Failbetter Games released a browser game in 2009 called Fallen London, a fascinating text adventure which transports players into the Echo Bazaar. In this magical realist universe Victorian London has been transported down into a subterranean world full of fantastical realities, characters and adventures.
Fallen London carries with it all the Victorian Gothic tropes and imagery we love: political intrigue at the local tavern, cloaked figures stalking dimly lit streets, and more urchins than you can shake a bone-handled cane at. However, mixed into this standard fare is a generous dollop of the fantastical; intelligent rats, demons mingling with humans, and a huge subterranean sea - the Unterzee - teeming with horrible beasts. This universe was far too rich and complex to be confined to Fallen London's text, and so in 2013 Failbetter launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a full-fledged game set in this world.
That game became Sunless Sea, a roguelike action game that casts you as a boat captain in the Fallen London universe. As captain you have will guide your ship from a bird’s eye view throughout the Unterzee, visiting ports all over this mysterious and alluring world, battling enemy ships and beasts and doing your best not to die - which of course will occur with predictable regularity. After all, the game begins with these words: "Explore. Take risks. Your first captain will probably die. Later Captains may succeed."
As in Fallen London, the game has strong focus on storytelling, however the story is much more about exploration and discovery than it is about a personal narrative. Every island you find has unique tale for you to discover. These narratives often revolve around a unique culture or industry, like the factory city run entirely by demons, or an island in the midst of a war between rats and guinea pigs. Many of these stories are riveting in their first telling, but the game's roguelike structure inevitably has its drawbacks. Dying means you have to rediscover the map, which means hearing the same stories again and again.
The other shortcoming of having this focus on narrative in a roguelike is that you very rarely get to influence the story in any meaningful way, and because of this each island's narrative often feels more like a short story than an interactive experience. A very clever and well written short story, mind you, but a short story nonetheless.
These narrative flaws may sound disastrous, but in fact they aren’t because of the strong emergent narrative that comes from getting to the islands themselves. Navigating the Unterzee and being buffeted by death in every direction is a nerve-racking thrill. Occasionally death takes the form of an enemy ship or creature attacking, but much more often it takes the form of poor resource management. On the Unterzee starvation, insanity, and running out of fuel are much bigger threats than any weapon ever will be.
Hence, the game becomes very strategic. You'll chart sailing routes and plan how much food and fuel it will take while also juggling how much money you have, and how much you can make on your voyage. Your equations will almost always be wrong. The game will throw in complications, and the threat of perma-death always hangs by a thread over your head. Every moment at sea is experienced on the skin of your teeth. As with any roguelike this can lead to frustration when a character and charter you've spent 10 hours building up is wasted in an instant, but the tension is delicious.
Sunless Sea introduces a few mechanics designed to mitigate the full pain of dying, such as the ability to create wills which bestow items and money to future captains. These features become available as you become more successful on the Unterzee, in terms of how much money you accrue and your ability to find or negotiate important items. This form of “levelling” is by far one of the most pleasurable and engaging aspects of the game. The desire to upgrade your lodgings and ship creates a powerful drive to continue, especially because the more powerful you become the less likely you are to die at all and the less death affects your next captain’s adventure.
Failbetter deserves recognition for their vision in Sunless Sea. After all, it was a big risk to superimpose their winning narrative formula from Fallen London with a roguelike structure, and although aspects of this experiment may have failed, the overall experience is an undeniable success. As with any rich and well-realised fictional universe, so much of the joy is derived from simply spending time in the world, even if you aren’t changing it.