Novel Ties: The Civilized Furniture of Sunless Sea

Novel Ties is a series exploring text-heavy games.

My friend Penny tweeted about the new Spider-Man game and gave me a new vocabulary for how much I love Sunless Sea: “It has completely enraptured me.” Chase and I recently recorded an episode of Never Have I Ever, and I started playing Sunless Sea again after running through the game’s opening acts with him. It’s been three years since I last played. So much has changed.

What is it to be afraid? Sunless Sea is a genuinely frightening game, with implicit and explicit horror that pairs like a fine wine with Failbetter’s narrative, button-clicking form of storytelling. The game is built on the idea of increments and progress: in tangible ways like distance and accumulated wealth; in statistical ways like rising terror that colors your gameplay; and in personal and emotional ways as you get to know characters and explore their stories.

Functionally, this creates pleasurable claustrophobia in the world of Sunless Sea. How can the open water feel like a series of tiny hallways filled with sharp turns? Failbetter, led at the time by grimdark dynamo Alexis Kennedy, have built closeness and dread into every part of the game, beginning with its setting. The Sunless Sea is a section of the Earth’s surface that sank over many generations. It feels big as you sail through, but it’s more like the layered excavation of an ancient city than a world.

And when something around a corner startles you, it’s usually appalling. Your terror level may cross the level where your crew will start to hallucinate or attack each other, but you never know when that will finally happen. Choosing the same routine action across different islands may lead to gruesome, permanent repercussions out of the blue. The monsters and enemy ships you can see in advance are also still strong and menacing. This is a potent, heterogeneous stew of terrors.

In Stephen King’s 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, he studies different examples of horror and breaks down the fears their creators have exploited. “[T]he work of horror really is a dance — a moving, rhythmic search,” he says. “And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or reader, live at your most primal level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.”

Ah, but horror loves to destroy that furniture. I’m playing Sunless Sea again on the heels of reading Samanta Schweblin’s menacing little novel Fever Dream. If Sunless Sea is a normal game, Fever Dream is a normal book, one whose events I can’t even be sure are not a dream. A woman flashes back to several days worth of events that seem commonplace: she has gone on vacation with her daughter, made friends with a mom neighbor, and spends time sunbathing and making iced tea.

But the book begins in the middle, and the horrors are named right away. “So what are the worms? What happened to David that day? Why is Amanda in the hospital with a strange child whispering in her ear?” Jia Tolentino wondered. “There’s one answer to all of those questions, but this is not a mystery novel; rather than getting an answer, we acquire a growing sense of unease.”

Sunless Sea is set, broadly, among the most civilized furniture possible: Victorian London, a time so famously staid, forced-temperate, and in denial of its own vices that it’s still a favorite setting. Alex Riviello just investigated Visceral Games’s cancelled Jack the Ripper game, set in the same few years as Sunless Sea, Ironcast, and in real life, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

Where Fever Dream is set in a real life we recognize before everything goes wrong, these Victorian horror stories take several big steps backward in time and technology, laying an even brighter and more surreal sheen and changing the tone of the horror. In Sunless Sea, the idea of darkness and unexplored horrors just out of sight pairs well with real Victorian events like London’s own Ripper but also the widespread adulteration of food and mass mistreatment of the poor and working class.

In our video, Chase compares Sunless Sea to Firefly, and I’ve thought about that a lot since he said it. Joss Whedon set his “space western” far in the future but mixed in visible hallmarks of the Wild West in the United States. He also used the idea of a combined American and Chinese government to weave in a Victorian flavor of “Orientalism” in design, language, and social behaviors. Somehow, there are also no Asian characters in the show, making this Orientalism even more true to history.

Last year the podcast Criminal ran a great interview with the New York Times crime novel reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, who complained that modern crime novels are filled with character development she hates. It’s true: consider Hercule Poirot, almost a complete cipher despite appearing in dozens of novels, compared with even the most laconic modern detective figure, Jack Reacher.

In fact, Lee Child has made Reacher’s determination to live as an anonymous drifter into one of his series’s major story-generating conflicts. Without the offscreen independent wealth of Poirot, that life isn’t logistically possible, let alone desirable. But long-running TV detectives have picked up some of this slack on case-of-the-week shows like Midsomer Murders or Law & Order, compared with the character-centric work of Homicide or even Castle.

In Sunless Sea, characters are developed through plot alone. Sometimes, the only thing we know about them turns out to be comically understated or ironic, like the Genial Magician who frightens your crew, reduces your “Hearts” statistic, and wants to stare into the heart of evil to avenge something from his past. Sure, he sounds like a real bon vivant! But his smiling pursuit of a lifelong revenge quest is part of the terrible fun. The smile is the civilized furniture.

What is it about Sunless Sea that’s held my attention so strongly? “I didn’t know Sunless Sea had an end,” my friend Nine said, when I mentioned the game. “I thought it was a forever thing.” It’s true that I’ve only finished one run of Sunless Sea in all this time, and that was only because I picked the easiest win condition: money. Otherwise, there are always more storylines to take on, dozens of characters to meet, and a bottomless pool of dread.

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About Caroline Delbert

Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, grad student, researcher, and avid reader who lives in Chicago. She's also an enthusiast of just about everything.
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