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RPGamer Feature - Sunless Sea Interview
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Platform: PC, Mac
Developer: Failbetter Games
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Release Date: December 2014




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Alexis Kennedy is the CEO and Creative Director for Failbetter Games. Despite reports to the contrary, he's not a giant anthropomorphic tiger; however, he is the project lead for the labyrinthine browser-based Fallen London and Sunless Sea, which is currently in open beta and available through Steam. We were able to pull him away from working on Sunless Sea long enough to discuss horror, meat, and his menagerie of storytelling techniques.

Steel, the newest beta release, has brought combat to Sunless Sea's overworld. Nevertheless, our Sunless Sea impression is a fine primer for the game's dark narrative style and exploration mechanics, which emphasize fear and illumination. It's slated for a final release in early December.


Zach: Sunless Sea is a game of stories. So far, many of the ones I've heard contain some variation on, "I crashed into an island and was eaten by crabs." What other sort of stories will players be able to tell about their Sunless Sea experiences?
Alexis Kennedy: I collected imaginary colours; I chose to betray my love rather than doom him; my fame at sea translated to a warm welcome in certain salons; I traded with the Fathomking to regain my drowned crew; I chose the guinea-pigs.

Zach: Fascinating! What does Sunless Sea offer gamers who are more interested in hauling cargo and telling the story of their own wealth?
Alexis Kennedy: We want players to feel like Han Solo, not like the captain of a cargo shuttle. So you can pick up cargo on the open market, but it's not the best way to make money - it's more like being a tramp steamer, finding opportunistic cargo if you happen to be going in that direction. We have, and we're adding, fetch quests with a little extra - passengers who have agendas, or boxes of just trinkets which turn out to be something else in mid-voyage.

Zach: The Sunless Sea website lists several inspirations for the game: FTL; Donít Starve; Strange Adventures in Infinite Space; Sid Meierís Pirates; Taipan; Elite; roguelikes; the Crimson Permanent Assurance; the Irish immrama myths. Could you say a few words about some of the more obscure inspirations and how players may expect to see their influences in the game?
Alexis: The immrama, like the Odyssey, have an almost TV-show episodic quality. Each island can be a little bubble of unexpectedness, with a narratively neat beginning, middle and end that often stands for something more. It doesn't have to be - Odysseus' blinding of Polyphemus kicks off the arc of Poseidon's revenge that's key to the rest of the, er, season - but the basic routine of dock - > experience story - > move on is a natural fit.

The biggest allure and the biggest disappointment of Elite - which I guess is obscure if you're American, or under the age of forty, so yes, I guess quite obscure - is the vast universe. All the planets were basically madlibbed choices from a menu - you never got to land and worry about what was going on in the giant jade pyramid or whatever. We wanted to capture the joy of a world where there are unexpected things out there in the night.

Zach: So many of the zee voyages in Fallen London suggest heading NORTH is the best of all possible actions. However, the developing map is more focused on regions to the south and east of the Bazaar. Does this mean fans of Mr Eaten are encouraged to seek their unearthly pleasure elsewhere??
Alexis: Fans of Mr Eaten are not encouraged.

Zach: Nevertheless, they exist. Are you through exploring characters who degrade or make questionable sacrifices over the course of a game?
Alexis: We are absolutely not through with it. There's nothing as savage as the Mr Eaten content in Fallen London, but there are difficult decisions, and consequences to mull on. Cannibalism's the canonical example; we're just about to do some interesting stuff with romance and shore-side relationships, too.

Zach: Several Failbetter blog posts describe different narrative shapes used in Echo Bazaar's stories. Their names are colorful: the Midnight Buffet; the Mark of Cain; On the Horns of Faustís Ham and Eggs. While writing for Sunless Sea, have you returned to any old favorites?
Alexis: We had a tendency to name structures after monsters and serpents: Python, Dragon, Hydra, Octopus...

Zach: Yikes! What kind of shape does a Python narrative take?
Alexis: It's a line with a bulge in the middle. I had remembered the drawing at the beginning of The Little Prince - the snake that's swallowed an elephant, which looks to everyone else like a hat. (Of course I had remembered wrong, and it's actually a boa in the book, but hey, snakes.) A Python story begins and ends in the same place, but how you get there may change. It's particularly suitable for interactive tragedies: you know where you're going, it's just a question of exactly how it will go wrong.

Zach: What sort of challenges has the nature of Sunless Sea introduced to Fallen Londonís narrative shapes?
Alexis: We've always tried to write concisely in FL, because it's very easy to outstay your welcome when writing in a game, even when - as in FL - the writing is the reward. This is so much truer with SS. A player's natural inclination when confronted with a text dialogue is to click 'skip'. We have to be mindful of that, and forgo the prolix. 'Forgo the prolix' is an unforgivably fancy way of saying 'cut the shit'.

Zach: There are already several Let's Play videos for Sunless Sea on YouTube. Do you think something about the game lends itself to being consumed in this format? Why or why not?
Alexis: Actually, yes, to our surprise. We'd worried a lot that the text I mentioned above would be unfriendly. But (i) it's a beautiful and slow-paced game, and (ii) the text means the game's always telling a story with choices, and YouTubers riff effectively off that.

Zach: In the interview you gave at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, you mention Asteroid Hermits--hidden story content that allows players to occasionally find something they never expected to see. Did you ever find the Asteroid Hermit you were looking for? What do you think of the online impulse to codify and wiki-ize every corner of a mysterious game experience?
Alexis: Obviously it can be frustrating sometimes, when you're trying to keep an air of mystery. But I'm used to it. More, I think it's an expression of love, and I'm, broadly speaking, in favour of love.

Zach: Are there any plans to extend Sunless Sea into the world of merchandising? Would Correspondence patches, Sailor's Delight meat jerky, and plush rattus faber (with optional pneumatic delivery systems) sully the experience?
Alexis: It's a game which has bees crawling into people's eyes to harvest their memories. I think it'd be hard to sully it. But the answer is, Fallen London merchandise has never sold well enough to make it worth the effort. We've talked about running a Kickstarter for Rubbery Man plushies, for which there's long been a grass-roots campaign, but we'd like to finish this Kickstarter first.

Zach: What were your main goals in designing Sunless Sea? Did they ever dash up against the laws of man or nature?
Alexis: Fallen London is a game about desire and its price (in the most highfalutin' way: it's mostly a game about bashing the story until bling falls out). Sunless Sea is a game about exploration and loneliness. I wanted to use the dungeon-crawling loop - home, outward, home - to make returning home meaningful. I think it's sorta working. The main law of nature we've contravened is the one that says ships should go more slowly backwards than forwards.

Zach: How did the Kickstarter campaign influence the content of Sunless Sea? Would you do it again?
Alexis: It didn't affect the core, but it affected a great many design and implementation specifics. Without the Kickstarter, we wouldn't have a Mac version (or an experimental Linux build); we wouldn't have the island of Nuncio with its rats or Visage with its masks; and cannibalism would be much less important. People like eating people!

We've talked a lot about whether we'd do it again, and I lean strongly towards yes. The money is enormously valuable, of course, but the early buzz, and the ability to test and refine the details of the project against a properly engaged audience - people who care whether it lives or dies, not drive-by commenters who happily say 'looks cool bro' - that's way more helpful than I ever imagined.

Zach: Please use the word "apocyanic" in a sentence.
Alexis: "A wakes APOCYAN, the blue of memory and coral."


We would like to thank Alexis Kennedy for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview. Furthermore, we wish Alexis and Failbetter Games the best of luck in their upcoming endeavors. Memento mori.



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