How far can a game rely on its writing and worldbuilding in order to succeed? A lot of games have failed in these areas, however, Sunless Sea is an exception and then some. Strip away this game’s narrative and setting and all that’s left is a slightly sub-par husk. It relies on its writing the same way Call of Duty relies on its shooting. When I first played Sunless Sea I was stunned by just how good the written side of it really was. It’s a game with flavour, nuance and above all, a fantastic understanding of what makes Lovecraftian horror tick. Join me won’t you, as I pick apart what makes Sunless Sea so deliciously, devilishly brilliant.
Front and centre we have the writing itself. Every conversation, description and diary entry is lovingly crafted and the atmosphere this generates is unlike anything I’ve played recently. Purely through the power of the written word, Sunless Sea manages to feel more alive than most AAA games have ever come close to achieving. It’s the details that really sell it. The Admiral, hard to read, through his dark glasses, the King of the Drownies, perched upon his throne. Vibrant is the only word that does it justice. Even as you sail the Zee (yes that’s what they call it) little entries in your journal appear and continue to add to the heavy, oppressive atmosphere. I’d love to show you a quote of some kind but in such a narrative-heavy game, I’m more than a little wary of spoilers. Rest easy though. The fact that this game was nominated for a Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Best Writing in Videogames Award, is at least some indicator of quality. If Sunless Sea were to be adapted into a novel I wouldn’t think twice, that’s how strong the writing is. Failbetter games must be commended for what they have achieved.
Further compounding the writing’s excellence is the Lovecraftian world and aesthetic. The Fallen London universe is steeped in everything that made Lovecraft great. Whispers of things half remembered, strange or unhinged characters, and madness around every corner. Sunless Sea recognizes that Lovecraft and the Cthulu mythos is about so much more than just tentacled monstrosities. To truly capture the essence of cosmic horror you have to maintain a sense of humanity’s smallness. The Gods, monsters and other entities you go up against need to be powerful on a scale far beyond that of the player. The Gods of the Zee fill this role perfectly. Their only presence early in the game is through faint sensation or a change in the wind. Later they can grant buffs or even curse you. Crucially however, you never go up against these Gods as some kind of boss fight. They are transcendent of your mortal limitations, just as they should be.
Another lesson to be taken from Sunless Sea is that the fun of exploration lies in the finding. This is why games like No Man’s Sky fell flat. In No Man’s Sky almost nothing you can discover is unique or has any special lore or gameplay connected to it. Sure the area you get to play in is impressive in its scope, but it has the depth of a puddle. Sunless Sea may be a lot smaller but it is stuffed full of fascinating things to see and do. Every island and every character has secrets just waiting to be revealed. And not just throwaway dialogue or loot, real stories and perfectly pitched moments of terror or elation. Despite a smaller world, the exploration in Sunless Sea gripped me in a way that No Man’s Sky never could.
And finally the freedom the game gives you. I remember when I was given a crate of human souls by a shifty individual in London and was told to deliver them to a far off port. I didn’t like the thought of such a long journey so I sold the crate at the first opportunity. Big mistake. The moment I returned to London I was attacked on the harbor and after the fighting was done three of my men lay dead. At no point was I urged to sell the souls and at no point while I was selling them was I warned of the consequences. Hand holding is a pretty hot topic in gaming today and if you aren’t a fan Sunless Sea is probably for you. All of the game is like this. You are free to do as you please and (unlike in No Man’s Sky) you will have a different experience depending on which path you choose to take.
The combat is simplistic and the lack of fast travel can sometimes be a nuisance rather than immersive, but the writing, atmosphere and exploration carry the game. There’s a lot to love about Sunless Sea.