Sunless Sea – An elegy for the brave zee captains of the Alpha

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Gather round dear friends and allow me to tell you the tales of four men and women who sought to tame the waves of the unterzee..


Failbetter Game’s Sunless Sea will at long last ascend from it’s current alpha state and become a full release this Friday. Which is not to say that it will be ‘finished’ per se –  Failbetter being Failbetter this will likely mean there will be many more words added to the game over the coming months. But what it does mean is no more placeholders and unfinished stories. It’s been a long road for the backers of the kickstarter which finished back in October 2013. I was more than enamoured with the idea enough to give them a pass as the release date got pushed back – however my vow not to dive into the alpha was broken just before Christmas. I was too eager to navigate the treacherous unterzee and gorge on their sumptuous words. Eventually the number of stories I started which were marked as not being complete until release became too much and so I decided to quit until the release version. To fight the temptation to head back onto the waves I decided I should tell the stories of my 4 brave zee captains and eulogise their endevours in this sort-of preview. There will be spoilers, though nothing that can’t be reached by a blundering fool in a few hours is revealed.

Zee captain the first: Macintosh Tsunami

Dr Tsunami was once a philosopher of modest renown. He could often be found in the taverns of Fallen London getting slowly inebriated on wine and espousing his theories on the mysteries of the sunken world to any poor soul within earshot. Every night when deep in his cups he would proclaim that one day he would venture out onto the unterzee to find out what was really out there, to discover the truth at the Heart of Everything. And one day, when challenged upon it by friends sick of hearing his plans, he did just that. He got himself a modest boat, put together a modest crew and headed South. Sadly that was the full extent of Macintosh’s plans – it wasn’t long before the naïve adventurer realised he was out of his depth. With no idea where he was going or how he intended to make it back it didn’t take him too long to run out of fuel. Stranded with little hope of salvation things went from bad to worse when his ship was destroyed by a passing giant zee crab.

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Zee captain the second: Clem Fandango*

Taking the map Tsunami had left, as sparsely populated as it was, former soldier Fandango planned to scour the unterzee to get rich fast. After a lifetime spent on the battlefield he had no time for romantic notions of being any sort of noble explorer. To begin with he went with what he knew – the military. He got in contact with the admiralty and agreed to scout various locations of interest for them and deliver coded messages to clandestine operatives. But he was a soldier no longer and served no masters, so he had no qualms in associating with with known mobsters at the same time. He befriended the mysterious three sisters to the north of Fallen London purely in the hope of uncovering secrets, and became something of an antiquarian after realising there was a surprising amount of money to be gained in hunting the game of the zee and discovering unusual artifacts. In 5 long expeditions he explored a great deal of the unterzee and fearlessly took on and defeated a whole host of pirates and hideous creatures in his rusty old vessel. Ruthless and pragmatic, he was building himself a reputation as an intimidating man to deal with.

But then on a fateful voyage to the Chapel of Lights he came across what appeared to be a living mountain stalking the seas. Wise enough to know that engaging the sentient landmass in combat would be suicide he ordered his crew to turn off all power and light and pray that the mountain would pass straight by. It might have been wiser to flee but his military background wouldn’t allow him to back down or surrender. Sadly this was his undoing – the mountain spotted him and crashed into his ship, sinking it in one mammoth blow.

He left few possessions and little in the way of capital as he had invested all his accumulated echoes in the hope of a big payoff further down the line. And despite his endeavors he left little in the way of a reputation, though there were rumours that on one expedition he showed just how far his steadfast pragmatism went. He had returned to port with no supplies on his ship and a great deal fewer crew members than when he left. Rumours abound that in desperation he and his remaining crew did unspeakable things to survive at sea..

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Zee captain the third: Isosceles Morris

The map Fanango had inherited from Dr Tsunami had been filled in extensively, making it the obvious choice of heirloom for his successor to claim. Morris was a poet who shared the wanderlust that his predecessor Dr Tsunami had, though thankfully for him he had a great deal more in the way of common sense to back it up. He took over Fandango’s position for the admiralty, and whilst delivering his first coded message he found his way to Pigmote island. Upon disembarking from his ship he was met by two animals eager to make their case for his help. One was a guinea pig, the other a rat. They told him they were at war. On his travels Morris had encountered rats before – on a trip to the Iron & Misery Fungation Plant he had strayed from the path and essentially been mugged by a pack of them. Even when the representative for the guinea pigs told him that they had come from Fallen London and were, whichever way you looked at it, an invading force, he couldn’t get over his anti-rat prejudice.

