One thing I did too much of over the weekend was play Sunless Skies, and having seen a lot of people disliking the game for what it isn’t, I kind of want to write about what it’s really good at. I’m really interested in exploring what it takes to make effective interactive fiction, and I think Failbetter Games does an awesome job with this, telling interesting stories that unfold organically and leave plenty of room for the reader/player to breathe. So a few things I really like about Sunless Skies (and honestly, their other games too).
Freedom of choice in character design
First off, I appreciate that there is a clear effort to make the games inclusive. You get to choose your pronouns/title, and what you choose has no impact on what you get to pick when designing your character. It’s a little detail, but makes the game feel more welcoming from the moment you begin.
The other character bit I enjoy is that there’s no set story about you, the player. You can create a story around your own character (and the game, I think works best when you do). Sunless Skies makes this even easier than Sunless Seas (which I also adore) by letting you pick Facets for your character as you level up – which each are bits of story about your past where what you choose to have done impacts who you are in the present. It’s just nice having tools to the freedom to tell your own story in the game, while still having some support.
Stories unfold at different paces by different mechanisms
One of the biggest mechanism details I appreciate is that stories unfold in different ways through all Failbetter’s games, which keeps things interesting and enhances the texture of the game. Some events are random, some are timed or by location, some events lead you across the world, some are local and short. It feels more realistic than a linear narrative and gives you choices and unpredictability.
Your actions also effect change on the world around you. This is especially nice in Sunless Skies, where the factions you associate with have an impact on their political standing and who is likely to leave you alone or do you harm. I’ve frequently had moments where I faced an quandary over whether I should stop to help an ally in a fight, or run for cover in a risky area.
No infodumping means you learn the way you would in the real world, which may be somewhat infuriating at times. There’s so much to know and so many puzzles to work through on your own. The longer you play and the deeper you dive into the world’s secrets the more things begin to make sense. There are moments of horror when you realize just what you have been part of all along.
Value on both the little and big
On the one hand, actions really do have consequences. One thing I think Sunless Seas is even better at than Sunless Skies is that it’s so much easier to die. Frustrating, but when every detail counts, it creates a lot of tension. And after working through so much story, those losses mean something – you have a fleshed out character to mourn.
On the other hand, it’s not all derring-do and grave decisions. I like a lot of the little details and opportunities that give you space between action. The beauty of open space and stars around you as you travel. The little remarks your officers make about your location. The opportunities to just explore ports and see what’s there without major plot consequences. Narratives really benefit from these moments to breathe or focus on the people. Perhaps you have a nightmare and decide to raid the pantry with your crew for a comforting midnight snack. Perhaps you find your aunt baking cookies for your crew. Perhaps you stop for a cup of tea (with a nice terror decreasing bonus) or wander around a port enjoying the sights just because.
These are narrative games, and the quality of the writing is fantastic. Plus you get wonderful wordplay and wonderful names.