Game makers are in love with London in the time of cholera.
Two titles came out this past February. That is, more than two games were released, but these two, at least notionally, had a lot in common besides their birthday. Both Sunless Sea and The Order: 1886 take place in London. Both are set in the 1880s. Both dabble in the supernatural. Both could lazily be filed under the pseudo-genre known as “steampunk.” The truth is, though, that it’s difficult to compare these games in any meaningful way. The Order looks like a Ferrari, but plays like you’re riding in a car on the Coney Island Cyclone; occasionally thrilling, over too soon, and stuck on the rails. Sunless Sea, on the other hand, looks like it could be something cooked up by Sid Meier in the ‘90s while he was unconscionably stoned, listening to Lovecraft audio books during a lunch break. It doesn’t look too impressive, but Sunless Sea makes up for it in near-endless gameplay and exploration. One commonality is that both games use rich mythologies to fuel their writing. Storytelling, humor and a sense of history are central to the success of both games. And that’s why only one of them actually succeeds.
Captains die. Captains are born. Midshipman are flogged. The wheel turns. The parrot squawks. Gout flares up. Monsters eat your family. There are few certainties in the Sunless Sea’s endlessly circuitous lifecycle. One of these is starting each new character with your trusty old steamboat. This rickety-yet-dependable vessel is a thing straight out of Alvaro Mutis’s “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call”:
“The ruinous condition of this old servant of the seas was brought home to me with far greater eloquence than before. Once again it was setting out on a bitter adventure, as resigned as a Latium ox in Virgil’s Georgics. That is how worn, how beaten and submissive, it seemed in its obedience to the enterprises of men whose mean-spirited indifference brought even greater nobility to an effort that had no reward but decay and oblivion.”
There is nothing mean-spirited about the Unterzee’s indifference, but it’s true that the best fate one can expect for the ship is a career of decay and oblivion. Chasing the horizon and high seas adventure, the kind you might see in Sunless Sea’s more lighthearted antecedent, Pirates!, is a dead end in subterranean Fallen London. Mainly because there is no horizon to speak of in the dank caverns, but also because excitement is in short supply. Errol Flynn would be bored to tears, chugging along underneath the stalagmites in this barely seaworthy tub. While the crew is doing its best to avoid enormous crustaceans, starvation, and economic ruin, there is nary a Basil Rathbone duel to be found anywhere.
In fact, the Sunless Sea can be agonizingly mundane at times. But from what I understand, this is a pretty fair representation of shipboard life. If not for the sheer weirdness of the world and the subtle quips baked into the game’s text-heavy architecture, I’d probably ask for my $19 back. As it stands, though, I find myself continually exploring every corner of the Unterzee, searching not for treasure, but for the strange little nuggets of humor and mystery that litter the map.
One of my early captains, Madame Elizeebeth Warren, ran out of gas somewhere near the Achlys Abyss. She was far from her home in Fallen London. Out of food and choices, the crew started mindlessly blowing the ship’s horn, a mournful dirge for the soon-to-be lost or cannibalized. Help never came, but with the fog came Mt. Nomad, an enormous and aptly named demiurge that quickly sent the boat and all hands to a watery grave. Ms. Warren was not ready. She didn’t heed what might be the game’s most important warning:
“Without fuel, your ship is just an oddly shaped house located somewhere you don’t really want to live.”
Later, on the Shepherd Isles, Captain Zeequeg gathered this critical information from the locals:
”’Course,’ the Bearded Watchman tells you, ‘there are no actual shepherds on the Shepherd Isles. Sheep are mostly illegal here. No indeed, it’s just the name of the genterman that found the islands.’ Greybeards sitting in the village square nod solemnly. ‘No sheep,’ one says. ‘But plenty o’ tales. Ask us anything.”
Zee Zee Zabathia, on shore leave in Whither: “The folk of Whither are quiet and sly and mystical. They subsist on cave-fish and the dust-burrowing beasts of the Waste. The beer, however, is adequate.”
Plenty o’ tales and adequate beer? The makers of Sunless Sea clearly understand something fundamental about the human condition. The game advises you to “Explore. Take risks. Your first captain will probably die. Later captains may succeed.” They might, but smart money says they die. And that’s perfectly okay.
Perishing in The Order, on the other hand, is hard work.
The Order: 1886 takes the Knights of the Roundtable myth and turns it into some kind of Arthurian League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-meets-Underworld situation. You play as Galahad, a grizzled knight who, although he is not the actual Galahad, is himself many centuries old. This longevity is owing to a magic, Grail-infused potion that hangs on a necklace around every knight’s neck. Galahad mostly spends his days exterminating, by turns, a restless proletariat and an even restless-er race of werewolves. The British government that employs Galahad and his fellow knights has been gradually subsumed by the United India Company, a globe-spanning imperialist enterprise with its own private army and dark, dark secrets. The near-immortal knights themselves have unwittingly become the company’s primary tool of oppression. It should be a great setup, but ends up falling flat.
Writing about novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent book, The Buried Giant, The New Yorker’s James Wood notes that a generalized Arthurian setting is perilous for most writers. I would go further and call it a quagmire. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is gangster, and the Richard Harris movie version of Camelot pretty much owns. But that’s it. And even though The Order takes liberties with the traditional Knights of the Round Table dynamic, it still falls victim to its own self-seriousness and confused mythology. It could use a little more Monty Python, and a little less rolling back and forth while shooting werewolves because videogames.
Of course, if you prefer games where you zipline through windows and blast holes in endless columns of bad guys while dressed in period costumes and sporting a rakish mustache, you’re not going to care too much whether or not the story gels. But to me, it’s just another uber-serious shooter. I’ll take aimlessly chugging around the Unterzee any day.
Drew Toal is a writer based in San Francisco. His work has been featured in outlets like NPR, The Daily Beast, Mental_floss, and the A.V. Club. When he’s not busy fighting climate change (his day job), he enjoys watching his terrible baseball team (the Phillies) and drinking beers (cold ones) on the roof of his apartment with his darling wife (Stacey).