We don’t often get the rewards we ought to. Life is a cruel mistress, harsh and unforgiving. Sometimes it is better to reward ourselves than to wait for some benevolent twist of fate. At least we get to choose. That choice, or rather the option of having that choice is comforting. If one’s life is a story veiled in the mists of the unknown, then it is only fair that one gets to dictate how it unveils. In theory at least, for reality is cruel and complacency often eludes us.
A very disheartening introduction, is it not? But it sets a certain mood, atmosphere. A desire to achieve while aware of the tedious effort it entails. To Dream and yet be pragmatic. Rare is the narrative that invokes such a sense. Yet ‘sunless skies’ manages this with impunity.
Set in the alternate universe of ‘Fallen London’ (which is actually a browser-based game), and a sequel to sunless seas, sunless skies features the latest iteration of a fantasy steampunk Victorian empire. The premise is simple. The English, as they were, expanded their territories yet again by venturing into the final frontier. Space! The endless skies!
Of course, this being a fantasy setting where interstellar transport is enabled by steam powered locomotives, Space is no longer an empty void. Instead it is an awe-inspiring collection of titanic asteroids teaming with life, suspended in a nebula of visceral gases. The stars burning, radiant, their twinkling lights draping the background.
The stars themselves are sentient beings. Each being the ruler of a domain, exercising complete authority over the natural laws. For example, the lush expanse of the reach was once maintained by a verdant sun, the garden king. His kingdom grew chaotic in his absence. A mass of barely contained vegetation teeming with life both innocent and destructive. That is all that remains.
The Reach also happens to be the newest addition to the empire. A frontier land, home to the Tacketies – upstarts and brigands to the empire, revolutionaries to the locals. A faction that grew wary of the totalitarian rule. This is of no significance to the player, who is but the humble captain of an unaligned ship. Unless of course, they want it to be….
Gameplay consists primarily of navigating your ship though a cosmic maze of wild, fantastic landscapes. Exploring the terrifying horrors and breathtaking wonders it has to offer. Combating marauders, dissidents and local fauna. That is only part of the experience though. The real strength of the game lies in its storytelling chops. The exquisite narrative plays as much a part in immersion, as the visual design; perhaps even more significantly, one can argue.
With the combined might of story and exploration, Sunless Skies manages to offer an adventure of epic proportions. The player decides who their captain was, by creating for them a backstory. Then they decide who they want their captain to be, A trader, a soldier, a revolutionary, or perhaps an explorer, troublemaker or simply an adventurer.
Each level up, the player gets a point to assign a faucet – A perk point essentially, for boosting stats, but it is a more involving process. For each faucet also adds to the captain a fragment of their supposed history. A betrayal, a lost love. Victories won and lost. This is a perfect example of how the game maintains both RPG driven gameplay and text-based storytelling, resulting in an unbroken narrative.
Ultimately, an experience lived is better than an experience told. The best way I can honor Sunless Skies is by recommending it to you, dear reader. This is a story worthy of your time. Go and live through it.