While Nintendo tries to convince people that 2013 is the Year of Luigi, the Year of the Roguelike hurtles on, full steam ahead. “Sunless Sea,” a weird fiction naval exploration game by Failbetter Games, has careened through its £60,000 Kickstarter funding goal and should, elder turtle gods willing, should come out next year on PC and Mac
One thing I like about roguelike as a genre is how flexible it is. It probably most often refers to dungeon-crawling RPGs, but it can be molded and transmuted onto action platformers (“Rogue Legacy”), first-person shooters (“Eldritch”), space travel (“FTL”), and, presently, sea faring.
If Failbetter Games sounds familiar, it may be because we previously covered their previous project, a free-to-play narrative game called “The Black Crown Project.” Thankfully, “Sunless Sea” seems a little more up front, getting its funding from Kickstarter instead of piecemeal through micro transactions.
Still, “Black Crown” is illustrative, as it shows that Failbetter has an unquestionable knack for macabre, grotesque, eldrtich story telling. “Sunless Sea” takes place in a sprawling ocean beneath Earth’s crust, where ancient creatures and ruthless pirates rule the endless night, where food, fuel, light, and sanity come at a premium.
The rest of the game, as far as I can tell, is like a naval-battle role-playing game: find a crew, buy some gear, min-max some stats, and square off in pauseable real time against whatever is lurking in the deep.
In true roguelike fashion, though, the Sunless Sea is procedurally generated during each playthrough. Some outposts, like Fallen London, are fixed — and the Kickstarter page mentions “staging posts” — but it sounds like it’ll take multiple attempts (and deaths) to map out the game’s smugglers’ coves, turtle-shell islands, and malignant coral reefs:
Your character will die (or disappear, or lose her mind, or be hollowed out and filled with candle-wax and haunt a cliff-top chapel)… but their legacy may survive. Your next character may be a daughter, a student, or just someone who found an old ship’s log in a curiosity shop.
I’m just completely enamored by that, and “Sunless Sea” is all quite exciting. Failbetter have met their funding goal, but there are six days left to contribute if captaining a doomed steamboat cathces your attention. If all goes well, we’ll be selling fermented ambergris for food and paraffin by May 2014, on PC and Mac.
Joseph Leray is a freelance writer from Nashville. Follow him on Twitter