He sided with the guinea pigs, or Cavies as they called themselves. They had found themselves stranded on the island after their ship had beached itself. They were blighted by a plague only cured by a fallen ‘star’ they found on the island that belonged to the rats. They took it from them, only to have it later reclaimed. Battles had raged between them ever since. The only other thing that kept the plague at bay was feasting on rat flesh. Horrified the sensitive poet set out to steal the star from the rats under the cover of night. He was successful, but what Morris thought was a humanitarian mission turned out to be anything but. The guinea pigs, unsatisfied with their victory, enslaved the rats and ate their elderly. Morris’ pleas for mercy went unheard. He left the island heartbroken, taking one of the guinea pigs with him as a mascot and a reminder of the perils of interfering in other species’ squabbles.

Morris continued to do the work of the admiralty to secure funds for his explorations, which he hoped would eventually yield enough loot he could sell back in London to make him self sufficient. The admiralty sent him out for Port Cecil, telling him to head North East. He set out in that direction, trekking to the far North East of the underzee, but could not find the place. His stubborness in seeking to complete his task caused him to overstretch his resources – by the time he gave up on the search he only had enough fuel to make it back as far as the monolithic Salt Lion structures many miles from shores of London. Being a poet and having no hope of rescue he decided to take his fate into his own hands, delivering a long, rambling speech – one that was little understood by the humble crew present – before launching himself off the ship to be claimed by the murky depths of the zee.

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Zee captain the forth: Lillian Kidneyshiv

By now the map that once belonged to the legendary idiot Macintosh Tsunami covered a great deal of the unterzee and was an invaluable starting point for Captain Lillian Kidneyshiv to begin making her fortune on the waves. The former street urchin who had fought hard to rise to the rank of zee captain was much more savvy than her artistic predecessors and was not bound by the same militaristic sensibilities that saw Clem Fandango meet his doom at the hands (or rather the peak) of a living island. She vowed to use the map to find far off lands and investigate the many mysteries of Fallen London. But first she realised she needed money.

She decided to begin by ferrying tomb-colonists to the grave land of Vandermeer – a modest living but a relatively safe one. Upon arrival of her first expedition she discovered she had unwittingly helped a fugitive flee from justice. Given that she had already broken the law, albeit unknowingly, she decided to help the fugitive and was given 200 echoes for her troubles. The street savvy Kidneyshiv headed straight to the Salt Lions and used the echoes as a deposit to take part in the lucrative salt stone transport trade. She was soon able to upgrade her ship (which she named Sweetheart after a feral cat she called her own as a child on the streets of London) and use it to hunt zee game – giant crabs, moray eels, bound sharks, whatever comes up against her deceptively named frigate of doom. Rather than using the remains of her conquests as food she dissects them for science, attracting the attention of an eccentric member of the London university faculty. She is tempted into becoming an antiquarian, quickly overtaking the findings of her predecessor Clem Fandango.

Once she has raised a small fortune she decides the time has come to explore the more exotic areas her predecessors had charted and discover a few for herself. Like the venerable Isocolese Morris she also ventured to Pigmote – having read Morris’ journal she decided to favour the rats, blasting the Cavies to pieces in all out combat. Once the rats are free she convinces them to show mercy to the survivors, despite the horrors they have inflicted. She leaves a hero.

Later she returns to the Vandermeer where she had gained the capital to get started and is persuaded to take on another mission for the near-dead – the last tour of the tomb colonists. A group of 12 tomb colonists wished to visit 3 far off locations before they settled to lie in eternal slumber. Kidneyshiv packed her ship with enough supplies and fuel to possible make all 3 trips in one expedition. She didn’t really want to take the commission and wanted to get it out of the way in one go. Her successes had made her ambitious. Her successes had made her impatient.

