How Games Tell Stories - Sunless Seas

Hello

My name is Zach and I'm finishing up my degree in Media and Communication Studies. In this program, I have focused on the different ways in which video games communicate story, narrative and information to the player. Since games are an inherantly interactive medium, there is an extra dimension of narrative which can be told; the player can affect the game's world, and the game can change to react to the player. This adds the potential for deeper, more immersive storytelling, and a stronger connection with the story being told. In this series of posts, I want to look at how games tell stories, looking at all aspects of a games design and development to see how each game creates its own unique world and communicates it with the player.

Sunless Seas

Lose your mind. Eat your crew

Based in the same world as Fallen London, Sunless Seas is a game where you play as a ships Captain, sailing across the Unterzee looking for adventure, supplies, and lovcraftian horrors.

Player-Driven Narrative

You load up the game and create your captain, and are immedately asked what you want your goal to be. Are you out searching for riches? Or are you looking for your long lost father? Maybe you are looking to collect a thousand tales and write a masterpiece? You get to decide your ambition, then set out for your own adventure at sea. After a quick walk through the streets of London you will discover some tomb-colonists, giving a hint at a settlement to the north. Soon, however, you must set sail with nothing to guide you but your trusty Zee-bat. You know little of the dangers of the Unterzee, and must explore the sun-stripped world to achieve greatness.

As you progress through the story, discovering new ports, smuggling human souls, and building up your crew, you are prompted with more dialogue options, and more sidequests to throw you off track. Every morning your captain writes in the log book, a personal account of the time at zee, and a glimpse into the life of your zailors. You might hear them describe the air trembling, or catch them praying to one of the Gods. Throughout your journey you get to know your crew, and they open up to you with their personal history, and maybe an ambition of their own. You must factor all of this when you decided which port to visit next. With supplies hard to find, and rising fuel prices across the Zee, any expedition might be your last.

When you do inevitably die in Sunless Seas, you get choose one item or specialty to pass down to your successor. If you have written a will, then you can choose several. This Rogue Legacy-style inheritance system gets you focused on the legacy of your sailors, rather than any of them individually. You will almost certainly die several times before progressing too far through one of the game's many story lines, and hence your success feels attributed to a family, and not an individual Zee-Captian.

Layers of Audio

The music in this game is unexpectedly atmospheric and immersive for an indie game. The soundtrack was produced by Maribeth Solomon and Brent Barkman, of Mickymar Productions, and features programmed synthesizers alongside violins and cellos for an oddly uncanny and creepy Victorian soundscape. Each location you visit has its own "theme" and these add to the mood and ambience of the trip. From the hearty, percussive theme for the ports of London Wolfstack Lights, to the syncopated, middle-eastern sounding theme for the capitol of The Khanate, Khan's Heart. If you manage to make it to the surface with your crew and sanity intact, you will be greated by the aptly-named The Surface, a jaunty, folksy tune featuring horns and a harpsicord. Its one of the few tracks that is missing the cold, eerie heart of the songs from below.

The soundtrack can be heard in full at the developer's Bandcamp page here, though I'd like to reiterate what the description at the bottom of their page states, WARNING: This soundtrack may cause haunting dreams, wistful reveries for captains lost, and sea-sickness.

Adding to the immersion of the soundtrack are prolonged moments of silence, the eerie quiet of the Unterzee. With the music gone you can hear the sloshing of the waves around your ship, the gentle whirring of your engine, and the low groaning of far-off creatures. The level of detail and attention here draws in the player and offers that whistful longing for the zee which your captain knows so well.

Art Style

sunless-sea

The Unterzee described to you through your crew, and hence you see unsettling characatures of the people you are meeting in your captains log. Whenever you arrive in a new port, you see a small image of what it looks like. Images of the mysterious and grotesque creatures in the Unterzee get shown periodically, breathing uneasy life into the things following you through the depths.

These glimpses of the dark, sunken world help depict the harsh and horrifying reality of you and your zailors. The zee is a treacherous place, and not something to be taken lightly.

Conclusion

Overall, Sunless Seas is an amazingly deep and immersive indie game. There are many, many ways to meander through the troubling stories hidden away in the Unterzee, and each get experienced through a blending of rich writing, atmospheric sound, and deeply terrorizing imagery. Playing through the game for extended periods almost makes you taste the harsh salt in the air streched across the zee. This game will suck you in, and kill your Zee-Captains over and over, and you will keep coming back for the peculiar and unique stories of Lovcraftian horror.