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Romance in Sunless Sea, part 2: the Light in the Window

The second post of three on how we worked to mesh theme, mechanics and narrative for the love and sex in SUNLESS SEA, our narrative-driven maritime exploration game. With cannibalism.

[Part 1 is here.]

“I have also seen his eyes rest fondly upon the faces in the room, upon the pictures on the wall, upon all the familiar objects of that home, whose abiding and clear image must have flashed often on his memory in times of stress and anxiety at sea.  Was he looking out for a strange Landfall, or taking with an untroubled mind the bearings for his last Departure?” - Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea

Returning home

The heartbeat of Sunless Sea is departure from, and return to, Fallen London - a sunken city at the edge of an underground ocean. Mechanics and narratives exist to encourage this. Fallen London is a good place to reduce terror. It’s a good place to sell many goods. A number of key quests end there. The Admiralty will reward you for all the port reports you’ve stacked up. And so on.

The mechanics here, I think, were moderately effective. They increase the sense of transition from a familiar home to desolate outlands. They provide some narrative resonance for the return-to-home pacing mechanic that nearly every CRPG uses. But to make that heartbeat more narratively compelling, I wanted to encourage an emotional response in the player around their return home. Maribeth’s music and Paul’s art both help with that – and for players who know the city from other games, this place is already home, of a kind.

A sweetheart

But not all Sunless Sea players are Fallen London players, and there’s a limit to the emotional attachment a player can form when the whole game is about exploring the sea. If we put too much content in Fallen London, it tilts the balance of the game. So I hit upon the idea of a sweetheart for you to return to. Like everything else in London, they can’t be the focus of the game, but that, I realised, could be the point – you’re a sailor, an explorer, you’ve chosen the sea as your first love. We couldn’t make that a really game-changing choice, because if you decide not to be a sailor, it’s game over – but we can encourage you to live in the sense of that choice and explore it from different angles. Because this is a game, there are system elements, as well as narrative ones, that we can use to make that happen.

The candle's end

The first and biggest system element was a Terror reduction. Terror builds up over sea, and returning to London is a way to deal with it. Having a sweetheart allows you to shed Terror a little faster – so there is actually a thematically appropriate game-mechanical reason why players will want to rush home. It can’t be overwhelming or essential or the players feel tied to their sweetheart’s apron strings, but it has to be powerful enough to make players care. (One consequence of using system elements is that there’s more pressure to keep the writing fairly minimal. Some players will love role-playing a captain who can hardly bear to part from her sweetheart. Some players will always be thinking, OK, I’ve got my 20-point Terror reduction or whatever, now can I get back to sea, oh God more dialogue choices to click through. And after the fifth time in the game, even some of the first kind of player will become the second kind. So the writing has to stay lean, which also gives the players who care more room to add their own interpretation.)
 

World's end

The second system element was Salt’s Curse. Salt is the most enigmatic of the three gods of the sea, the one whose dominion is partings and horizons, and who represents that same wanderlust I mentioned above. If you upset Salt, you can come home to find your sweetheart dead or vanished, doomed by your decision to abandon them. Cliché, trope or archetype? Take your pick. It’s certainly apposite to maritime romance themes. In any case, some players complained that they felt it was trivial when their sweetheart died, because there wasn’t actually much engagement with them.

Those complaints disappeared when I added the third element: the ability to conceive a child with your sweetheart. In fact, they were replaced by complaints that Salt’s Curse was too brutal an effect or gained with too little warning. This was partly an emotional reaction, and partly because the emotional effect was underpinned, again, with a mechanical element. You can give your child gifts from the sea – stories, souvenirs – and inspire sea fever in them. Inspire them enough, and they’ll become a Scion, the start of a dynasty of captains. This is a significant advantage when restarting games.

Childhood's End

You do have the option of forbidding them to go to sea. You might even succeed. There is a small in-game benefit, but not a well-balanced one – basically that choice is there so that you can have decided to turn it down (or take it by way of rebelliousness or experiment). It’s the same choice as the one I mentioned above – do you go to sea? We want to provide a little of the texture of that choice – without building a whole extra game to make it a really consequential decision (“your son decided to enter the clergy. Welcome to Fallen London: Diocesal Intrigue, coming 2017!”)

The whole issue of, well, issue was a hell of a one to write around… because the player’s sweetheart can be either male or female, and the player can be whatever the hell gender they choose, or never have specified. We leave all the details at the bedroom door, for the sake of both economy and inclusivity. But when it comes to the practical details of child-bearing, it means we can’t just assume that a female sweetheart accidentally gets pregnant and a male sweetheart accidentally makes the player-character pregnant. But I wanted a random-event surprise conception to come out of nowhere – it’s not something a player expects in a quasi-roguelike, and I didn’t want to lose the little sting of surprise.

A sweetheart

I talked to the rest of the team, and the solution came clear: you’re told that a surprise letter is en route, and you select one of three options. It’s from your sweetheart, explaining that they’re pregnant; it’s from your sweetheart, explaining that they’re adopting; or it’s from you to your sweetheart, explaining that you’re pregnant. We pass over the whole issue of how an eight-month pregnant captain would leap over sea-monsters and give birth between paragraphs, which I know makes some women chortle derisively, quite rightly. But the approach we took to inclusivity was gender-blindness rather a head-on exploration of issues of reproductive freedom, and we are where we are.

Anyway! that’s one side of romance in Sunless Sea: a pithily written but minimal choice, backed up with some striking art and some quite core mechanical elements.  (There was a fourth game-mechanic element that didn’t quite make it in for lack of time. It might still make it in if we can justify enough updates. ‘Maybe in the Zubmariner expansion’ is the answer to every third question in the office right now.)  Next post, I’ll talk about the other side of romance: the illicit interludes, and Sunless Sea’s 26 sex scenes.

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