Sunless Sea: Knowledge and Memory

2009’s Echo Bazaar was where I first fell in love with video games. It’s a text-based RPG that you play in your browser – I think now it’s titled Fallen London. The game is set in an underground London (underground because it was stolen by bats); the whole thing is drenched in Victorian Gothic, in the best possible way. The game’s opening especially sunk its claws into me: “Welcome, delicious friend.” It’s never let me go.

In 2015, developer Failbetter Games released a spinoff, Sunless Sea. It’s the same setting and the same narrative wrapping, but you have to sail round different underground islands, whereas the original Echo Bazaar (to my memory) mostly took place in the fallen city. The shift is welcome – both games focus more on atmosphere and world-building, rather than progressing a linear plot, so it’s nice to have this new, relatively unexplored environment with new stories. Both games also rely quite heavily on episodic vignettes – in Echo Bazaar you would have a candle that gave you ten actions, and when those ran out, you couldn’t do anything more. You had to come back in a few hours when your candle had reloaded – it was intended to be a thing that you play once a day for five or ten minutes, in that sense. Sunless Sea doesn’t have the same limit on your actions, but the different islands fit the vignette model quite neatly. You go to a place, stock up on food and fuel, and explore whatever stories are on offer. You might see a particular branch of stories requiring some item to continue, and then you’d go looking for that item on other islands.

Word count throughout all this is obviously at a premium. There’s a similar writing logic to what you find in short stories – a concentrated burst of narrative designed to explore one particular idea or event. Atmosphere is evoked rather than drawn out at length, and the focus is on captivating mysteries that get you excited to unlock the next step. We might draw a point of reference to comics, in that regard – there’s an old axiom in comics that on each two-page spread, the final panel needs to get the reader excited to turn the page and see what happens next. It’s a type of serialisation, I guess, drawing on the physical nature of the comic book as a series of bound pages in order to create drama and flow. Sunless Sea offers a similar experience, ending each vignette with some sort of mystery to intrigue you enough to unlock the next step. Thus on your first visit to Station III, you might find a locked gate, with this text description:

“The only way past the walls is an unimposing, but sturdy-looking, triple-locked gate silvery metal. A sign beside it reads DELIVERIES.”

The description for this event tells you that you can unlock the gate by obtaining a Soothe and Cooper Long-Box. The attending image is of a coffin. That’s curious – where do you find a coffin? Maybe with the tomb colonists, in the north? Why would anybody need coffins delivered anyway? And are they arriving empty – or full? There’s a promise of macabre Frankenstein scientists, of surgeons experimenting on human corpses. It’s on-brand, very atmospheric, and it makes you want to go rob a couple graves.

Obviously as part of all this, Sunless Sea ends up a pretty opaque game. Plenty is left out – either for the sake of mystery, or because there isn’t time to go into more detail. You are thrust into a fully-formed world with history and characters already engaged in doing their own thing – and nobody stops to explain it to you. Everyone is busy, and unless you can figure out how to be useful to them, they won’t have anything to say to you. It’s then interesting, I think, to reflect on how Sunless Sea allows our understanding to develop. Given that context, what resources does it offer us for making sense of its world? And what do those pathways say about the nature of understanding more broadly?

The first way, possibly the less interesting way, is by unlocking additional stages of each vignette. You sail around, discovering islands and filling in your map, learning what you can get from where and figuring out how to use it. Relatively standard video game exploration fare, in that very Metroid way where your discoveries in one area will unlock progress in other, earlier spaces. It points to the interlocking nature of things, the layers of relationships between places and people – but I think that’s all fairly standard material for this type of game. It also feels a lot like a puzzle box – as if the gameworld itself is entirely static, waiting for you to act on it in order to progress from one state to another. If you don’t bring a coffin to Station III, nothing happens. The gate remains locked, and the world doesn’t continue in any meaningful way. That’s a little frustrating. It’s something you see in a lot of games, and it just really reminds you that you’re relating to this very sterile, artificial machine.

However, the thing that really struck me – and maybe this is just a me thing – but the second main way of coming to understand the world of Fallen London is through the changes that happen over time. Sometimes you’ll pull into port, and things will just be different. For example (and this is one of the few occasions where I’ll flag spoilers), one of the early islands, quite near to your starting position in Fallen London, is called Mutton Island. It’s essentially a training island that you can find and explore without super high stakes. It’s generally one of the first places you find. And, as the game progresses, one day you’ll turn up and the island will just be different. A few different things can happen – the village can be blockaded, abandoned, taken over by the Khanate – but one way or the other, stuff just happens. You realise that the game isn’t just a puzzle box waiting for you to act upon it. It’s a mysterious world, but it’s not waiting to be resolved.

I think this is the really electric thing about this game. You come to understand the world not only by plumbing the depths of its mysteries, but also by watching it change. Knowing how it used to be is just as much a form of knowledge. It’s the type of knowledge you don’t recognize as such until things become different. It’s like when a favourite coworker leaves to another job, and you suddenly, jarringly realise that a certain period in your life is over. You carve it out as a distinct moment even as you recognize that it’s gone. And the ensuing situation holds most meaning as an emblem of how things used to be, not as a new state in its own right. When Hunter’s Keep burns down, the ruins remind you of lunch in the parlour, of Lucy’s stories about the butler and the pig. You know the place not as it is, but as it used to be. Things change. Sometimes they change before we’ve fully understood what they are. We’ve talked before about games that jam their events into the past – where most of your gameplay revolves around reconstructing historic events rather than making meaningful movements forward (The Fidelio Incident: Trauma and Text). You see it in BioShock, in Halo: ODST, in What Remains of Edith Finch – it’s everywhere. Sunless Sea is still built around the past – around figuring out all these mysteries and how things have come to be – but it also reminds us that the present is slipping into that vanished land. That changes how we think about what we want to achieve in the here and now, before we also, inevitably, slip away.

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