The ocean, in the tradition of Lovecraft, is terrifying in its unknowability, its ineffable vastness. You honestly have no idea just how many tentacles lurk beneath that moon-dappled surface.
Fallen London and Sunless Sea, the literary giants upon whose shoulders Sunless Skies rests, drew upon the ocean for not merely their geographical setting but their mystery, their sprawling possibilities. They were both remarkable works of interactive fiction, particularly Sunless Sea, which unmoored players from a traditionally linear story and let them chart a personalised course through an archipelago of narrative moments, choices and consequences. The Unterzee (the titular Sunless Sea created when London quite literally fell) wasn’t an ocean exactly; it wasn’t quite that big. But it was large enough to get lost in, to make you feel anxious when you ventured too far from port, and to hold a considerable number of tentacles.
Space, then, is rather like the sea. It’s vast and sprawling--in fact, it’s really quite large--and is dotted with planets and asteroids and the like in much the same way you find islands and other landmasses emerging from the sea. So when Queen Victoria decided, in the fantastical alternative history of the series, to expand the British Empire beyond the Unterzee she opted to travel to the stars. One can only assume she wanted to experience cosmic horror first-hand.
Sunless Skies, from the honestly named developer Failbetter Games, was just recently successfully crowdfunded, rocketing past its Kickstarter goal of £100,000 three times over. In reaching for the stars, it promises to let players apply the colonial principles of the actual British Empire and declare all of space terra nullius. According to Failbetter, this means “Stake your claim. Fight to survive. Speak to storms. Murder a sun. Face judgement.” Which, as far as bullet point sales pitches go, starts out as you’d expect, takes a detour into the unusual and evocative, and finishes rather ominously.
Failbetter CEO and the game’s art director, Paul Arendt, has a slightly different spin.
“Sunless Skies is a game of exploration and survival set in a Victorian nightmare vision of outer space,” he says. “This isn’t a void of emptiness that’s dominated by cold physics and mathematics. This is a busy, fecund environment that’s full of life, full of danger. It’s an environment that fights back when you try and conquer it.”
We wish more developers would describe their games as fecund.
But it makes sense. Sunless Skies is a game full of life. In Sunless Sea, when you died you could choose something to pass on to your next life, but essentially you were rerolling and starting afresh. In Sunless Skies, you don’t merely inherit your previous captain’s possessions; you inherit every choice and impact they’ve had on the world. Life carries on, from one generation to the next. I think I’ll leave the tentacles for the grandkids to take care of.