'Sunless Skies' Tells Its Stories Slowly, But They're Worth the Trip

"Let me say at the outset that glamour and charm are notoriously difficult qualities to render on the page." - Stacey D’Erasmo, reviewing the The Night Circus for The New York Times


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/bjqyz5/sunless-skies-tells-its-stories-slowly-but-theyre-worth-the-trip
1 Like

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.

2 Likes

I’m so happy Sunless Skies is doing well and that it even got some attention on Waypoint! It’s sent me back down the rabbit hole with Failbetter since I started playing it. Finally picked up Cultist Simulator, I’ll give anything A.K. is involved with a shot after Seas, and started playing Fallen London in earnest after a year or two off so that one day I can seek.

I’ve definitely enjoyed playing Skies over Sunless Seas so far. I got about 12 hours into Seas after hearing about it on Idle Weekend before I booted up cheat engine and (kinda) ruined the experience. Even though I zipped through the game it stuck with me all these years off the strength of the writing alone, there are still passages of text I get chills from reading. As I mentioned earlier, I even tried Fallen London back then, though I bounced off it even harder. I don’t know what it was about early-college me, but they apparently had no time for slower games.
The prospects have gone a long way in making Skies a more enjoyable experience for me, I’ve gotten upgrades at a quicker pace than I ever managed in Seas which has me feeling less trapped in a cycle of scraping by with port reports. Being able to afford a halfway decent locomotive by taking prospects and working on quests in the Reach made it seem a bit more friendly than Seas. Of course, all of my problems with Seas might not exist now, if I had the free time I’d go back and give it another(non-cheaty) shot.

This might be unfair to Skies, and I’ll see how it pans out over the course of the game, but I wonder if it will top or match sailing behind the Dawn Machine before my patience had run out, just to see if I could, and the writing around the Sailing East ambition in Sea. I’ve only just found most ports in Albion, so I’m very hopeful.

2 Likes

I’m bumping this thread to note that it has been discovered that with continuous use of the “dodge” movement it is possible to perform SWEET LOCOMOTIVE DRIFTING through the High Wilderness at a higher speed than normal flight. So, pro tip for speed-crazed captains.

2 Likes