“Sky Kraken Ahead!” Dynamic Role-Playing in Sunless Skies
The Edge Chronicles was an important book series for me growing up. Writer Paul Stewart and legendary illustrator Chris Riddell crafted a kid-friendly universe full of horrifying monsters, exotic locations and (best of all) sky pirates! I have lovely memories of sitting in my room, closing my eyes and letting my imagination run wild.
It’s no surprise that Sunless Skies, developed by Failbetter Games, grabbed my attention: a top-down exploration game where you pilot a flying steam train through the skies of a Lovecraftian British empire. Sign me up.
By default, death is permanent for your captain, their map and certain unlockable items carried across playthroughs. Gameplay inherits the slow, simulator-esque pace of prequel Sunless Seas. You pick up delivery requests from major ports, shove food and fuel into your cargo bay and pray that you can find your way with vague directions like ‘north-northeast’ before you starve, lose your mind or run out of steam.
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I found myself effortlessly drawn into my role as a sky-captain. Any set-narrative is essentially non-existent; you’re completely free to carve your own story out of this wonderfully rich world as an imperialist or a rebel, a writer or a marauder, or maybe just as a merchant. Whatever you choose, the Sunless Skies’ survival mechanics make you focus on the here and now, creating your character through improvisation rather than trying to bend your decisions to fit a pre-determined character sheet.
Random scenarios are the beating heart of this system. For example, deciding whether to have a proper sky burial for a dead crew member could be presented as a simple “good vs. evil” moral choice, but Failbetter asks you: is it better to starve with your principles, or cook your crew into a stew?
The domino effects of your bad decisions min Sunless Skies are horrifyingly transparent. For example, if you let your armor dip too low you might catastrophically damage your engine: do you order your engineers to try to fix it, or get them out of the way of a potential explosion?
Thankfully, Failbetter Games are like game-dev Ronseal: they do exactly what they say on the tin. It’s often more fun to read about your massive cock-ups rather than your successes, making it easier to roll with the punches and to get invested in your character’s journey – I ended up as an alcoholic cannibal slowly turning into glass. Don’t ask.
Crucially, these sensations are at their strongest in the perma-death mode, where the threat of failing results in truly memorable journeys. For example, I occasionally found myself on my last barrel of fuel, flying into uncharted territory and praying for a shortcut home. When your careful decision making and route planning pays off, it’s truly special.
However, the process of dying and re-starting in a roguelike playthrough often feels like frustrating admin, going through the same motions until you can continue exploring freely again. Starting a brand-new playthrough is more exciting, re-shuffling the positions of ports and letting you choose to play without perma-death. Unfortunately, you lose much of that emergent role-playing in the process; there’s simply nothing at stake.
Still, there’s undeniably magic here. Discovering a community of cultists at the edge of a huge whirlpool or sharing a campfire with a roving band of Skylarks are moments amplified in richness by how hard you have to fight for them.