I’ve been well stuck-in on Sunless Skies for the better part of a week. It’s truly a beautiful, frustrating, bizarre thing. I have complaints - the removal of engines as part of the progression means that all your locomotives are the same speed, and that speed is often frustratingly slow. It’s too easily unclear whether that enormous beehive or lump of fungus or writhing maw of tentacles is part of the deep, unsettling background or something that you’re going to crash into, damaging your locomotive.
But at the same time, it’s a Failbetter game. Fallen London and Sunless Seas have told me some of the best, most unsettling stories I’ve ever had in games, and Sunless Skies does not disappoint on this front. For a long, long, time, Failbetter has been growing this strange world, where Queen Victoria traded London for the life of Prince Albert, and bats took the city to a vast cavern underground, on the edge of a still sea. A world where nothing is clear, where ancient and unknowable powers interact with the regular folks, a place where it’s shockingly difficult to die and just a short boat ride up the river from Hell, a place where the Masters of the Bazaar trade love stories for whispered enigmas.
And of course, the grandest, bravest thing that Failbetter has done with this is that they took all this huge, magnificent setting, a setting with millions of words and years and years of effort put into it, and they blew it all the fuck up in this game. The biggest mysteries, things that took players years of effort and self-destruction to figure out – the pursuit of knowledge, true knowledge, is often the pursuit of madness and destruction in these games – are just casually tossed out there, and instead we have a whole different set of mysteries. I admire that courage. And I really love this game.
Oh, I have one other complaint - it’s too easy to understand what’s going on. Maybe that was because Alexis Kennedy - who was a key figure at Failbetter until he left - liked the kind of horror where things are more unknowable than usual, but Skies can be somewhat jarring with how plainspoken it can be.