I can't recall when and where I first ate my crew, but it was probably somewhere in the north of the Sunless Sea, not far from the otherworldly spires of Frostfound, on the return leg of a routine trading run gone horribly wrong.
Set in and around a Victorian London that has been mysteriously transported to the shores of an underground ocean, Sunless Sea is a naval exploration simulator of terrifying contrasts—immense literary depth, with each island port a treasure chest of secrets and gossip, pitched against relatively mundane questions of fuel, food, and crew morale.
Run out of coal for your steamship, and you may be forced to burn crates of rations or appeal to one of the game's cruel and fickle subterranean gods for aid. Spend too long in the suffocating blackness of the open sea, and your crew might start to experience mass hallucinations, or even mutiny against you. Run out of rations, and if you're lucky you'll uncover something among the eccentric items in your cargo hold, or stumble on a sea beast whose flesh is safe to consume. If you're unlucky, you may be reduced to butchering the corpses of those who've died of starvation. And after that? It's time to start drawing lots.
"It was kind of expected that you would draw lots to find out whose leg was most edible, if you got into that kind of situation."
Much of Sunless Sea is outright fantasy—there are ships crewed by talking rats, malevolent living icebergs, and naval outposts that are built inside enormous geodes—but all of it is coloured by developer Failbetter's readings of the history and literature of nautical misadventure. As the studio's founder Alexis Kennedy notes, the truth may be stranger than fiction.
"It's an ocean where there is no wind or tides in the traditional sense, and the perils tend to be mythical ones," he tells me during a visit to Failbetter's operations base at Greenwich Digital Enterprise in London (an office that, among other things, affords majestic views of stretches of Thames riverside where condemned men were hung). "All that said, where we work very well with the historical is in the details. And it's details of scenery, or details inspired by real-life anecdotes, or slightly unexpected facts that are so daft they sound fictional."
"Cannibalism, for example," he continues. "I was amazed when I started looking into this at how implicit and constant a theme in maritime history it is, because if you are out of food and you are sharing a space with other humans, there's a pretty straightforward conclusion. There was even a tradition—there's been some debate about how widespread or explicit it was—the 'custom of the sea,' where it was kind of expected that you would draw lots to find out whose leg was most edible, if you got into that kind of situation."
Kennedy points to the case of Dudley and Stephens in 1884, a landmark event in British law that created a precedent for the notion that necessity is no defence against a charge of murder. The tale itself is grotesque—the defendants confessed to killing and eating their 17-year-old cabin boy after shipwrecking near the Cape of Good Hope—but reaction to the case was perhaps weirder still. Dudley and Stephens enjoyed plenty of public support, including recommendations of clemency in the press, and were openly forgiven by the victim's family. While the pair were ultimately found guilty, their death sentences were commuted to a mere six months in prison.
"Cannibalism kind of became our keynote, because it's such a desperate measure, and such a hideous crime, but it's also kind of funny," Kennedy goes on. "Properly nasty, but properly funny." This is certainly apparent in the game's delightfully wicked writing: Going cannibal encumbers your character with the permanent trait "Unaccountably Peckish," which may spin the wider narrative out in unpleasant directions if you survive your ordeal.
Cannibalism is one of many ways Sunless Sea investigates the old cliché that the sea is a space for transformation, for better or worse—"a place that you cross and return and are changed by and are lost in," where the hierarchies and taboos of life on shore no longer apply. Many of the optional player character backstories deal with the question of social mobility directly: You can choose to play as a former priest, for example, fleeing the disgrace of an unspecified "appetite," or a street urchin out to make his fortune.
"It is such a common trope," says Kennedy. "People who became successful pirates because they had to run away from home, people who had debts who became sailors, explorers who were restless, ne'er-do-wells who made their name at sea… I always hesitate to invoke Joseph Campbell, because he's such a cliché now, but one of the elements of the monomyth he identifies is crossing water. There is something about crossing water as a way of signalling that you've undergone some sort of internal state change, to echo an external state change."
The sea's capacity for alteration finds its most overt expression in the game's mythology, which revolves around three gods: the wrathful Storm, the infrequently kindly Stone, and the inscrutable Salt. All may crush you if you defy them, and none of them can be trusted even when they appear to have your back. In writing this part of the narrative, Kennedy drew on the work of the 20th century historical novelist Mary Renault, famous for her renditions of the ancient Greek pantheon—a soap opera-esque gaggle of petty, vengeful, egotistical deities with small regard for human life.
This cosmic waywardness is punishingly evident—and from time to time, amusing—in the sacrifices you can make to each god when you run out of fuel. Praying to Salt for rescue may see you arriving somewhere you really don't want to be, while a boon from Storm could take the form of a massive lump of coal, smashing through the timbers of your ship.
"The Greek gods are much more capricious, and they require things of you, material things, in a way that generally most conceptions of a Christian god don't," says Kennedy. "And also they might just decide to fuck with you because that's what they do. And that's the sea! The sea demands certain things of you. And if you don't do those things, you're in really bad trouble. And if you do do those things, you might still be in really bad trouble."
Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.