I’ve never really gotten into rogue-like games. I find it immediately demoralizing going into a game where I know I’m going to die. Hence why I haven’t had the motivation to pick up Bloodborne again. It’s disheartening making a lot of progress in a game, only to have a string of bad luck & lose it all. But in my attempts to branch out into new genres, I’ve found two workarounds for that anxiety: find a game where death is expected by only a minor inconvenience (the From Software approach) or a game where a campaign can be short enough that, if you’re going to die, death sets in very early.
To that end, I downloaded Sunless Sea, a steampunk, Lovecraftian, rogue-like, survival horror, exploration… thing. I appreciate the developers naming themselves Failbetter Games. It must be very convenient having your company’s name & mission statement be the same. Seriously. Don’t give anyone the chance to have any delusions about what’s about to befall them. Hell, even in setting up the game, it flat-out tells you that your first few captains are probably going to die.
To that end, I followed their philosophy & my first captain died just a few in-game days in.
Before getting to that, I should probably explain the game itself. As the player, you’re basically set loose in the Fallen London universe, a world completely underground, surrounding by a dark, mysterious ocean. You pick your backstory, your overarching goal, your crew, & then you’re off to make your name, make your fortune, or just survive. You control your ship, sailing around exploring & making port, trading or following quests. But with more than a little Lovecraftian influence, expect horrors to be awaiting you as you explore farther from humanity.
My first unlucky avatar was Captain Sibeal Delauncay. The good Captain, as she preferred to be called at port, was a natural philosopher by trade, & took an old steamer ship, along with her faithful Surgeon, feral & nearly comatose ferret as the ship’s mascot (clearly doomed us from the start) & a crew of eight zailors (no I did not misspell that) out into the dark sea. Her goal? To gather enough tales from her adventures to one day retire & publish a novel.
Things began simply enough for Captain Sibeal. She picked up a passenger who wanted to be taken to a tomb colony, presumably to die — there isn’t exactly a lot of land in Unterzee — & was tasked by the admiralty to check on in the ports in the area. Captain Sibeal chose to remain close to the main port, but did travel to several close islands, learning Secrets that she shared with her Surgeon to gain more insight in the workings of their dark world. She gained the attention of Zee’s three gods. She spent one evening in port with a Dapper Gentleman who bid her passionately to keep his locket with her. She quickly replace her feral mascot with a grumpy cat that snuck aboard at first opportunity who somehow made their cannons work better. She shot a lot of giant crabs & even a pirate ship once.
It’s hard to say where things began to take a turn for the worse. Perhaps she should’ve been more adventurous in her explorations. Perhaps she should have been more diligent in following up with quests. Perhaps she shouldn’t have agreed to smuggle goods for a dark stranger. Perhaps she shouldn’t have accidentally spent all her meager money on flares when she meant to buy fuel & then couldn’t sell them back for even close to the same price as she bought them!
Who can say? What can be explained is the series of events that ultimately led to her death.
After running out of fuel & supplies, Captain Sibeal weighed her options & ultimately decided to turn to the gods for help. It was better than waiting to die. At least in her travels she had learned a few Secrets, & she whispered this to Salt, the god of horizons. Rather than bestowing them with much-needed supplies, a white zee-bat, unlike the normal one they kept on the ship for scouting, lighted upon the railing. Captain Sibeal stared at the zee-bat while it stared back, transfixed by its crystalline eyes. Her gaze followed as it suddenly flew away into the darkness. Hearing the crew gasp, Captain Sibeal came to her senses, only to discover that they were now in a new place. The accursed Kingeater’s Castle, all the way on the other side of the known map!
Accursed god of secrets! How did this help!? What good was it to bring them here? After finding nothing of use on the island, they set out from the desolate castle, praying their meager fuel holds out. Not wanting to waste anything, the Captain sends out the zee-bat to search for land. It returned, bringing a report of a place called Saviour’s Rock not far north. The name offered hope, & the Captain directs the ship northward.
Heading north, they enter the Sea of Statues. Giant hands protrude from the murky water, as if reaching to the forgotten surface. Or perhaps they wish to pull the foolish humans down with them. What lies below, waiting in the unseen? The crew grows restless in the dark, as they’ve had to douse the running lights to conserve fuel. It’s a risky gamble. They need fuel to get out, but will it matter if they’re all insane?
