I have complicated feelings about Sunless Skies. I felt compelled to put them to paper and post it for others to see and discuss. My focus will be on the writing and atmosphere, particularly as they relate to cohesion. Certainly there is a lot to say, positive and negative, about the gameplay, but that’s not what I wish to focus on here.
This will contain heavy spoilers for everything except the Martyr King’s Cup, which I have not completed yet. It is also very long, for which I apologize.
A word on Sunless Sea
Sunless Sea was my entry point to this universe, and I absolutely love it. My favorite part of it was the way it made the Neath feel like a world. A true, cohesive, interconnected world. The game featured a world with a great many powers, and I always had the sense that they existed together. They interacted, they had rivalries and alliances, they informed every island. Nothing connected to everything, that would be impossible, but everything connected to something. Nuncio connected to the Bazaar which connected to Stone which connected to Salt and so on and in this manner the world became a tangled web that you could feel viscerally, but only see through rigorous study. FL taught me to love London. Sea taught me to love the Neath.
The question then becomes, do I love the High Wilderness? The answer will vary by region.
Eleutheria is everything I wish for this game. That tangled web of alliances between powers? That sense that this is all a real place? Eleutheria gives me that. None of the ports particularly gripped me, and Caduceus I actively disliked, but the whole of Eleutheria gripped me like nothing else. The story of Eleutheria is the story of the Halved, and everything in the region contributes to that story. Sometimes it happens in big ways, like how the Well of Wonders tells us the bulk of the backstory. Sometimes it happens in small ways, like how Langley Hall, which initially seems out of place, is actually that lost library of legend. But the Halved is not the only power here. There is also the House of Rods and Chains, the Princes of Light, the Eagle’s Empyrean, the factions of Pan. We hear of these powers and we hear from them, and we see how they interact with each other and how they built Eleutheria into what it is. Eleutheria feels real, and I unambiguously love it, which is impressive considering I hate the Liberation of Night.
Albion impresses and disappoints. Whoever made the decision to put the transit relay next to Brabazon needs a raise, because that was a stroke of genius. Albion has two big ideas in its belt: The use of Hours, and Her Renewed Majesty. The Albion we see is primarily the result of these two, and it genuinely feels like they go hand in hand in creating this world. Just Brabazon and Perdurance tell an incredibly powerful and effective story together. The contrast between these two ports is masterful. In my save I was lucky enough to have Perdurance spawn opposite Brabazon, and I think that’s where it belongs. It’s just perfect. That little story between Brabazon and Perdurance is complemented by the Floating Parliament, The Avid Horizon and the Most Serene Mausoleum. Of course, there is also the story of the King of Hours and how he was (not) killed by the Empress. This side of Albion is shrouded in secrecy, and is effective enough in how it connects to the story of Albions society to be a good inclusion. I have not played Martyr King’s Cup, but I have the feeling it will reveal more strands in the complex web of Albion that will make me love it all the more. The Wreck of the Boatman, lastly, is a delightful little yarn that is made possible by Albion’s abuse of hours. A perfect fit.
That’s what impresses. Now what disappoints… In the previous paragraph I waxed poetic about four ports, but Albion actually has 8. The 4 that are left are disappointing. Now, allow me to qualify that, because the Clockwork Sun and Worlebury are amazing… by themselves, but they bring the rest of Albion down, in that they are just there. The Royal society is just there, unconcerned with the empress, unconcerned with the use of hours. this supposedly scientific place seems to have very little interest in actually doing science on the mysteries of Albion. The Stair to the Sea, similarly, is just there, making oblique references to Fallen London that don’t relate to anything in Albion. The Well of The Wolf is a neat place about the Many-Mouthed… who seems more like a denizen of the Reach, considering that’s where his children are, and he doesn’t seem to have any history with Albion. The Clockwork Sun in theory should be a big part of what Albion is, it should be integral to its entire identity, but the fact that the Sun is having a crisis and hates its servants doesn’t actually seem to have any consequences to the region at large.
Which brings us to the best port in the game, and the worst port in Albion. I have no interest in being uncontroversial. It’s Worlebury-Juxta-Mare. It is my favorite port and nobody can convince me otherwise. Everything about it is masterful, and it is completely out of place in Albion and actively brings the entire region down. It does not feel like it’s in Albion’s culture to build something like Worlebury. Nobody ever mentions the place. The fact that 20% of Albion is covered in a sea of mists inhabited by a massive Scorn-Fluke is never brought up or even referenced. I don’t think there is a single reference to the stuff in Worlebury anywhere. It is worse than Anthe and Scrimshander in out-of-place-ness.
