Video game review: 'Sunless Skies' is a majestically cruel game
"Sunless Skies," Failbetter Games, available on: Mac, PC
"Sunless Skies" is a majestically cruel game. I abandoned one campaign after the crew on my space-faring train devolved into a ragtag band of cannibals. On my next go-round, because the miseries that can visit one's captain and crew are legion, I gathered that I'd acted rashly. Over the couple of dozen hours I've spent on my current adventure, I've made horrible deals with cunning people, lost crew members on woefully unprepared expeditions, and have generally huddled before my monitor waiting for the next calamity.
Set in 1905, "Sunless Skies" is a Steampunk RPG that imagines a universe in which the British had colonized the stars with a fleet of celestial trains. The vision of space laid out in the game is a place pulsating with hostile life and strange wonders, like an artistic community built on the petals of a gigantic orchid or architectural structures that defy cartography.
At its start you assume control of a locomotive after a disastrous voyage into the Blue Kingdom, otherwise known as the Land of the Dead, claims the life your captain. Your first order of business is to explore The Reach, "an untamed, sunless span of the heavens." Scattered across The Reach are trading posts where bargains can be snapped up on special goods.
Cultivating a network of shipping routes is key to keeping your enterprise going since traveling consumes fuel and supplies, and you'll need money to upgrade the vessel and to keep provisions well-stocked. Knocking about, you'll encounter a range of people and organizations with their own interests. Chief among the competing factions are the Londoners (loyalists of the British government), and the Tacketies (settlers seeking self-determination). The game leaves it up to you to pick a side, play both sides off each other, or remain neutral.
Once you gain enough experience from your collective feats you can level up your captain by picking among different character traits, each carrying a different set of stats -- strength, persuasion, discernment, deceit, etc. -- and potential narrative liabilities. Depending on your choices a captain may be haunted, lovelorn, a thrillseeker, an ex-con, from the bottom or top of the economic pyramid, or any number of other things. The stats associated with these choices affect the odds of many of the chance encounters in the game.
Progression through "Sunless Skies" can take on one of two forms. A legacy mode gives you a new captain each time you die, while a merciful mode allows you to fire up the last autosave and continue on with your captain, or to carry on with a new one. In the interest of time (and sanity), I chose the merciful mode and selected options to make the journey less arduous, like the ability to consume fuel and supplies at a slower rate.
Here I should add that I almost never choose the easy options for a game but after the humbling series of mishaps of my first few hours, I thought it prudent to do so. At any rate, my crew has perished many, many times on my current campaign, which makes me acknowledge how judicious the developers of "Sunless Skies" were in naming their company Failbetter Games.
Admirers of Samuel Beckett will recognize that "Failbetter" carries with it an allusion to the writer's famous bit from "Worstword Ho": "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Their moniker winks at both the company's penchant for creating difficult games (their previous effort "Sunless Sea" was even harsher) and the literary flavor of their work.
It's clear the developers are people who like books and that their games are aimed at people who are fond of reading. (I think Borges would be pleased to know that there is a Borges Ridge in a game populated with monsters that attack ships for the written works they carry.) For all of the beauty of "Sunless Skies'" environments and the tense pleasure that comes with piloting a ship into the hazardous unknown, much of the experience is delivered via text from short entries that scroll across the screen as you pilot the ship through branching narratives of varying lengths.
The writing in "Sunless Skies" is confident -- many scenes and people are succinctly and strikingly described. Though some sentences are a bit florid (e.g. "He sighs deeply, echoing around the chamber like a freed dove."), most are fun to read -- "Nestled amid sprawling, sporing gardens of fungus Hydras is a colony of octogenarians."
It's a treat to see a game exult in the power of language to this degree. I can't wait to get back to it.