Games

How Games Make Me Confront the Terror of Open Spaces

'Sunless Sea' is about wonder and despair in dark places.
August 4, 2017, 9:50pm

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

There is a feeling that I get when I am faced with wide, open spaces in games. It might be a generalized anxiety. It could be the evolutionary output of some system that warns me, gets my adrenaline up, and makes me wary about leaving the trees for the plains. In PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, I get this swimming feeling when I know I have a long way to go without any kind of cover or protection. It's like open water.

I had the same experience during the early days of Minecraft, which I can only describe as feeling profoundly exposed to the world. That world was not, in fact, dangerous, but I felt like there could be something around every corner ready to destroy me.

The finest distillation of that feeling exists in Sunless Sea. It is a game about being a ship's captain on the Unterzee, an ocean that fills a gigantic underground cavern. The lore around this is, well, complicated, but it produces a strange and wonderful universe of bleak Victorian characters paired with Miévillian fantastical situations. There is unthinkable machinery that spins the gears behind the world. There are figures, both cloaked in shadow and lit by lamplight, that grip your life in iron fists. And, under all of that, there's the dark.

Operating a ship is hard. There are a few different resources you have to manage. There is fuel, of course, for powering your ship across the ocean. There are supplies to feed the crew members of your ship, and there are the members themselves. They could be eaten or drowned or made mad at any time, so you need to keep those numbers up. And, finally, there is terror.

Terror comes from going out into the dark. It's the literalization of those feelings I was talking about in PUBG and Minecraft. It's the understanding that you are taking a small craft out into a dark, violent place, and that there is nothing but kilometers of black ocean between you and the next location that you're attempting to get to. And, for me, those numbers translate to a palpable feeling in my body. My boat trundles through the blackness, beacon shining out into the dark, and I get worried.

Sunless Sea uses some light procedural generation to make its world work. The zee shifts, subtly, when you're not looking. So while you might always see the Salt Lions, giant stone sculptures that loom in the infinite night, the location changes from captain to captain. This playthrough of the game will have them slightly more south; the next one will have them much further north, closer to the icy caps.

Traveling out into the dark in a new game, then, means that you're putting your fate in the hands of the general knowledge that you've gained across playthroughs. There's no way of knowing if the Salt Lions will be in the place you think it is, and that can be distressing. You're under a lot of pressure, after all.

The pressure from the resource management comes to bear in this way: You have a task given to you from your home dock in London. That task is your only way to make money. You are low on fuel and lower on supplies, so you have to do this task. You have no choice.

Something happens on the way. A wave rocks up and destroys your supplies, or you're given the hard choice between your people, your fuel, and your food. You end up in a worse position than you were previously. Now you have to make your way to your destination and home again at the slowest speed possible in order to conserve fuel. Or, worse, you're paddling along with no fuel at all and no light to guide you. It's a captain and their crew sitting in the middle of a black ocean, accruing terror all the while, hoping that you can get to a place that will provide the smallest amount of solace. And, maybe, you get there. Or you die.

The past few years have been dominated by talk about immersion and identification. First person games offer their visceral landscapes of domination and destruction in order for you to really feel like you're in the body of a superhero. Virtual reality evangelism is still dominated by discourses of making the player feel like they're really there, despite the fact that "there" seems to most often be "sitting in a chair" or "standing in one location looking around."

None of those experiences get close to the goosebump feeling of terror going up while fuel goes down in Sunless Sea. I wouldn't say that I'm "immersed," but I am on board. I've bought into the fiction. I know that these people that I have put on my ship will die with me. I know that our stories, intermingled so far, will dissipate when our lives do. There's also the machinic player inside of me who knows that his progress will be at the bottom of the ocean with this character.

The Sunless Sea feeling is wonder. There is what I know, and then there is the stuff that is beyond it, and then there's me trying to figure it out. The philosopher Immanuel Kant called it the sublime. Video games are always trying to tap into this feeling, but these quiet moments where I am pressing up against my own ability to continue playing the game are the only times that I really feel it. Bombast and explosions don't make it happen for me. Instead, it's about being still and slow. It's about knowing the stakes and what could be, or will be, lost.

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