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The Art of the Dark: Creating Eleutheria

Sunless Skies (the sequel to Sunless Sea) just released its newest region: Eleutheria. Take a look at some of the approaches and processes the art team employed in its creation.

Hey all. I’m Toby, one of the artists at Failbetter Games. Since I joined the company last year I’ve been helping build the world of Sunless Skies, creating some of the environments, icons, effects and animations that make up the High Wilderness. We’ve come a long way since releasing our hub region, The Reach, and have been steadily learning new techniques and approaches to making the world of Sunless Skies a more weird and terrifying place to explore. I wanted to share a bit about how our art process has evolved in creating our latest region: Eleutheria!

Our key inspirations for Eleutheria were Victorian interpretations of ancient Greece: dark silhouettes framed by moonlight, old ruins clogged with vegetation, paganism and mystery in every shadowed corner. We found brilliant inspiration in the various nocturnal and moonlight paintings created in and before the Victorian era, which were often heavy with a sense of mystery and dread. We wanted these feelings to permeate the player’s experience of Eleutheria, and for the transition to this region be distinct and dramatic in the same way it had been when arriving in Albion, our second region.

[Pictured: Scottish Loch by Moonlight (19th Century) – Circle of Sebastian Pether]

It’s helpful to note the transition in this reference painting, from bright sky, to thick and turbulent clouds, to richly dark terrain. It’s an approach we’ve taken with our environments as well, both to capture that atmosphere of light weakly penetrating a dark environment, as well as helping make our collidable terrain readable in silhouette.

As players who’ve been exploring our previous early access releases will know, our existing regions can sometimes feel a little empty in those spaces between ports. It’s something we’ve been conscious of, so with Eleutheria we’ve seriously ramped up the amount of terrain players will need to navigate around. This should make moving between ports and selecting routes more challenging and interesting, as well as offering more places for the inhabitants of Eleutheria to lie in wait for unsuspecting captains. 

This new density of terrain also extends to what’s visible beneath the locomotive; we’ve upped the detail and density of lower scenery, in particular our ‘skybox’ (the layers of terrain, cloud and stars in the far distance). A key aim here was to reduce the separation between the background and the foreground, and make the player feel like they were moving through a contiguous space rather than a layer of terrain above a layer of stars.

[Pictured: The layering of the skybox, unlit terrain and then lighting]

Another major change is how we tackle lighting in this region. Previously, we’ve always used unlit materials in our terrain, meaning essentially that all our lighting was ‘baked’ into the sprites themselves when creating in Photoshop. This can work well, but it gets difficult when building larger blocks of terrain as we’ve done in Eleutheria, since remixing pre-lit terrain can leave odd seams and joins. Therefore we’ve found it more efficient to take the common approach of making re-useable ‘building blocks’ rather than make each big landmass individually. By dynamically lighting those assembled ‘islands’, we can achieve variety without sacrificing too much on economy or performance.

[Pictured: On the left are some pieces of our Eleutheria terrain kit; on the right is an assembled and lit island]

We’ve also been excited to build the ports of Eleutheria- as usual, these are some of our favourite areas to make, since our writers are full of brilliant, unique ideas. It’s a real pleasure getting to work with them in bringing these areas to life. I don’t want to spoil too much, but one of my favourite new areas to build was the Eagle’s Empyrean- it’s a real contrast to the rest of Eleutheria, being brightly lit by neon and crowded with huge buildings, and I think is one of the more unique areas in the game so far.

[Pictured: The Eagle's Empyrean]

We also plan to bring denser, more dynamically lit environments into existing regions. This is one of our main objectives during the extra time we’ll be taking to polish the game between now and when we launch in January. We look forward to sharing more on that, as well as additional details about our final region, The Blue Kingdom, over the coming months.

Sunless Skies is available in [Steam Early Access] and [GOG Games in Development]. Follow Toby on @tghcook and follow development on @failbettergames.

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