When your first 10-man vessel first departs from the warm, alit-with-gas docks of London, the wide open sea seems such a foreboding scene that it can be overwhelming. Dark and as vast as space, the otherworldly 'zee is unchartable - literally, its many islands and reefs shift and drift over time, explaining the completely dark charter map you are given at the start of the game. Everything East of London may as well be marked with waving tentacles emerging from whirlpools and sea serpents; "here ye be dragons."
But with time and experience, this perception of an unfathomable world shifts...and it becomes difficult to tell when exactly I began to feel more comfortable on the waves than on land. Putting feet to dock meant dealing with spider cultists, tomb colonists, gentle and sentient coral, the shifting of physical laws...all this quickly grew into something distressing and uncertain to me, while the opposite happened to the sea. Sailing became a meditative experience. Hard left. Power to lights. 'Ware the bats. Engines at full. Crew is muttering and distressed? All shall be well.
In these familiar exercises, Sunless Sea elevates itself from simple but engaging gameplay to a surreally spiritual experience, with no two playthroughs quite ending the same. In one, my captain clutches the bones of a monstrous creature that she was promised is her father's. She stands on the deck, pointed things gnawing at her insides and outsides, until one day there is a splash...and before the crew can even frantically run to the side of the ship to peer into the darkness with lights too small to see, she is gone.
My next captain, the blood daughter of the above woman, receives a misshapen skull in the post years later. She is certain, being the young scientist she is, that it is not quite like anything with a skull in the waking world. Furthermore, at night, when she is half asleep from exhaustion at her desk, she swears she can hear the soft sounds of waves crashing against sand. The sound immediately fades as she straightens up...but it will never quite leave her memory.
She ends her tenure at university, sells her modest home, and buys a ship within the month. She watches her meager flare the engine and sound the boat horn...and into the darkness she disappears.
Sunless Sea is a game not without its flaws - the game's difficulty curve is a steep hill, combat is hollow and often insurmountable with lots of prep - but even these flaws add to that incredible amount of tension that results when you cast off from land. "Will I survive this?" is a question that is often asked and left hanging in the cold air. This can be nerve-wracking for some, but for me it left just enough anxiety that arriving back at dock was a physical exhale, a small triumph.
Sunless Sea is a powerful story about creation, about darkness, about loneliness and love. And while it oftens some extremely well written guidelines for players to enjoy, its' strongest segment is the stripe of darkness where you are free to extrapolate, to fear, to laugh nervously. For these reasons, Sunless Sea remains one of my favorite experiences in games in recent memory. I cannot recommend it enough.