Into the Maw of Despair – Sunless Sea: Zubmariner DLC
The world of Fallen London was yet again enriched this month with the release of the long-awaited Zubmariner DLC for Sunless Sea. A stretch goal of the Sunless Sea Kickstarter campaign, Zubmariner promised to expand on the hints of sub-aquatic travel lore already present in Fallen London, and take players to a deeper and darker place than ever before. As the surface of the Unterzee already features sea-urchins from space who speak the language of stars, and a malevolent living mountain that’s can’t be permanently killed, it seemed a tall order. Still, the early promotional materials were intriguing to say the least, so as a KS backer myself I was very ready to be hyped.
Zubmariner delivers results. With ten new ports lurking at the zee-floor, eight new zee-monsters, all of them formidable, and three different kinds of enemy zubmarine, there is no shortage of brand new content. Even the world-weary zee captain who has nurtured their ship’s legacy for ten in-game years or more, could still find something new to be astonished by. Or murdered by, if we’re to contend with the most universally resented feature of Zubmariner, the giant spider called a “Constant Companion”.
Much of the new content ties closely with existing features, and expands on existing lore. Diligent players of both Sunless Sea and Fallen London will surely recognize the new ambition, immortality, and have at least some idea of what direction it might progress. Aside from digging deeper into a part of the game’s world that has long intrigued, the immortality ambition is carefully constructed in such a way that it leads the player through the DLC’s new content, requiring first a trip to Port Carnelian, where zubmarines are constructed, and then a protracted tour of several zee-bottom ports.
A pre-existing captain, or at least legacy, is the best way to, ahem, dive into Zubmariner’s new quests. The quest to procure your first zubmarine hints to the player that this is advanced content, not suitable for a green zee captain with an under-equipped vessel. Once this goal has been once achieved, though, it sticks. Future captains of the same lineage will have to make the trip south, but won’t be required to gather materials. the in-story justification being that your sponsor in expedition recognizes this new captain as a legitimate heir of the original one. The Fierce Philanthropist, as she is called, makes a fun addition to Fallen London’s gallery of eccentrics. Following the immortality ambition lets the player learn something more about her.
The dark zee-floor is terrifying in its own way, as befitting a horror game like Sunless Sea. Failbetter Games, though, has a unique way of infusing their cosmic horrors with an odd thread of optimism. Zubmariner emphasizes this, as the new ports are, for the most part, refuges for the rejected members of society, their guilt and grotesquery being too much to handle, even for a world where some people wear the face of squid.
The city of Anthe, for example, is a place where desperate people can replace parts of their bodies with crystal, muting undesirable sensations as a form of extreme self-purification. Scrimshander is the city of historians, which allows all to enter but demands a sacrifice to leave. Its archives are deep and twisty, employing a labyrinthine mechanic that long-time players will recognize from Godfall’s spire or Mangrove College’s Wisp-Ways. Nook’s populace float naked, free of all but the most minimal possessions, in the toothy Darwinian maw of a stationary zee-beast. A desperate woman may send you to the port of Aigul, built on a Lorn-Fluke, to retrieve her brother’s regrets.
Regret remains a running theme through the game, along with secrets both high and low, the secret mechanics of the universe itself, and the torrid, ugly secrets of simple mortals like yourself. An intrepid captain might pursue the great secret of the Presbiterate, and its proximity to the legendary Mountain of Light. For the more prosaic-minded, there’s a profit to be turned in gaming people’s secret shames, assuming you don’t mind being an agent of despair and psychological destruction.
But if the bottom of the Unterzee is the place where dreams go to die, it is also a place where new dreams can be built to take their place. Many of the stories hidden below the surface walk a familiar knife’s edge between horror and wonder. The characters who populate them, for the most part, don’t fall into the complacence of true despair. Not for the first time when playing a Failbetter game, I found myself surprised by how perversely optimistic the game could be, here at the edge of all things. In the game’s lore, the darkness of the Neath grants freedom from traditional forms — a freedom for people who would never flourish in the light. And so I found it a rather comforting experience, at times.
Until I got attacked by a giant spider, that is.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.