The Sunless Letters, 1st Log
This is the first entry in a series of letters about Failbetter Games Sunless Sea, a hybrid RPG/Roguelike about sailing the fantastical world of the Unterzee, the great cavern in which London has resided since its fall from the surface. This alternate vision of the 19th century offers up visions of the wild, weird, and whimsical to the intrepid explorer.
The Sunless Letters was conceived between two friends who both played the game and were interested in digging a little deeper into things. This is our attempt to unpack a bit more of Sunless Sea and our feelings about it, not as a solitary journey but as a conversation. One of the beauties of a conversation is that it allows for a certain amount of incompleteness — these letters are not an attempt to codify a grand theory of Sunless Sea, to wrestle it in its totality, but merely to suggest notions and try and find out where they lead us.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks and months you are invited to follow our conversation as it unfolds. We hope you enjoy it.
So we’re going to talk about Sunless Sea, eh? Sunless Sea is a weird game, and I don’t just mean in that in terms of its weird milieu. It’s a weird game to play, one which strengths and weaknesses seem inseparable, two sides of the same coin. It isn’t even a game I’m sure I like, although it’s grown on me. But more on that later. For our conversation I want to begin at the the end — the end of the earth, that is, at Kingeater Castle.
Kingeater Castle is a great black stone amphitheater in the middle of nowhere. Above it hangs a statue of, well, a thing, all tentacles and nameless horror. It is a cyclopean monstrosity, easily dwarfing your ship, easily dwarfing many islands. It is at the literal end of the earth in Sunless Sea: at the lower right hand corner of the map it is as far from your home of Fallen London as possible. It sits on the outer limit. Not just that, it always represents one of these outer limits — while most islands move about the world, Kingeater remains consistently in its lower corner. In a Zee defined by unpredictability it is a constant. Getting to Kingeater itself is a feat — there is almost never a good supply port within a significant distance, and since it is backed into a corner any trip has to not just make it there but make it back as well. It is a place you can become stranded even trying to visit, as I unfortunately learned one early playthrough.
At Kingeater Castle there is nothing. There are no people, nothing to buy or sell, not even anything properly to do. Except make a sacrifice that is. You can sacrifice you precious food and fuel to have your terrors taken away from you (but how are you going to make it back?), you can lose your mind at the altar (“do not do this” the game tells you in no uncertain terms, yet still the option remains), you can even kill your entire crew, ending the game (“silence, desolation, the sense of an impending and terrible mistake”). All these things tell us is that this is an altar to… something. And yet this is not a temple, truly, it is a place of the wilds. In the furthest reaches of the Zee lies a sacred grove of unfathomable purpose.
One other thing before I get to the point.
Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough is generally considered to be a far reaching study of the nature of myth and magic. It is a fascinating book, though by and large an awful work of anthropology, and although it does engage in broad inquiries on those subjects it only does that at a way to get at Frazier’s true quest, his obsession with understanding a single cryptic classical ritual.
The ritual describes a priest, the King of the Woods, who resides in the grove of Nemi. This priest was joined by marriage to the Queen of the Woods, a tree which is also the goddess Diana. If this was not strange enough, the office came with another complication — only an escaped slave could become the King of the Woods, and in order to do so he had to steal a particular bough of the sacred tree, giving him the right to challenge the previous king. If he slew the King, he inherited the post and earned his freedom, at the cost of one day being slain himself. Frazier describes the eternal vigil called for by the holder of this cursed office:
In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl… The post which he held by this precarious tenure carried with it the title of king; but surely no crowned head ever lay uneasier, or was visited by more evil dreams, than his. For year in, year out, in summer and winter, in fair weather and in foul, he had to keep his lonely watch, and whenever he snatched a troubled slumber it was at the peril of his life. The least relaxation of his vigilance, the smallest abatement of his strength of limb or skill of fence, put him in jeopardy; grey hairs might seal his death-warrant. To gentle and pious pilgrims at the shrine the sight of him might well seem to darken the fair landscape, as when a cloud suddenly blots the sun on a bright day. The dreamy blue of Italian skies, the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure. Rather we picture to ourselves the scene as it may have been witnessed by a belated wayfarer on one of those wild autumn nights when the dead leaves are falling thick, and the winds seem to sing the dirge of the dying year. It is a sombre picture, set to melancholy music — the background of forest showing black and jagged against a lowering and stormy sky, the sighing of the wind in the branches, the rustle of the withered leaves under foot, the lapping of the cold water on the shore, and in the foreground, pacing to and fro, now in twilight and now in gloom, a dark figure with a glitter of steel at the shoulder whenever the pale moon, riding clear of the cloud-rack, peers down at him through the matted boughs.
