About a month ago, Failbetter Games launched Sunless Sea, a full-scale companion to its browser-based text adventure, Fallen London (send me a calling card there! I’m Schlomo!) I’m not entirely sure that I’ve done anything else since.
In 1861, Price Albert was dying. His wife, Queen Victoria, determined that she would save his life via any means possible. An empress has greater means than most, and in this case, she arranged a bargain with the shadowy Masters of the Bazaar. In exchange for Albert’s life, the Masters would claim the city of London, plunging it a mile below the surface of the Earth. London now continues business as usual in the Neath, a gloomy, cavernous world with more eldritch horrors than Antarctica.
The gameplay is remarkably simple: you are the captain of a ship sailing the Underzee—the Zee for short—a subterranean ocean full of monsters, devils, rodents of unusual verbal ability, and worst of all, Englishmen. As you pilot your vessel from port to port, you carry cargo, recruit officers, and complete missions to unlock more and more stories within this deep universe. Naval combat is active—you steer the ship target your enemy, and fire your weapons, but the rest of the time, you simply make choices. One after another until good lord, when did it become 3 a.m.
It’ll all good fun, but what makes Sunless Sea a great game, rather than just a pleasant afternoon, is the incredible depth of storytelling within the medium. The setting alone is worth the first twenty-four hours of your time: a steampunk Night Vale, only expanded from a sleepy village to the great city of London itself and to the oceans beyond (featuring Port Cecil and Mt. Palmerston, by the way, as my wife discovered). And, true to form, Sunless Sea allows a broad range of gender options during character creation, none of which determine your marriage and childbearing options.
This is fully canonical with Fallen London—occasionally, both games can be linked for a small benefit. However, with relatively little time spent in the old city, there are few appearances for the familiar faces of the earlier game, although the institutions find their way through—the Echo Bazaar, Wolfstack Docks, and the academic rivalry between Benthic and Summerset all have a role here. More, you visit the foreign lands which are mostly noted in hint and rumor in Fallen London: the Empire of Hands, Polythreme, the Khanate and the Iron Republic.
Your next twenty-four hours are going to be captured by the fact that this game is difficult. The creators describe Sunless Sea as a “nautical rogue-like” which means that when you die, you stay dead. Worse, the Zee changes between games, so your new captain can’t even rely on old maps. Given the cost of character death, Sunless Sea offers unusual tactics to stave off death. Out of fuel to power your ship? Well, perhaps you can burn the remains of the eel you just killed. Hull breaking down on taking on water? You’ve got a team of rats who can patch a few holes. Facing a mutiny of terrified sailors months out of port? Open a box of sunshine. Out of supplies and starving? Well.
From forty-eight hours on, you’re familiar with the world, and you’ve mastered staying alive. What’s left, then, is actually playing through the game, and exploring the ever-changing story depth available. Supply hydrogen for the monkey empire’s zeppelin (of course there’s a zeppelin. It’s steampunk)! Run blockades for the anarchists in Vienna, who have not forgotten the fallen city. Sneak into your torpedo tube for a tryst with your chief engineer. Plant an agent in the court of Kublai Khan. Arrange a noble death for a tired soldier. The paths before you feel unending, and the inconvenience of the occasional shipwreck is balanced by the opportunity to make new choices.