Explore, Take Chances, Lose your Mind

Review of Sunless Sea, a game by Failbetter Games. 

Sunless Sea is a roleplaying narration-based game of exploration, survival, and a thousand stories. And when I say narration-based, I mean narration-based. The game is mostly all text.


Half your playtime is spent steering a ship across the zee, glancing at the map every now and then, and the rest of it with reading, and more reading.

At its base it takes the form of an interactive book, but it never feels like one. In fact, it feels like the most game-like game I’ve played in a long time. While story-based games nowadays focus on giving you a singular experience, hiding under prescripted events and clearly-made objectives, a lot of the things that happen in Sunless Sea feels organic. Which is ironic, since because the game is mostly text based, you can’t really make your character do things the game don’t expect.

The atmosphere helps. The zee is wide and dark and it can be terrifying to sail past familiar islands. The world and lore is huge and open and mostly you’re doing things because you’re curious. The game never holds your hand or tell you where you need to go. Everything is a player choice, a player investment, giving every a choice kind of an emotional trigger.

There are a dozen ways to die, and all of them would be entirely your fault. There are a thousand little victories, and whether or not they are victories would be to your discretion. Discovering new islands, unearthing some artefacts, finishing a quest, or maybe just the simple act of reaching home port with just barely enough supply could be cause for celebration.

My only gripe is that it can be unforgiving. A wrong choice don’t usually lock you out of a storyline, but it might. Some things you can only figure out after a first couple of playthroughs. Progress is slow like the steady wave of the zee. Upgrades are expensive and sometimes looks only like a distant dot in an impossible horizon. Learning curve is high, but to finally get over it is reward on its own.

But it’s a great game. Something you can get deeply invested in. It has the same feelings as FTL, in its survival and make-your-story every-gameplay-is-unique thing, and Skyrim, in its exploration and freedom.

I’d say if it seems like your cup of tea – reading, lovecraftian horrors, exploration and discoveries – and you have patience, it can be one of the best games there is. It’s a slow game, at times chill and at times thrilling in the way that watching a radioactive decay is thrilling. Have patience, take risks, invest, and you could end up richer than when you start playing.

Or maybe it’ll just be five hours down the drain when your character dies. Death is heartbreaking.

( First image is from a screenshot shared to the Steam Community. Second is from the Steam page.)



Relevant reddit.

You know, I’ve never figured out what “one mile” means. Despite the culture osmosis, I still stick with the local system for a lot of things. Names of food and local plants, for instance. And measurement. So you can throw me as many “miles” or “inches” or “pounds” as you like and they wouldn’t mean anything to me. I’d stick with my “meters” and “grams,” thank you.

It’s just kind of funny how someone’s saying that they use the term “miles” instead of “light-years” because it’s more layman’s term. Light-years, I can imagine, but
“miles”, I still have no insight at all.

Thoughts on Horns

Review-ish thing of a book titled Horns, by Joe Hill.

I first heard of Horns from a trailer before a film in the cinema. I thought it looked only mildly interesting, but not really up to my taste, really, with its romance and thriller and bloody revenge thing. And maybe because I was still disappointed with the last film I watched which promoted Daniel Radcliffe. The Woman in Black. Unremarkable horror flick that’s not very scary and falls short to what even Japanese indie game developers can come up with.

Anyway, its theme isn’t really up to my taste, Horns. I heard later that it was based on a book, but again, it doesn’t really struck me as interesting. In fact, I resented it at first, because the local book stores can sell nothing but popular books and airport thrillers(1), and that book was on the shelf with a “Now a major motion picture!” blazed across its cover. But oddly enough it caught my attention anyway. “Joe Hill,” said the cover. I’m a linguistic nerd. Words and language always have their dual-meaning attached. A lot of names on the shelves-those authors of airport thrillers and teenage romance thing I don’t quite enjoy-they spit out resentment. “Don’t buy me,” those names say. But this one. Joe Hill. It sounds almost pleasant, like a good memory at the back of my head.

It was only a bit later, while I was rereading Stories, an anthology of fantastic, dark, and casually threatening short stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, that I found out why. After I had more or less drained the whole book of stories that I could read at the time (becase it can get really dark and trippy and maybe disappointing and sometimes those are just not the kind of story you should be reading at the time), I looked at the author descriptions page. One of my favourite story from the anthology was The Devil on the Staircase, a crazy little story with whacked up formatting about bad people doing, casually, bad things (then again that describes about half of all the stories there). So, it’s written by a Joe Hill, who also wrote things like 20th Century Ghosts, Heart-Shaped Box, and his latest book, which is-at this point I would have spurted out my tea if I was having any-titled Horns(2).

I spent the rest of the day with a weird and strange craving for that one book on the store’s shelf that I had tried to ignore, cursing myself halfway for not even giving it a chance, for just passing by it. I had really enjoyed Hill’s writing. Would really really like to read more of his words.

I bought a paperback of it in the store a few days ago. Not without a few doubts. As I’ve said, I don’t like its themes at all, I was afraid it’ll be a disappointment(3), and reading something like it will be really outside my safe zone. But at the last moment I picked it up anyway, bought it, read it. You know this post was supposed to be a first impression review-ish thing, but I got too carried away.

Simply put. I like it. I like it in ways that’s different to plenty of other books I’ve read. This book is the thing I didn’t know I was looking for. I like its point-blank yet nuanced approach. I like its characters, all the terrible things they do and feel and think and how they’re presented. I liked it from its first no-bullshit paragraph. And although its descriptions can get tiring, they’re all just so well-made they seeped in anyway even though I was basically skim-reading them.

I thought my muse was running away from me these days, but in-between reading it, when I was looking around I started making words about them and myself, making stories out of nothing. Grabbing inspirations was easier. I started thinking a bit more than usual, too. About the world, people, myself. The only thing I regret is that I started making more vulgar jokes, but at least that expands my horizon.

I’m still only halfway through. I like it. Maybe I’ll write a proper review next time, but I know of my own non-existent schedule. I know my limits. Maybe I’ll write about what it made me think, too. Maybe.

1 Genre stories that isn’t already a J.K. Rowling is notoriously hard to find(no Pratchett at all. And you have to both dig and hold hope high to find a Gaiman), which is a sham because I enjoy some fantasy and speculative fiction myself.

2 Frankly that wasn’t the only surprise waiting at the author pages. Diana Wynne Jones wrote an interesting but not particularly earthshaking story titled Samantha’s Diary. Apparently she also wrote a book that would later become Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle. I nearly choked.

3 Mind, imported books are expensive, and I already have a whole shelfspace filled with books I dislike enough to not even get halfway through.