Monday, 22 September 2014

Sunless Sea: Adrift and Loving It?

Provisions and Some Background Information

I'm a shameless fan of UK company Failbetter Games and have been since discovering their best-known product, the browser game Fallen London. Fallen London is a story-driven game, characterized by clever, dark writing and the occasional tentacle. Based on the premise that Victorian London was sold to the shadowy Masters of the Echo Bazaar, and the city thrives (if that's the word) under the earth's surface, the game is a treat for players who enjoy immersive storytelling and, well, lots of text. After I passed on Failbetter's Kickstarter for Sunless Sea, an exploration and adventure game in the Fallen London world, I regretted not giving them my money.

I picked the game up as soon as it was available to non-Kickstarter backers and, though it was incomplete, sank a great deal of time and brave adventurers into the depths of Sunless Sea. It uses some roguelike elements (permadeath options, for example) and is not as text-based as its predecessor, but I would characterize it as still being primarily about story and the exploration of a dark sea (or correctly, zee) full of terror and opportunity. But mostly terror.

Aye, Aye, Captain?

As ever, I greatly enjoy Failbetter's inclusion of a non-binary gender option. At the beginning of the game zee captains choose a form of address  (Sir, Madam or Citizen) and a portrait to represent them. Delightfully, whatever form of address you choose doesn't affect which portraits are available to you. It's an open-ended approach to gender that I wish more games would embrace. Similarly, the option for a harbour romance with a Likely Lass or Dapper Chap isn't limited by your gender.This inclusiveness is typical of Failbetter and I wish more games would emulate them.

The Early Access release means that Sunless Sea is in something of an extended beta with a shifting list of upcoming updates. Some updates have been more encouraging than others - the introduction of map shuffling before all the of the map sections were complete was a frustrating addition. Depending on your map configuration, some destinations might be across empty sections of placeholders (think "Here be monsters" but with nothing). In a game where food and fuel are precious commodities and your terror meter is almost continually rising, these empty map sections significantly impact play.

Additionally, the introduction of the map shuffling worked against some of the game's efforts to balance the difficulty of early stages of the game (a lucrative, early-game only trade route may be simply inacessible to a nascent seadog). In-game grinding can be a bit of an issue, necessitating following particular trade routes ad nauseum, though I suspect that additional content (particularly that of random events) will strengthen the sailing experience.

Mutiny on the Zee

Watching Sunless Sea's progress, particularly through its Steam community, has been a lesson in the benefits and dangers of having customer input be such an intimate part of the beta process. In response to vocal player concerns, Failbetter is dramatically rehauling the game's combat system. This effort has pushed back other content updates, delaying the final release of the game.

While Failbetter's responsiveness to player input is laudable, I have to admit I'm more interested in their vision of the game than the version of it rejiggered to please Early Access players, particularly those who might rather be playing FTL. Don't get me wrong - I really like FTL, but the Fallen London universe deserves an adventure game that suits its unique flavor.

Is it completely naive to sigh and mourn the artists' vision(s)? Probably at least a little, particularly given that I assume the folks at Failbetter are quite happy to make a product that their customers enjoy. Having the Early Access option shows their interest in fan input and let us not forget that writing "Don't listen to me. Don't listen to anyone. Do what you want" is still a kind of input.

Final Ship's Log

I have to admit that as a player who didn't mind the old combat system, but hungers for new content and better balancing, that my voyages in the 'Neath have been fewer lately. I am, however, looking forward to the game's final release, currently slated for early December.

I might just hang up my sou'wester and penchant for cannibalising my crew until then, though.

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