So yes, Albion impresses and disappoints, a full half of it contributes to create a cohesive, entrancing, dystopian nightmare of a Risen London. The other half is off to the side doing their own thing. Often that thing is a good thing, but they’re not working together. They’re not building a world.
Where Albion impresses and disappoints, the Reach just disappoints. In short, the Reach has an identity crisis.
Quick, what is the Reach? Is it a brave new frontier of colonization? Or is it the fallen remains of a once-great kingdom? The answer, of course, is that it’s both, and the big problem is that it is both in isolation. A comparison to Albion is inevitable. Albion had two big ideas, the abuse of hours, and the reign of Victoria. One idea comes from the lore of the High Wilderness, the other comes from how Albion society works. Albion marries these two ideas into a single cohesive whole. The Reach has two ideas, one about the lore, one about society, and never the two shall touch. At no point in any part of the Reach is there any interaction between the history of the place and the Winchester War. For another unfavorable comparison, the lore element of the Memento Mori affected the society element of the London/Khanate/New Sequence conflict, and vice versa.
The Reach has nothing of the sort. A few of the ports relate to the Winchester War (Lustrum, New Winchester and Port Prosper), and a few of the ports relate to the backstory of the place (Old Tom’s Well, Traitor’s Woods, Faith’s Fall, Regent’s tears). A few of the ports relate to Verdants (Hybras, the Parzifal, the Circus), a few to the Hour Boom (Lustrum, Braley Rock) and a few are just vibin, out of place as Worlebury (Magdalene’s, Titania, Nature Reserve and especially Carillon, also Hybras, tbh). The facets of the Reach never interact. The relationships never evolve. The Reach does not feel like a real place in any way. It’s just a bunch of things that are there.
The Blue Kingdom
Lastly, the Blue Kingdom. Oh, Blue Kingdom, how can I so love something that I so hate. You are cohesive, you are oppressive, every port contributes to your whole. They are nothing special by themselves, but they add up to something so much greater than the sum of its parts. I truly feel stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare with you. I love you. Eleutheria, eat your heart out, this is how you build something that feels like a place.
But you are so darn unfun to actually be in. I hate travelling your corridors, I hate managing your supplies, I hate your overpowered hostile mobs, I hate having to make 3 trips to get anything done. I suppose I love the idea of you, but hate actually being in you.
I can straightforwardly rank Eleutheria > Albion > Reach, but I can’t rank you, Blue Kingdom, you are at the top and the bottom. You are something else.
The High Wilderness
So, do I love the High Wilderness? I certainly love Eleutheria, and I love parts of Albion, and I love the Blue Kingdom in complicated ways, and I want to love the Reach, but I can’t say I love the High Wilderness. And this lack of love is for the same reason I can’t bring myself to love the Reach and to fully love Albion. Each region is great in isolation, even the Reach, but they simply don’t form a whole. Connections between regions are so tenuous that I don’t even feel like the High Wilderness is a place at all. It’s four books vaguely in the same universe. Sure, the Halved kills the King of Gardens with a Well Seed and that’s neat, and the Saphir’d King kills the King of Hours with a poison and that’s also cool, and the Chorister Bees are related to the Well of the Wolf so that bridges The Reach and Albion together, and… that’s pretty much it.
There isn’t really any sort of connective tissue here. To go back to Sunless Sea. That game had a lot of connective tissue, particularly in the Gods of the Zee. Sunless Skies has the Gods of the Sky, but they’re… lame. The Burrower Below is just there and has nothing to do with anything, the Waste-Waif… well we have more info on Lady freaking Black, they’re just an uninteresting question mark. The only God of the Sky that’s halfway developed is the Storm That Speaks, and that guy honestly has no business outside Albion (Also, it’s very odd that no one in Albion talks about the guy, considering he physically appears all over the place). It feels like the only reason the sky has three gods is because the zee had three gods too.
Now, I do have to be fair, there is one story that is effective at making the High Wilderness feel real, and that’s Ambition: The Truth. The way you gather clues from all regions to participate in a scheme by the Halved to kill the Saphir’d King by way of sorrow-spiders, an established element of the lore? That’s good stuff. I just wish there was more of it.
For a TL;DR. I do love this game, and I have sunk a lot of hours into it and even more into reading about it, but I didn’t fall in love with its world the same way I did with FL and Sea, and I really wish I had.
edited by NotaWalrus on 6/16/2020