"Let me say at the outset that glamour and charm are notoriously difficult qualities to render on the page." - Stacey D’Erasmo, reviewing the The Night Circus for The New York Times
The magic works slowly. But it works.
Sunless Skies disappointed me at first. The sequel to the excellent Sunless Sea, Failbetter Games’ 2015 exploration game that was set in the universe of their free-to-play hypertext adventure, Fallen London, Sunless Skies takes us to a new setting that mixes the familiar with the completely unknown. At its outset, however, it mostly felt as opaque and cloudy as the billows of smoke so often cited in its text and depicted in its art.
Then the fog would part, and I’d find something that fired the imagination. Encounting a fantastical London amidst the stars, for instance, I read what amounts to the game’s mission statement: “The ultimate achievement of Victorian ambition, unhampered by terrestrial concerns. London is a feverish brew of aspiration, empire, and appetite.” And just like that, I my curiosity was renewed. Always, it was eventually rewarded.
Like in Sunless Sea, you command a vessel exploring a strange, magical world to which Victorian London has found itself transported. Somewhat oddly, in this game your flying machine is a train. Not a Back to the Future III-style techno-train. I mean you are flying through the celestial spheres aboard something out of Railroad Tycoon. It’s completely nonsensical and might have you questioning whether or not you’re about to play some kind of steampunk catastrophe, but it’s also emphasizes the unreality of its setting. You are in the skies, but nothing here really flies.
You explore this unfamiliar geography, visit strange ports, and read through hypertext micro-fictions, taking the odd gamble or making the odd choice to advance the story. The immediate difference between this game and Sunless Sea, however, is that while this new world feels much bigger, it also feels more diluted. Much of the time you’ll be sailing around inaccessible, alien-looking landmasses and across gulfs of strange starlight and nebulae. For several minutes at a time, you might have nothing to do but steer your little locomotive around obstacles and get into simple, top-down shooter combat with enemy vessels and monsters that you meet along the way.
The game nudges you to exploring different ports via cargo missions—”prospects” in the game’s lexicon—which require sourcing goods in one place, then bringing them to another port for extra cash and some other bonuses. The main point, however, is to bring you to places where brief passages of interactive fiction await. But in the game’s early stages, when you have yet to reveal the map, you can spend ages flying around without much of anything really happening.
Which makes its significant difficulty and punishing opening hours rather surprising. As in Sunless Sea, your steady consumption of fuel and supplies makes for expeditions. If you are trying to find the mining colony of Lustrum based on the flimsiest of directions, and get lost a maze of false leads and detours, you can easily hit a point where you don’t have enough fuel to get back to a home port, or enough food to feed your crew. Run out of food in the middle of nowhere and there’s a good chance your crew will start resorting to cannibalism as you try and drag your ship of the damned back to safe territory… or desperately search the unknown in the hope of finding salvation at a new port, before everyone eats each other.
It takes time to get a feel for walking this tightrope between caution and daring. In the meantime, you’ll probably die a lot and find yourself picking up from not-quite where you left off with a brand new character, a rogue-lite element that Sunless Skies has brought on from the previous game, while also including a “merciful mode” that makes it optional. But mastering the art of captaining a sky locomotive and exploring the vast emptiness of space isn’t all that much fun, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Sunless Skies is hiding a dearth of narrative behind a vast empty spaces and frequent setbacks.
Despite its perils, these otherworldly skies are gorgeous. You seem to stare down through layer upon layer of map art that ranges from the immediate and detailed to the distant and dreamlike. Where the world of Fallen London was set in a vast underworld called the Neath, Sunless Skies occurs in an expanse of half-formed void. Travel is accompanied by vistas that range from whimsical (like a shabby circus stretched across several small planetoids, like The Little Prince meets Carnivale) to the disturbing (a poisoned mechanical sun twisting in the center of a sea of inexplicable broken glass) and a sparse, atmospheric musical score.
Even when Sunless Skies is at its very best, these long, slow journeys through the ether are still its flesh and bones. But it’s the way the context around those journeys changes that makes Sunless Skies begin to feel like a game of unexpected treasures and joy. The game doesn’t change that much, but its meaning does. There is more and more happening in your head with each new mission.
If I had to distill Sunless Skies to its essence, I would say it is about the clashes that erupt when a more whimsical reimagining of Victorian Britain—with all its arrogance, materialism, ignorance, and pluck—encounters a world of magic that does not and can not conform to its rules and understanding. Time has become a resource you can mine from magical mountains and so naturally a chartered company has arrived to strip-mine it. Devils have set up shop in the firmament, trading in a commodified soul. Workers in a debtors’ prison toil in a magical factory whose workshops drain literal years away from their lives, emerging from their shifts as weary elders. Colonists already dream of breaking away and declaring their own sovereignty over this new plane of unreality.
You mostly bear witness to these stories, though you are given small parts to play throughout each adventure. Political intrigue abounds as forbidden labor movements make their opening moves against secret police, with both sides trying to enlist your help against the other. You encounter an idyllic retirement community in a mushroom forest enjoying a quiet life amidst the blowing spores. Artists and bohemians are squatting in a crystal palace set in the folds of an enormous flower, throwing together shows and festivals without much thought about who built this place, and why they left it.
You meet new officers who want to join your crew, including throwbacks to Fallen London like Your Inconvenient Aunt. They provide bonuses to your stats to help you with some special actions that introduce an element of chance, but their real purpose to get you involved in some larger narratives. You’ll learn about newcomers like a Lucky Engineer whose good humor and easy competence belies a bittersweet backstory and hidden grief. His quest line will take you to entirely different realms to help him reckon with death, and perhaps even renegotiate it. A group of mercenary rats sign on with your crew with the understanding that you’ll help them recover a treasure and settle a score.
The writing, always the strong suit of a Failbetter game, is by turns funny, eerie, and sweetly sad. But through these storylines Sunless Skies becomes a fantasy history epic set in a world permeated by magic. And, this is the thing that is hard to relate, it feels like magic.
As much as I could reduce the moment to moment of Sunless Skies to a slow, top-down scroll through empty space… it was also a journey into a world that continually surprised and confounded me. Sunless Skies always felt like there was an internal logic and consistency governing its world, but it never defined its rules so clearly that they lost their mystery. The more I saw and learned, the more questions it raised. It felt like a world whose workings could be understood, but only from some impossible vantage point outside its version of time and space.
That’s a hard thing to evoke and an even harder thing for a work of fiction to sustain. It’s as much about what questions it deflects, the descriptions it elides, as it is about the things depicted and explained. Sunless Skies works, in the end, because its entire structure is about letting us have this tour through a narrative magic show that is always revealing just a fraction of what it has implied, and performing acts of rhetorical sleight of hand to send the imagination racing along a different line of thought.
If you just look at what Sunless Skies is from one moment to the next, you’ll rarely see much happening. It might seem empty, inert, a game that leaves everything to the imagination. Then, you might realize, that’s the trick.