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She made it to the first location easy enough and set off for the second, in the region of the Khans, immediately. These are treacherous waters – Sweetheart soon found itself battling a number of bound sharks and pirate ships run by rats who have apparently not heard of the deeds Kidneyshiv had done for their kind. Sweetheart took a number of hits and lost a sizeable portion of the crew – with less than half the maximum number on board the ship was no longer capable of travelling fast enough to escape effectively. Kidneyshiv was in trouble – she realised she had underestimated the amount fuel and supplies would cost in the shops outside London, and as she would need to use some of the supplies to fix the ship they would need to purchase more to make it home. Worse still the Khan’s wouldn’t sell to denizens of London anyway so she would have to make a detour to resupply. She opted to head to the nearest port, Commingle, for a pit stop – and then realises that didn’t have a shop. Zee captains work with fine lines – a simple mistake like this could prove to be a fatal error. The closest port was the one which Morris died searching for, Port Cecil. Which would have been surprising for Morris as it wasn’t to the North East of London at all. Kidneyshiv did what he couldn’t and found it, but not without getting involved in a few fights she could have done without. She replenished her stocks as much as the echoes she had left could afford. She hoped it was enough to make it home.

Up until this point I’d been playing with the sound off. I’m always in the market for a good relaxing game that I can listen to podcasts whilst playing and with the minimalist presentation of Fallen London I didn’t think I was missing anything. As this was to be a tense journey I plugged in my headphones in the hope it might help in some way – Kidneyshiv had done so much that, unlike her mostly ignominious predecessors, her death would be a huge loss. I quickly realised I’d been doing things wrong – the music amplified the tension perfectly, making an already nervous voyage so much more uneasy. Kidneyshiv had to use all of her wits to get her crew home safe. She travelled without light to reduce the chances of being seen – a tactic that was as dangerous as it was sneaky. The dark makes people nervous and in some cases drives them mad. The unterzee is an eerie enough place when illuminated. But she had to sneak around a number of jellyfish and couldn’t afford to worry about the mental state of her crew. Then when a pirate ship came into view things became even more desperate. She inched Sweetheart across the waters, pulling to a halt whenever the ship came close. As it did the chug-chug-chug of the enemy ship’s engines faded in. Could they see us? Would they suspect how weak we were at that point? I felt a sweet relief as the engine sound faded away. But not as much relief as when I heard the bells of home ring..

Before she left London the last time she had entered into a relationship. The relief at being home was soon replaced by a new and very different fear – she was pregnant. What kind of mother could a zee captain be? The unterzee is far too dangerous a place for a babe. Once she had given birth she left the child with it’s father and vowed to make enough money to buy a residence fit to raise a child. She put together a new crew and set out on another expedition.

Her plans to make money and avoid danger wherever possible run counter to her instincts. It isn’t long before she succumbed to temptation. Before long she is playing chess on a mysterious island. She takes to it quickly – the pieces are hewn out of some strange rock that seemed to speak to her whenever she grasped one to make a move. The game becomes almost like a drug to her. She flees the island before it consumes her, but can’t resist stopping off on another uncharted island shortly after. There she meets a Deviless beside a volcano. In the light of the lava the deviless attempts to coax her into giving up her soul. She thinks of her child back in London for a moment but soon her memory fades and she struggles to find a reason to say no…

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This is where we leave Lillian Kidneyshiv. The stories I’d begun to write had no possibility of finding an end within the alpha and I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied until I could play the completed version. I’ve spent less than 10 hours with Sunless Sea so far, and these are just a few of the exploits of the characters I sailed with. It’s a tricky game to get a grasp on at first and can be something of a grind to get the resources to go exploring. It’s immediately clear that it holds a great number of fascinating secrets – secrets it’s not necessarily eager to share with the player. But come this Friday all of those secrets will at least be there in place for the intrepid zee captain to set out in search of – along with the closest thing the game has to a main plot and a good number of surprises that Failbetter have been teasing. I can’t wait to set sail and see what terrible fates await the captains I’ll take with me out into the nightmarish dark of the unterzee.

*Macintosh Tsunami’s life was so tragically short that I hadn’t had chance to think up a name for his successor. To save time I pinched one from the excellent Toast of London.

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