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Sunless Sea, 80 Days and the rise of modular storytelling

We discuss the production and design strengths of 'modular storytelling' with the developers of 80 Days and Sunless Sea, who are pioneering this new form of game narrative.

December 25, 2015

8 Min Read

The last few years have seen the rise of modular storytelling, which offers players something akin to a collection of short stories tied together with character or theme. They offer a wealth of self-contained vignettes for players to interact with, and new ones can be continually added, increasing the breadth and richness of the narrative.

Inkle's 80 Days is the most prominent example of this, casting players as Phileas Fogg’s personal valet, Passepartout, as the two make their way around a steampunk Victorian globe. Each city on the trip offers its own self-contained story, occasionally spilling out into other locations, but by and large limited by geography to something that you discover and leave behind as you circumnavigate.

Failbetter Games’ Sunless Sea adopts a similar approach, casting you as the captain of a vessel in the game’s ‘Unterzee’, ranging out of a mostly submerged London to discover the islands of its unlit ocean, each with its own history and events.

This story-telling approach fundamentally alters the structure of the development process, both before and after release. “The main reason to build the game this way was because we didn’t know how big it was going to be” Jon Ingold of Inkle tells me. “To be frank, we didn’t know if Meg [Jayanth, 80 Days’ writer] would give up halfway! We needed to make sure that, whatever happened, we could pull the game together and deliver it. But it also meant that we could be very flexible about adding diversions, side-content and additional routes.”

"This story-telling approach fundamentally alters the structure of the development process, both before and after release."

Alexis Kennedy, the Creative Director on Sunless Sea, has similarly positive things to say about how modular storytelling impacted scope-management. “It gave us a natural pattern for production. We developed the game through Early Access, we pushed out monthly-ish updates, and each update had 3-5 islands on it, until the whole sea was populated. That’s much easier for players to understand than story-line based announcements.”

What this also means is that players are less likely to see the ‘seams’, so to speak. Often in a standard linear narrative there are difficulties including everything that was initially planned, leading to scenes, plot points and sometimes whole characters being cut from the final game. With a modular approach, those ‘missing’ pieces are almost completely isolated from the other pieces of the story, leading to their absence being very hard to feel, as a player moves through the game.

Talking about the iteration process with both developers, it’s clear that modular storytelling helped immensely when it came to playtesting and iteration, too. For 80 Days, all Inkle had to do was get one trip around the world complete and they essentially had a working prototype. From there, it was just about adding cities that branched out from that already established route, and the game grew from there. A complete experience that just became broader and richer as content accumulated. Similarly, Sunless Seas islands ‘worked’ as soon as there was one of them thrusting out of its Unterzee. “We had much more informed ideas on how island stories should work by the end of the process than we did at the beginning,” Kennedy tells me “We didn’t have to commit to one form from day one.”

This was an important point, especially for Failbetter, but also for Inkle; both companies brought in freelancers to help write their games, and while Jayanth for 80 Days played a very central role, Sunless Sea had fully 30% of its islands written by freelancers. But when those freelancers don’t have to worry about maintaining absolute consistency with an already established story, they can produce much more interesting work.

“The Fallen London universe is big, sprawling and complex in the way that only worlds built by thoroughgoing nerds are complex.” Kennedy continues. “By isolating stories on different islands, we allowed our freelancers much more liberty to experiment, to add new odd lore, and above all to use a voice that was very different from our well-established house voice. The polyphony of different voices - I think – really added to the sense of exploring foreign spaces in Sunless Sea, and gave us a range and breadth of perspectives that would have been impossible if we’d had to squeeze everyone into the same approach.

The benefits of the approach extend past release, too, as both games have proven. Taken today, 80 Days and Sunless Sea are far more expansive than they were when they originally launched. In the case of the former, each new platform (Android and PC), gave the team at Inkle a good excuse to add a big chunk of new locations and stories, each more outlandish and unique than the last.

“The post-release updates were an unexpected benefit, and not something we had planned for in earnest.” Ingold tells me. “But when we came to do it, it was just like continuing our development process from where we left off. It’s been particularly satisfying to weave extended new storylines into the existing framework, such as the jewel thief plot that, once activated, follows you around the world wherever you go.”

Similarly, Sunless Sea has been receiving regular new geography to its eponymous body of water, but despite the already well-established lore that they created with their browser based Fallen London, writing a new island didn’t require an absurd amount of research; instead they just had to reacquaint themselves with one element, and then the isolation of the sea did the rest.

None of this is to say that modular storytelling is a cure-all for games’ narrative woes. It’s difficult to argue that having isolated vignettes is more emotionally rewarding than wholly bespoke cinematic experiences, but that is also not to say that they can’t deliver a satisfying narrative arc. Both 80 Days and Sunless Sea have created their own ways of delivering that arc, and they’ve both managed it, with varying degrees of success.

“The level of drama [is] proportional to longitude.” Ingold tells me. “So the soup is too hot in Europe, the soup is on fire in India, and the soup is talking to you about your death in South America.” This, combined with the natural drama that comes out of dwindling resources and health states, means that on the average trip in 80 Days, you’re running out of money and time by the time you’ve crossed the Pacific. That the stories themselves then escalate in drama and stakes means that the final leg of your journey should feel like a third act, so to speak.

Sunless Sea is less rigorously structured, so it can’t rely on the same tricks. “One of the things we got right was the strength of the core loops.” Kennedy explains. “You leave port; you cross the darkness; you find the lights on the far side, which you’ve been anticipating during your time in the darkness. You do that again and again. And then, in aggregate, you complete a much larger loop, where you leave London for the unknown; explore a series of ports, and then return home. That outgoing-homecoming loop, with the relevant music and visuals to signal your departure and return, is the heart of the game.”

This structure also has a knock-on effect that I hadn’t considered until Kennedy pointed it out to me; player choice, when framed as a choice of where to go rather than explicitly what to do, becomes something that’s both very interesting and exceedingly manageable on the part of the developer. Instead of having to limit choices to the world of morality, and all the design headaches that that naturally leads to, you instead need only to provide a fork in the road, and the player will feel the weight of that choice bereft of the trappings of ethics that often present a choice that’s barely a choice at all.

“For the player to feel that the journey has meaning,” Kennedy says. “They have to be free to decide where they’re going; for them to be free to decide where they’re going, the ports have to be untethered and modular. Players long for the opportunity for self-expression. Anything that validates and extends that self-expression is welcomed, and plays to the medium’s strengths. At Failbetter, we talk about ‘fires in the desert’ as a model for our variety of storytelling. Imagine a desert, seen from above. Paths lead between the villages in the desert. When travelers cross the desert, you can clearly see the route they take, where they stop off, and so on. But what if night has fallen? Then, all you can see are the little fires in the village. Occasionally, travelers emerge from the darkness and sit by the fires for a while, and then move on. But the routes they take between those fires belong to them alone.”

In other words, the player provides the context, and the game provides the stories. While the developer can provide certain elements that influence the order with which the stories are experienced, ultimately the final call is with the player. Especially in Sunless Sea, there’s no guaranteeing that a player will go to this island or this island first. In 80 Days, the only constant is Paris; everything else is up for grabs.

“Just as in a film the story is told through the edit, [here] the story is told through the darkened paths between the fires.” Kennedy finishes his conversation with me by saying. “In cinematic terms, it’s a montage; we provide the shots, the player does the arrangement. In comic terms, Scott McCloud calls it ‘the blood in the gutters’ – the creative space that exists for the audience to instantiate the potential between specific events. There’s not much space in a traditional told story for that."

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