While playing Sunless Sea a few months back I kept, in my mind, returning to Jared Daimond’s description of the colonization of the Polynesian islands in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. The islands were separated by large channels of water, and were often simply invisible from one shore to the next. Which means that they were colonized either by people blown horribly off course, or people who had simply sailed on into the horizon, assuming there was more land out there somewhere. It’s a awe-inspiring and terror inducing image, and is one that is pretty successfully recreated in the fantastic game Sunless Sea.
When a friend asked me to describe the game I called it an “exploration/horror game” and ran through the quick mechanics: it’s an empty map. You have a ship with fuel and food. You go out exploring. He listened and then at the end asked “okay, but what’s the horror?” I explained that a lot of the islands you run into have some dark twist or secret, but in truth that’s not the answer I had in mind when I originally described the game as a horror game. That’s the “narrative” answer, but, as we’ve been discussing the last few weeks, it’s the ludonarrative that’s really sticks with people, and the horror of Sunless Sea is baked perfectly into the exploration mechanism. You leave port and you don’t know what’s out there in the darkness.
It’s a quintessential fear, and one that video games have used since their inception (using darkness and fog to mask areas that had not yet been loaded) but the trick is tried and true for good reason, and it’s one that Sunless Sea doubles down on, rearranging the map every time you die so that the mystery remains each time. By giving you limited fuel and food, and making getting to port to resupply them a necessity, the game is able to consistently churn out moments of dread in a dark sea, lost, alone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realized too late that I’ve been too adventurous, that I’ve fool-hardily travelled too far from any known port. Alone in dark waters I’ve sent out my Zee-Bat as I’ve burned through my last reserves of food, fuel, or both, and each time the Zee-Bat has returned with the dire warning that there is no land in sight. I know there must be something else out here, because there just must be, I’m not done exploring, I haven’t found every island yet, but hope dwindles fast and stranded in the darkness I pick a direction and sail, hoping and praying to hit something praying a second time over that the something will sell food or fuel. I think privately to myself “is there anything out here?”
Sometimes there is, and sometimes there isn’t, but that’s the whole point of exploration. Unlike other games (I have, fair admission, never played Breath of the Wild which I hear is also a game about mapping) each time you set out from port in Sunless Sea you are taking a tremendous risk. If you wander too far from known water and die your progress is erased and the map reshuffled and you start again from square one. Yet you continue to set out because there is hope, wonder, and most importantly awe (an emotion that requires, notably, fear). I’m not risking as much as the Polynesian colonizers once did, but I’m risking something, and because of that risk the relief and excitement of actually uncovering something in the darkness is all the more palpable – it is a genuine revelation, a real discovery. I’m in awe of the darkness and then in awe of the island.