Steaming through the devouring night

I’ve been playing the popular text fiction game Fallen London for quite some time now and am at a point where I have several interesting storylines going, but am temporarily tired of it because my primary goal (build a ship) is in an extremely grindy phase. I don’t often pay for computer games but (this is not to say I pirate them, I just play the few I have already or abandonware/old DOS games) FL however is good enough that I’ve been more than willing to pay the approximately $2.50 per month to double my action pool.

I started playing around third quarter last year (you can tell I’ve worked in industry for a while since I now divide years into quarters instead of semesters) and around that time, Failbetter Games put up a Kickstarter for their new game Sunless Sea, set in the Unterzee, the ocean of the vast underground cavern into which London, Karakorum, and three other cities whose identity is heavily debated on player forums, fell. (Some say the cavern is the skull of a dead god…) I didn’t get in on the Kickstarter but I did like the idea enough that I paid for SS as soon as the incomplete early access version became available. They’ll be releasing content updates through the end of this year so it will be interesting to see the map and storylines become populated.

While FL is a choose-your-own-adventure text-only game, SS is like an old-fashioned RPG where you move around the map and have turn-based combat. Interactions with NPCs and actions while docked in various ports are multiple choice like in FL. One major, major difference in how you handle characters, however, is that unlike FL where death merely results in a trip on a slow boat passing a dark beach on a silent river, SS has permadeath. You have to create a new character and start from scratch with the exception that you can choose to keep a skill, an officer, or your chart (map). There are apparently mythos reasons why dying at sea is permanent – I’m not sure of the arguments but I think it’s got something to do with the Stolen River, f.k.a. the Thames, wafting you back to the city if you die in FL. Or something to do with the darkness at zee. It gets very frustrating if you’re the kind of gamer who gets emotionally attached to your characters. I keep picking the same character background, cameo, and name for mine. In the default mode, it only autosaves when you dock somewhere. If you die in the middle of a battle or mutiny, it wipes that out – a workaround for Windows users is to Alt+F4 when that happens. You CAN switch to manual save mode, but you lose a medal called the Invictus token.

Even though it has simple 2D graphics and you have a top-down view of the map area around your ship, the darkness is really atmospheric. Reinforcing the sense of IWANTTTOGTFONOW is that there is a game stat called Terror that increments over time when you’re in unlit areas far away from shores, buoys, or lighthouses. Hunger is also a thing, and when your Hunger or Terror get high, the game pops up story cards with increasingly desperate options. One player reported that their young child thought that eating his crew was a fun option.

I’ve only recently been able to get far enough away from FL to see some really fun things, like an island being fought over by colonies of talking rats and guinea pigs. Some of the things that players who’ve been on since beta are talking about on the forums are driving me crazy because it feels like it’ll be too long before I can get to them. Also, since it’s in the FL universe…nearly every time the word NORTH appears in FL it’s in all caps, and there are indications that being “Northridden” or “Northbound” is a form of obsession. So of course you want to find out what’s there. So far I found a strange gate that drove my crew mad, and on another run I found a creature that was a living iceberg that one-shotted me.

Anyway, the reason I’m blogging about this, since I’m not a gamer, is that around the same time that I downloaded SS, a few days ago, I also started reading a random “staff pick” from my local library, Dan Simmons’ historical novel based on the lost Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The title is The Terror. Which was the actual name of one of the two ships. They were large ships with reinforced hulls, steam engines, and hundreds of tons of supplies. The facts of the matter – not the novel – are that the members of the expedition ended their lives in the Arctic dark, in madness and cannibalism.

I suddenly realised I’m reading a book and playing a game about the same thing.

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One Response to Steaming through the devouring night

  1. Hey look, it’s my thread! Even though Failbetter changed the mechanics of death in Sunless Sea, I still got a satisfying hit of “hey, temporary death is a thing in this setting” from the Station III island in Shepherd’s Wash (once the RNG deigned to grant me access to its story), which was added after I posted that. The only dead people you encounter there are permanently dead, but the narration points out the existence of various non-permanent kinds of death.

    I’ve also gotten attached to my captain, but I use Merciful Mode, so I have a much easier time with that. (My save predates the Invictus Token being added to the game, so it’s not as if I had one to lose.)

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