I’ve been taking the opportunity of finally getting kind of burned out on Dark Souls to go back through my massive Steam backlog and try out some of those games acquired over the last decade but never actually installed or played. Currently I’m exploring Sunless Sea, a spinoff of the browser-game Fallen London, in which London for no apparent reason sank underground and is now part of a hellish surreal underworld (more so). In Sunless Sea, you play a captain exploring the underground ocean London now rests in, finding your way from island to island and scraping together the resources to keep your voyage going by doing favors for the powers that be.
In practice, it’s largely a simple naval combat game strapped to an anthology of choose-your-own-adventure short stories. Perhaps a reductive description, but it gives an idea as to the experience. I could dig into a critique here, but I’m not going to because I’d like to talk about something more specific.
I’d like to talk about Pigmote Isle.
Sometimes you find something that just doesn’t seem to fit. Most games nowadays are group efforts, and Sunless Sea employs many illustrators and writers who seem to have been largely left to their own devices, given the smattering of diverse art and prose styles. However, Pigmote Isle’s story just didn’t seem to be on the same page as the rest of the game. To start with, the prose style shifted so abruptly, into a past-tense chronicle style with chapter headings and everything, that for a while I believed I was supposed to be reading someone elses journal rather than experiencing the events for myself. I encountered two envoys, one of a group of talking guinea pigs and the other a group of talking rats, on the eve of a war they were about to have. They each gave me some back story about why the conflict was happening, and then demanded I pick sides. I sided with the rats since they seemed rather downtrodden, and with my help they won the war, though I convinced them to show mercy to their fallen foe.
Bringing a report of this back to the admiralty, the reaction seemed to be that I was bringing them some outlandish nonsense. This would make sense if this game wasn’t set in an insane dreamscape where the existence of talking rats was already well-established, amongst many other far stranger creatures. Why they should pick this particular strange event to balk at, when I was regularly transporting crates of souls and sentient clay men across an underground ocean full of malicious icebergs, I couldn’t say.
From this point on, I was in the position of making crucial choices about the future of this colony. Here’s where it lost me. Every story we tell holds a belief system about cause-and-effect: That this situation would cause a character with this background to act in such-and-such way, would lead to this chain of events, would create this story. Each story contains a world-view, and though this aspect isn’t very important or noticeable when you’re dealing with a tale of a few individuals, when you expand it out to an entire society, posit that this event would create this outcome, the burden of plausibility becomes greater. When you slot that into a choose-your-own-adventure scenario, and make the map between cause and outcome so clear and close to the surface, you really have to show your work – if you don’t, it becomes a tale of how you believe the ideal society should be run rather than that of a struggling colony making hard choices.
I got a chance to make two choices before the colony was destroyed.
In the first, there were rumors of a monster in the forest preying upon the rats, rumors which had them hiding in their homes instead of doing productive work. I had the choice to either burn the forest or conduct a hunt. The hunt had a chance of failure: If the hunt failed, I envisioned severe morale issues – and there was no guarantee the creature even existed. I chose to burn down the forest, on the premise that it would DEFINITELY solve the problem, the existence of the creature would be proven or disproven, and we could move on.
There’s a few odd parts to this scenario. One, again, monsters are extremely commonplace in this world. Am I supposed to interpret this as superstition when the most likely explanation for the rumors of a monster in the forest are, in fact, a monster in the forest? Especially when, two, these are rats, so how monstrous does a monster have to actually be here? A cougar? A wolf? A fair number of forests are full of animals that could gobble up a rat without a trace just by default, even in a world without ‘monsters’.
Anyway. The result of burning down the forest was that the rats became stronger militarily but became less civilized – in fact, rather uncivilized. I’m not sure whether that was because of the ecological setback or because we gave credence to ‘wild rumors’.
My second and last decision: A rat was caught stealing bread, which he claimed was to feed his family. A classic. I had three choices: Advocate mercy, execute him, or brutally and spectacularly execute him. I advocated mercy. This apparently meant letting him off completely scot free, not doing anything about the underlying problem, and continuing to allow other rats to steal without getting punished indefinitely, leading to the collapse of civilization on Pigmote Isle.
Reading the wiki now, I see that having him publicly drawn and quartered would have increased the civilization of Pigmote Isle. Perhaps the issue is that the game and I are operating on very different definitions of civilization – though, I must admit, their definition seems to enjoy a great deal of popularity, historically.
So, now. The game is forwarding a hypothesis about what allows the world to work, about how society functions and the role of justice within that society. If I disagree with the game, civilization collapses. The future of Pigmote Isle depends on my ability to interpret the cultural values of the game’s writer, and to moreover submit myself to agreeing with them.
But I don’t agree. I don’t agree that punishing those trying to survive by giving them death is necessary for society. I don’t agree that mercy erodes order. If this was a game premised on these kinds of societal decisions, I would expect to have to buy into assumptions like these, but instead it’s been put inside of a very different kind of game.
It’s not so much a matter of suspension of disbelief as it is of suspension of disagreement. Every game has things that we feel to be incorrect, either for reasons of abstraction or of fun or just of different viewpoints – the way stat systems work doesn’t often map very well to real-life aptitudes, for instance, or the economic systems are grossly oversimplified. We go in expecting to make certain allowances for things that seem wrong to us – however, an abrupt genre switch takes us outside of those boundaries, into a territory where maybe we’re not so on-board with those premises.
The worst part for me, though, is that the thing I did buy into with Sunless Sea was that I would be emotionally open to this world and its characters. Even if I disagree with nearly everything about its creation, I still feel protective of Pigmote Isle.
And I still think my way should have worked.