I quote this whole passage in part to draw attention to Frazier’s extremely evocative language, his flights of imagination, the way he puts himself into the scene. To Frazier the grove of Nemi is more than an object of abstract scholarly inquiry: it is his life’s obsession and it drives him to attempt to understand all of magic and faith simply to understand it. To Frazier the grove of Nemi is like the Zee, this mysterious and inscrutable force that calls to be known despite its unknowability. If I might indulge in my own flight of fancy, we can almost see Frazier tossing and turning in bed as in the eye of his sleeping mind flashes the image of this grove, as he hears the melancholy music, sees the pacing king, like the nightmare many Zee captains have of the great eye. We can feel it calling to him.
To me, Kingeater Castle has these deep echos of the grove at Nemi. Perhaps it is the element of ritual murder. The simple existence of that option to kill your crew seems to tell a story, seems to suggest that is purpose of this place, seems to suggest the dark desperation of the escaped slave willing to enter the cycle of murder, willing to eat the king. But it is also in the sense of simply the presence of divinity. Even in the absence of someone to tend this altar Kingeater is inhabited by something, something that is felt in the very stones of the place. There is this very particular understanding of pagan divinity being echoed here. At the grove of Nemi Diana is a tree, yet has this weight. Frazier discusses how trees spirits were often seen to communicate through rustling of the leaves as wind passed through their branches. Divinity speaks with an unmistakeable voice yet does not need a human one. No one is needed to explain the rituals of Kingeater, and yet you know them nonetheless. And is not just Kingeater Castle but the entire Zee that feels permeated by the logic of The Golden Bough: for example in Sunless Sea’s obsession with cannibalism, with the way in which the consumption of flesh brings power, a belief Frazier discusses in the context of primitive rituals.
The Golden Bough is a curious document in part because it is not anthropology as we would imagine it. In many ways it is a literary study of the classical world, supplemented by analogies to “primitive” cultures as Frazier would find them useful to illuminating the mystery of Nemi, which he believed was a holdover from the most primitive of times. In this sense it exists in the space between the 19th century and antiquity, it is always channeling these antique notions and concepts — for example, when discussing the sky god supposedly at the head of the “aryan” pantheon, he relies on Roman depictions of the Germans among others to conclude that all aryan sky gods largely had the attributes of Jupiter. The problem is that I know Roman sources tended to see any god that looked vaguely like Jupiter in other cultures and would simply ascribe the aspects of Jupiter onto them. Here I suspect Frazier is uncritically reproducing the Romans writings and ends up channeling the classical notion that “all pantheons are our pantheon with different names”. But he presents this notion as the “scientific” notion that all aryans worshipped the same gods. What in The Golden Bough represents a classical notion and what represents a 19th one can be hard to untangle, it can’t decide which world it has its head in.
(Of course, people uncritically reproducing the assumptions of their sources is a problem hardly unique to Frazier or the 19th century, but you’ll have to allow me a little bit of poetic licence here)
In that same sense, I feel like Sunless Sea is very similar, although it imparts another layer on top of these, that of our own present. So much of Sunless Sea feels classical to me — take the gods of the Zee, who communicate through signs and omens, who demand sacrifice that verges on the cruel. Which itself seems a very 19th century conception of classical sacrifice, the idea that pre-Christian religions had this edge of barbarism to them. And yet it is all distinctly modern, like in the sense of eldritch horror about the whole thing, that the unknowable isn’t transcendent, it’s insane. That infinity is not perfection it is madness.
So I guess after all of this I want to begin our discussion with divinity. Sunless Sea is a game with its eyes fixed on the quotidian but it’s mind on the transcendent. Your everyday concerns in the game are about fuel and supplies, bread and butter things: will I make it back to London? Will I have enough echos (the currency of Fallen London)? But all the time you look down on the world from above like Jupiter on Olympus. This is not a game about being someone so much as it a game about watching someone, as perhaps the nightmare of the eye would remind us. You as the player are the true eye. One criticism I have sometimes seen leveled at Sunless Sea is there is that no one judges you when you do horrible acts — but perhaps this is to suggest that you are the only one with that power, you are the one who watches and judges, and from where you are standing why would you care?
What kind of god are you, truly? Sunless Sea is a game with long pauses that I often found frustrating, these extended silences when all I had to do was zail and contemplate. But even more it had these repetitions: the ways in which the vagaries of permadeath require you to play out these same plots over and over again combined with the legacy system that encourages exactly that. Imagine for a moment you truly were a god of the Zee up there on the roof, and you had to watch not simply while your own captain, but while every captain played out the same drama over again over again. Why would you help them, one in an endless stream of the same story? Why would you care?
Why do we care about Sunless Sea?