It turns out not to matter either way, as they’ve barely cleared the castle when the engines die. This time, she turned to Stone. The only female of the three gods (assuming gods even have physical forms to have genders), perhaps she would hear the lady captain’s plea. But rather than an offering of Secrets, Captain Sibeal offered of herself. A great wound for the wounded.
Thankfully, the Surgeon is able to efficiently bandage the wound. After, Captain Sibeal paces the deck, anxious that there has been no hint of a reply either way in response to her offering. Silent gods can be just as terrifying as when they speak. Suddenly, the engineer runs up to her. Expecting more bad news, Captain Sibeal is thrilled when he reports, “Captain – there’s more fuel in the bins than I realized. Just a little. I’d looked three times. I’m sure it wasn’t there before. But now – it might be enough -“
Silently thanking Stone for offering useful aid (was transporting them here Salt’s idea of helping, or was he just being a jerk?), the crew sets off from the desolate place. But it wasn’t long before the lack of supplies began to take its toll on the crew. When the first crewman died, the bo’sun offered a terrible choice: prepare the body for the funeral, or prepare it for a meal?
The idea is tempting, but Captain Sibeal knew order had to be maintained. The crew was already on the edge of terror. Having them feast on the flesh of their fallen comrade would only push them further over the tenuous border of sanity. She dismisses the bo’sun. They had to retain their humanity.
Sadly, while the crew is giving out, the engine gives out first. Again, they are stranded without fuel. It crosses her mind to use a flare, but sadly she’d sold them back. And this far out, what are the odds that would do any good. The only knowledge Captain Sibeal possess that might be a boon is her attention of the gods. Salt was less than no help, & the Captain wasn’t too eager to turn to Stone again so soon. Besides, as weak as she was from the hunger, Captain Sibeal wasn’t sure she had the strength for another offering. Storm is the only one left. The angriest of the three. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the Captain making the sacrifice this time.
The only fair way to decide is to draw lots. The loser is swiftly & painlessly killed on the deck. The few remaining crew watch on silently as his blood slowly spills over the edge of the deck & out into the sea. No one can stand to look at the other. Suddenly, there’s a loud crack, & a stalactite falls from the sky, crashing onto their deck. At first it seems they’ve only drawn the ire of the Storm, given the massive hole in the deck & the second dead crewman. But as they examine the stalactite, they discover it’s made of ore that can substitute for coal. They will live another day, but the price of that survival is growing increasingly high.
Captain Sibeal frequently finds her mind wandering. Thoughts of evenings at the pub, enjoying warm meals & decent wine parade through her mind. Soon it becomes all she can think about, almost an obsession. When she begins to eye one of the starving crew, Captain Sibeal shakes herself to her senses. She must do something to stave off the madness. She fears what will happen otherwise.
But as more times passes, & more of the crew begin to die, Captain Sibeal knows she has to do something to save her crew. The inevitable has set in. The creeping sense that they won’t make it out of here alive gnaws at ther mind worse than the blasted, useless ferret. And if that’s the case, then Captain Sibeal vows to fight as hard as she can against fate, the gods, or whoever else tries to stand in their way. So when she receives word of more dead zailors, she order the bo’sun to do what’s necessary. The Captain salves what little is left of her humanity with the knowledge that they were already dead, & twas better for their bodies to feed the crew than the sea. But is there coming back from such a point?
The deck is far more silent now. The only crew remaining is the Captain, the Surgeon, the cat, & two zailors.
Finally, they reach Saviour’s Rock, & there’s a brief moment of hope that their suffering was worth it. But there is no salvation to be found. Unless that salvation is in the terrifyingly giant, hairy arms of the spiders scurrying about. As Captain Sibeal stares at the monstrous webs crossing above them all hope fades like a puff of smoke on the wind.
All that matters is trying to survive. So when she sees her crew eating the few rats that remain, she turns a blind eye toward it. They’d already eaten their mates. What was a few vermin? Sadly, for some reason she can’t eat the ferret.
As the engines sputtered into silence, & the warm glow of the lantern fades into nothingness, Captain Sibeal accepts the inevitable. They must abandon ship. In such a desolate place, the odds that any will survive in their current state is highly unlikely.
Thus was the fate of Captain Sibeal Delauncay. She left behind nothing, save a rival in a small urchin girl.
I had a lot of fun writing this little vignette. Expect to see more as I find new & interesting ways to play, hopefully succeed but probably die. And a proper review for Sunless Sea once I’ve gotten a good feel for it.