Have you ever played a game where the story was hinted at but never the focus of the game? In many single-player games, like Bioshock, or Transistor, Portal, etc., you could get through the entire game without paying any attention at all to the story, regardless of how in-depth or thought provoking it may be. I tend to enjoy those games for the gameplay first, and then appreciate the story later. I’ve never been a huge fan of games that require you to know what’s going on, like Myst, because the story-driven games never seem to have interesting stories to compel me to continue.
Sunless Sea is a different story. It combines a lot of elements I love in games: slow progression and upgrades, a rogue-like “start-over with a push forward” theme, and a merciless drive to bring the player onto its knees through harsh and unforgiving rules. But when I bring up this game to other people, I set all of these aside, because in the end its not what this game is about. Sunless Sea is a story-driven, “choose your own adventure” game in a Lovecraftian setting.
In this game, you can choose the way you want to play. You can be a seafaring pirate that attacks anyone on sight, a wealthy merchant ferrying goods (often illegal and unsavory) across the seas to dangerous lands, or a scholar, trying to discover everything about this strange and vast world.
Very few games have made me feel a sense of adventure: like I’m exploring distant and strange lands, in the same way Sunless Sea does. I can find myself on distant shores and stumble upon vast treasures, only to realize I’ll have to spend most of it if I want to ensure a safe journey home.
This game is all about risk and reward. It forces you to take risks without telling you what’s at stake or even what the consequences will be. In a way this can be a little frustrating, but it adds to the feeling that this place is a real world, and in this place is real and it emulates how we often make judgments and important decisions based on the limited information and resources we have available.
I do have two major gripes with this game. The first is that there is a lot going on. The screen has a lot of information that takes time to study in order to understand what you’re looking at, and the interface is never as streamline as I would like it to be. You do learn what’s going on eventually, but the game doesn’t do a great job at telling you on its own.
But my biggest qualm with this game is that after thirty hours of playtime, I still don’t feel like I’ve made it very far. I’ve explored all these vast and interesting places, but I don’t feel as though I’ve made an impact on the world, and I don’t feel like the time I’ve spent has amounted to anything. For example, the boat I currently have is the third largest one available to buy, and the other two might as well not exist for how expensive they are and how savvy I am with trading and the economy.
I’d imagine there’s something about the game that I have simply yet to learn, but the world feels pretty much as mysterious and unknowable as it did when I first discovered all these islands, locales, and ports. In a way, that’s a good thing. It definitely makes me want to keep playing. The game is beautifully crafted, and there’s so much going on that I don’t feel as though I’ve even scratched the surface of how deep this world is. Depth like that is good, but too much makes it daunting.