"Sunless Skies' bleak pondering of cosmic horror and colonialism is probably one of the best game narratives of 2019."
It was a long road to London.
I had served my time in the Reach; ferrying armaments, passengers, and contraband from one corner of the galaxy to the next, to earn what little coin I could while subverting the goals of the Empire along the way. My methods were undoubtedly mercenary, but mercenary with values. I'd saved enough for my own locomotive — The Gracious Host — outfitted with a battalion's worth of firepower. I bribed my way through the transport relay and into Albion airspace.
Unfortunately, my reputation preceded me. Perhaps my morals were too discriminate — the fleet of Imperial Dreadnaughts certainly thought so, their cannons the last thing I saw before my engine and my crew were shredded beyond recognition. Life is fleeting...but the cask of hours I stashed away in New Winchester would surely give my successor the means to carry on my work.
Watching Sunless Skies evolve over the course of the past year has been a fascinating experience. I'm not usually the type to delve into early access games; I'm quite happy for developers to get on with things without my prying eyes, and with the type of game I generally play (dense narrative experiences) I prefer to delve deep into the completed work. However, as a fan of Failbetter Games' oeuvre, I decided to venture outside my comfort zone to gain some insight into their development process. I had the intention of writing a preview of the work in progress, but virtually every time I booted it up, a new build had dropped which drastically changed its form. So here I am, 60 hours later and a win state achieved, and I still feel I've barely brushed paths with the more cryptic secrets surrounding London. And I'm ready for my next tour.
Sunless Skies is the follow up to 2015's Sunless Sea, a fiercely literary hybrid of choose-your-own-adventure, cartography simulator, and naval-based roguelike, all swaddled within the oppressive cosmic horror of Failbetter's subterranean Fallen London setting. Sunless Skies carries on the groundwork laid by its predecessor with upped ante: no longer content with restoring Fallen London to its former surface-based glory, the Queen has taken it upon herself to launch her empire into the stars so as to colonize space itself. "Wait, the sun is in space," I hear you protest, "How is this a sunless sky?" Well, the Queen's first duty was to put a stop to all that; the celestial body found itself assassinated and replaced with an analog, a clockwork monstrosity capable of bending time to its master's will.
That's where you come into all of this. You're first mate of the space train Orphean, which has just returned from an ill-advised trip to the Blue Kingdom, a region of space delegated to the underworld. Following a fraught journey back to New Winchester (which serves as the tutorial), the Captain succumbs to her wounds and leaves the Orphean to you, with the stipulation that you deliver a mysterious black box to London. It's at this point that you're given the opportunity to create your character, from their name, portrait, and a robust selection of gender options to their background and origin, which governs your starting stats. A poet of the subversive Neonocturnal School will start with higher veils (stealth) and lower irons (strength) than, say, a decorated veteran of Her Majesty's military.
Once your character is created, it's time to take the Oprhean out to explore. Sunless Skies' universe is divided into four discrete galaxies, each initially unmapped and arranged in procedural clusters which vary from run to run. Yet how
you explore is up to you, starting with what you decide to do with the departed Captain's box: you can honor her wishes and make pilgrimage to London, sell it to a fence for some extra funds, or if, you know the right (read: wrong) people, hire a ne'er-do-well to crack the sucker open and hope for the best.
You can't just head to London straight off the bat, oh no. Chugging your way through time and space requires a steady supply of rations and fuel, and the mere act of entering Albion, the galaxy in which London sits, requires some clever bribery. An easy way to keep your locomotive in motion early on is to turn in port reports, though each galaxy has two offices to choose from: an imperial proxy and a subversive element. Both offices pay the same, but helping one tips control of the current region in their favor, so the decision is a role-playing one. Tip the scales far enough in one direction and its opposing faction will see reduced power and presence in that region, with the tradeoff of faction enmity for you; an interregional statistic, demonstrated by my defeat in the opening paragraphs.
Making a mad dash for cash and glory shouldn't be your optimal path; at least not for your maiden run. Sunless Skies is about making progress little by little, soaking in the atmosphere as you become entrenched in the various ports. You may be a Melville protagonist, but this is a Miéville world; a slipstream science fantasy bursting with history, mysteries, and eccentricities. The ports that punctuate each region are not mere pit stops. Each is a localized short story with remarkable depth. There's Port Avon, a patently false reproduction of bucolic England; rich with apple trees but short on patience for visitors. Then there's Magdalene's — the garish not-quite-a-brothel, where travelers enact catharsis for existential guilt with the assistance of actors portraying figures from their past. Perhaps most curious is Perdurance, an adult's adventure playground in which London's elite class re-live a single day in perpetuity. This day, a "perfect day" from a past that never was, gives the impression of a fascist playground with some semblance of self-awareness: Her Majesty knows that such a world could never exist, but offers Perdurance as a fleeting dream attended by invitation only. A brief reward to those who toe the plank of imperial conquest. Each port story is multifaceted, and your choices within them can produce vastly different results. Sunless Skies is incredibly accommodating to how you choose to play your character.
Rail travel still rules London, though the tracks themselves have been discarded. Chimney smoke becomes contrail as engines deliberately chug across the sky, journeying from bustling ports to colonies built upon asteroids. Space is home to a range of other travelers, some benign, others hostile. Marauders dog your progress through the early game, but it's when you explore the further reaches of space that you start to encounter true terror: phantoms made of scripture, engines overtaken by colonies of writhing tentacles, the gargantuan batlike "Collectors," and mind-bending sigils of living flame. You're not defenseless in the face of these monstrosities; the Orphean comes equipped with a rudimentary torpedo system which fires at a fixed trajectory with the click of a mouse button. This action raises the temperature of your engine, so you have to be careful not to spam too many attacks lest your engine overheat and lock up for a few seconds. If you're in a pinch, you can hit the attack button again to cool down immediately, but at the cost of a set value of your engine's precious hull (hit points). Combat is deliberate and takes some getting used to, though Failbetter helpfully included difficulty and accessibility options such as auto-aim in case the combat is cumbersome.
These difficulty options are a welcome inclusion for those who find the roguelike formula daunting: death in Sunless Skies (and yes, you will die) results in you passing your legacy on to a new captain, a tall and often demoralising order. The standard difficulty autosaves at each port as well as upon death, but in order to continue exploring the narrative without contending with the anxiety of losing progress, Merciful mode allows for manual saving and loading, offering a relatively carefree way to explore and experiment without risking your achievements.
I feel that there are endless things I could say about Sunless Skies. It certainly feels endless; I can only imagine how divergent a playthrough I could experience if I chose to do it all again as an agent of London, attacking my former allies and upholding the endless reign. It's this depth that consistently impressed me, especially in the game's willingness to allow me to play my Captain as I saw fit: a queer-as-blazes anarchist spy with a diverse crew. I can't think of a time that I felt a disconnect from my character — each choice I made felt in keeping with the character I was building, a testament to Failbetter's incredibly forward-thinking approach to interactive storytelling. Sunless Skies' bleak pondering of cosmic horror and colonialism is probably one of the best game narratives of 2019, and one that deserves to be experienced.