The Value of Nothing in Sea of Thieves
Rare’s pirate adventure taught me to appreciate in-game downtime
There’s something about piracy that just captures the spirit of adventure. Sure, it’s probably best we forget about things like disease, violent crimes, severe alcohol abuse, and just going completely bat shit crazy from too much sun exposure and sea water. However, the rest of it — the good pirate stuff — is all about adventure, mateship, and freedom. Sea of Thieves captures this perfectly.
I didn’t get onboard (yarr!) with Sea of Thieves at launch (also kind of yarr?), so I missed what many described as a pretty fun but ultimately empty game. I remember people saying they really enjoyed their turn but didn’t see any reason to come back. In my newly found favourite adventures, I keep coming back and the biggest part of that reason might actually be nothing.
Sea of Thieves does nothing better than any game I’ve ever played. There can be a lot of downtime while navigating the open waters to get to whichever island you’ve decided is in need of a good plundering. The internet estimates it at about 20–30 minutes trip across the map and that’s if you don’t get side-tracked along the way, which you probably will. However, this means you spend no small amount of time just chilling on your ship and this could easily be the most boring in game experience to date; instead, it’s wonderful.
Sure, you may have to manage steering, or keep the sails as full as possible for an optimal trip, but it’s not the stressful kind of plate-spinning operation it could be. Rather, there’s always plenty of time and more importantly, room to take that time. On countless occasions I’ve found myself mesmerised by the beauty of the water or the aurora above me. Other times, when with a crew we’ll all pop out our instruments and laugh at how well they combine together in tune. If I had to be constantly adjusting sails it might keep me busier but there’d also be so many little moments I’d miss and I think as much as piracy is fun, it’s these that make Sea of Thieves so brilliant. I find it remarkable that, as a typically impatient gamer, when nothing is happening I am almost certainly having a good time.
Risk and reward are also a bit of an odd balance in that they almost don’t exist. Doing quests or finding booty gets you money and renown. Both only really serve to get your more quests or cosmetics (which is great as there’s less chance of one-sided sea battles with over-levelled scurvy dogs), but also means the drive to keep playing has to be the game itself. Because of this, there’s little risk. Even if something terrible happens you’ll only ever lose whatever was on your ship at that time which only ever equates to the aforementioned gold or renown. If you die or fall off (as I often do because I’m trying to balance on the bowsprit like a champ) you can respawn, but somehow that doesn’t make things feel pointless.
Despite this life of idyllic and incredibly chill piracy, the other thing this game does so well is tension. There are examples like how the waves pull you under, how disorientating it is to explore a wreck, or the stress of speedily trying to fix your ship; but it’s more about potential danger. At any moment on the seas you can be attacked by a megalodon, kraken, a ghost ship, or even another player if you haven’t got your wits about you. It’s not in the sense that you always have to be waiting, finger on the trigger of your blunderbuss, but more that it simply could happen. The music will change or the seas will go dark to give you enough warning to snap into action, but just knowing that these things are out there can be enough to keep you on your toes. Even when you don’t really have anything to lose, it doesn’t mean you want that nothing to be taken from you. This nothing is mine and I’m goddamned keeping it!
In one of my more recent voyages, friends and I had agreed to do quite a hefty quest involving many islands at all ends of the map. Picking the closest destination we set sail, ready for adventure and enjoyed the calm vistas and enjoyable nothing as we sailed. Once we arrived, another larger player ship was waiting and attacked — we assumed they knew about the quest and were picking people off to steal their loot. At this point we had no loot, but that didn’t mean we were going to let them sink us. Our attempts to fight back were futile but after possibly an hour of running away — complete with mid battle megalodon fight — we managed to lose them by tricking them into a tussle with a ghost ship. This wasn’t even the mission we’d agreed on and it still had us all working together, calling out, and possibly most importantly laughing the whole way at the idea that they would eventually sink us and get nothing from it.
Once we finally left them in the spray, our crew headed to other islands for the same quest where we solved puzzles to acquire much booty. Our previous encounter weighed on us so heavily that our paranoid trip back was spent watching the waters like hawks, tense for something to happen. It didn’t but that didn’t really matter because Sea of Thieves had already proven to us that it could have. It was the two cases of nothing being perfect, one of beauty while we calmly made our way to the island and another of sheer tension as we returned with our hard won loot.
At the moment when I sit down and choose to play a game it’s a pretty tough choice between doing something in any game or potentially nothing in Sea of Thieves. The fact that the nothing is so enjoyable means that I’m convinced there’s a good time to be had whenever I boot it up. It doesn’t matter if I don’t find a huge treasure, get attacked by a mythical beast, or even see another living player because the joy I’ll get from none of that happening is only outweighed by the idea that it could.