if I decided to never visit that second island? How would that story have ended then?
The only impediment to enjoying the stories of Sunless Sea that comes to mind is its barrier in difficulty at the outset of the game. Progress is gained in inches, yes, but that first inch might only come after many, many deaths. It takes a while to become accustomed to the loop of preparation and exploration. The game simply sets you off on your way with little to guide you but a vague backstory that suggests at a possible goal or destination. There’s a bit of a trial by fire as you grapple with the game’s systems at first; the movement, the combat, your limits in terms of strength and how far you can sail out. But punch through that initial barrier and the entire Unterzee will be open to you, it and all of the wondrous, horrific and bizarre things that wait just outside of Fallen London.