Once upon a time, there was a poet named Antoine. He longed to be the captain of his own ship, and so he scrimped and saved, gathered a crew, pooled enough resources for a small ship, and set off. His dream was to create an artistic masterpiece after exploring all of the Underzee (the underground lake that acts as a sea in-game). Unfortunately for Antoine, he was frivolous and unprepared. He ran out of fuel in the middle of the ocean and eventually died.
Upon his death, his ship was passed to a correspondent of his – surprisingly enough, a street urchin named Henry. Antoine had met the child back when he was just another poet in London, and at the boy’s insistence, they had struck up a relationship as penpals. Henry was enthralled by Antoine’s tails of adventure and seafaring glory, and when he heard of the poet’s passing, the youth declared that he would accomplish the poet’s dreams in his stead. Unfortunately, after a life of poverty, Henry let wealth get to his head. He took payment from the wrong people, and when he was unable to deliver, he was killed.
The ship was then passed to James, a street urchin who had admired Henry for a long time and was a trusted shipmate from the very first day. He had seen his friend’s downfall and vowed to himself not to fall down the same dark path. Unlike Henry, however, James didn’t want to accomplish anyone else’s dreams. What he wanted was financial stability, maybe a family – and he’s still working towards that goal today.
This is my experience playing Sunless Sea by Failbetter Games. However, this is not what someone else would have gotten out of the game, and this is not the plot. Sunless Sea is a rogue-like text-based rpg, and though there are events, really, there is no plot. You make your own character, you make your own choices, and you make your own story as you play. As far as methods and mediums go, Sunless Sea is a game that could be nothing other than a video game, and that gives it full marks in my book.
Sunless Sea is eerily enchanting, and despite its simple gameplay, it is also terribly engaging. People familiar with TTRPGs or Fallen London, a free online text-based RPG by the same company, might note that the system of Sunless Sea seems similar to these other forms of roleplay. There’s no set story and a series of random events, which you can succeed or fail depending on a number of stats. How is Sunless Sea, then, a game that could only be a video game?
Failbetter Games has designed an incredibly simple and frighteningly addicting exploration component into Sunless Sea in which you sail uncharted seas wrought with pirates, disturbing monsters, and strange foreign lands. Procedurally generated, the layout of the map differs every playthrough, even between deaths. And yes, you will die. You will probably die exploring.
This exploration component is, in some ways, the heart of Sunless Sea – it captures the unsettling atmosphere, the uncertainty of what lies ahead, and serves as a brutal reminder that, yes, this is technically a survival game. It is also the one part of the game that could never be accomplished in a TTRPG or a text-based RPG, and thus what earns Sunless Sea a place in my methods & mediums showcase.
As an added bonus to the immersion, Sunless Sea allows you to play as any gender, man woman or neither, and it doesn’t affect the gameplay in the slightest. Your character can pursue romance with either men or women, decide whether or not to pursue a sexual relationship, and should your lover conceive / adopt a child, this child will also be carefully non-gendered until you decide what will become of your scion. Sunless Sea and Failbetter Games are careful to ensure that this is a game for everyone and that anyone who wants to brave Cthulu-infested underground seas are free to do so without discomfort.