Great moments in PC gaming: Nautical misadventures in Sunless Sea

Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.

Sunless Sea

Developer: Failbetter
Year: 2015

There's a brand of cigarettes in Korea whose logo features a whale swimming through space emblazoned with the excellent slogan THE SEA HATES A COWARD. I think of that a lot when I'm playing Sunless Sea.

This is the game about being captain of a ship on the underground ocean called the Unterzee. You set sail from the port of Fallen London, which is like regular Victorian London only it got stolen by bats and dragged beneath the earth. On the Unterzee you discover islands where strange sisters share a lonely house, exiled demons plot against Hell, and rats engage in war with guinea pigs. Most of your time is spent between those islands, chuntering along through the dark waters while your fuel and supplies run low and the terror meter climbs.

Travel is about trying new things and in Sunless Sea those new things might include cannibalism. Accept offers of mysterious food in foreign climes and you can pick up the trait "Unaccountably Peckish", which opens up the option to chow down on your own crew when supplies run out. The crew who don't get eaten aren't big fans of it, and it bumps that terror score right up. But, like eating unusual meals on strange islands, sailing around at high terror can unlock some interesting events, and this is a game that's all about collecting stories. Arriving in the Iron Republic beset by terror gives you the chance to manifest and meet your fears, who turn out not to be so bad. There's a ship's officer who only appears if you have a frightened crew, but vanishes once you chill everyone out with some shore leave. Was she ever really there? 

On the other hand high terror pushes the crew toward suicide or mutiny. Which is bad. It can be tempting to stay close to shore, keep the lights on, and not take risks. But it's not that kind of game, and the only way to make a real living is get out there on the dark water and eat some more of the crew if you have to. Sunless Sea is a game about preparing for the worst, then taking the risk and trusting you'll come out of it with a story to tell next time you're in port. Like that Korean cigarette spacewhale says, the sea hates a coward.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.