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Romance in Sunless Sea, part 3: "A Fleeting Clench-and-Wriggle in the Dark"

A look at the other side of romance in Sunless Sea: illicit officer romances.
Romantic narrative in games is often criticised for being superficial, with a short narrative arc that's mostly about sex. But some romances are superficial, and mostly about sex. They can still be used to explore character - and to provide more underpinning for the SUNLESS SEA theme I talked about here and here, that of loneliness. Here's how I wound up writing twenty-six sex scenes in a game that's mostly about terror, darkness and zee-monsters.
[This is part 3 of a series. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. Also, MASSIVE SPOILERS for character plot in Sunless Sea.]

Early on in the Sunless SeaKickstarter, we promised that players would be able to romance their officers. I spent some months, while I was writing other chunks of the game, working through the challenges here.


''There is always the delicate menace of the hook.'

Firstly, we have over a dozen officers, most of whom undergo some profound personal change over the course of their story. I trimmed it down to about eight, but some of these had up to four different states as they went through their own personal arc. That was a lot of content to write, if the romances were substantial branching storylines.

Secondly, I'd already decided to keep the sweetheart storylines quite minimal to avoid skewing the balance of the game, and it would undermine their importance if I put too much flesh on the officer content. Already, the sweethearts were shadowy off-screen presences compared to the officers who are constantly smiling at you from the top of the screen. That made sense too - the allure of the immediate - but it still risked the sweethearts feeling too trivial.

Thirdly, I wanted to avoid what's sometimes called the vending machine model - you use the appropriate currency on an NPC, sex pops out and the story ends. I wanted the sense of something ongoing, but repeat encounters would be tricky without writing a lot of content or, to use an especially unfortunate term, grinding.

But finally - it would mean a captain fraternising with an officer. This never went down well at sea. It would cause suspicion and unrest among the crew. It would likely have to be secret.


“Perhaps they’re gone. Perhaps you’ve thought better of it.”

This last made the design click into place. If these were secret affairs in stolen moments, then:

- the player could initiate a romance with an officer, and enjoy a pleasant fictional event and a Terror reduction. But they couldn't bunk down casually with the officer every night for cheap thrills and terror reduction. People would talk!

- So further trysts became quite rare random events, with both fictional and system effects - it felt like a rare treat, and it didn't need to be unbalancing.

- This also allowed the Tryst mechanic to mesh with the Sweetheart mechanic. Each time you engage in a Tryst, you increase the risk that your sweetheart might discover what you'd been doing when you returned to port. (We'd have established already that your potential sweetheart was either a spy or a diplomat.) In this case they'll probably leave, taking their substantial terror reduction and possibly their dynasty-creating child with them. Fidelity or comfort? - the sailor's dilemma.

- Finally, in order to make officers feel less trivially available, I had most of them require that one player stat be sufficiently higher than another: this officer prefers cunning to brawn, that one values intuition over intellect. This was also a gentle way to suggest an actual affinity between a PC and an NPC. There was a loophole - players can rearrange equipment to reconfigure their stats - so I considered making the gap much higher. But ultimately I liked players being able to bend the mechanism a little, rather than have to reconfigure their character completely to bed an officer they were curious about.


“Sometimes you see through its eyes: sometimes you swear you feel the changes begin in your own flesh. No one must know. No one must know.”

This left me with at least two sex scenes to write for every officer-variation, which I have to admit made me a little self-conscious. Not all writers roll up their sleeves and think 'oh, wonderful, a sex scene!', especially if they're, you know, British. I wanted the scenes to be gently titillating but not explicit, I wanted real variety, and I wanted the officer's character to shine through in each case.

The tryst setup was enormously useful here to generate variety, and to show character Maybe’s Rival enjoys the risk of an encounter in a gun-barrel. The Genial Magician proposes the discretion of a rope-locker - but if he’s been possessed by a serpent-king of dreams, he can sneak you briefly into the realm behind mirrors. The Nacreous Survivor, our most alarming and unhuman option, prefers ‘the haddock-scented recesses of the pantry’.


"What would be left of us, do you think? ‘A rag and a bone and a hank of hair.’ A devil sang me that song once.”

Another saving grace: having established a pattern, I could then fruitfully break that pattern for variety and character. The Campaigner, in the grip of a fatal disease, will happily seek comfort with the PC - but once cured, she’ll end a tryst with an it's-not-me-it's-you speech. If you’ve persuaded the Magician to turn aside from his revenge-quest, avoiding the risk of possession, then his melancholy condition means that the encounter ends rather disappointingly. And so on.

As far as I can tell, it's worked out. Players seem to have enjoyed their illicit flings - and they seem to have engaged more deeply with the officers as a result.  A number of folk have suggested that they'd like a sweetheart who's a little more broadminded about playing away. Others have been disappointed that they can't pursue a 'real' relationship with officers. And, ultimately, we’re okay with that. SUNLESS SEA is not a life simulator. It sets out to generate stories aligned with a very specific set of themes and events. We've achieved what we set out to, and I’d always rather leave players asking for more.


At least two characters out of each row are romanceable officers.

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