The Company Shanty

We glide through the water with greatest of ease;
Nameless creatures still slumber ‘cos we’re quiet as the breeze; 

Our fuel tanks stay full in this long moonless night;
Barely two barrels to old Venderbight;

The Iron and Misery don’t take our trade;
With the greatest of care these fine engines were made;

Each time we sing this in earshot of land…   
Fifty echoes are ours given by the kind hand

Don’t panic; I havn’t been overpowered by a group of lyrical pirates hellbent on spreading the word of their corporate sponsors via my blog. The above shanty (to be sung to a tune similar to that of ‘Blow the Man Down’) is my entry for the competition currently being run by Failbetter Games creators of ‘Fallen London and ‘Sunless Sea’ – Full competition details can be found here and I strongly advise you to enter.

‘Sunless Sea’ lets you have a ferret… that’s pretty much all you need to know…

Penning a salty-shanty has also highlighted a few things for me to work-up into a post…

First up; everyone should write a sea-shanty, because you will be singing & humming it for days which is particularly inappropriate if, like me, you live in the middle of the landmass that you call home with no hint of salt in the air. Your new shanty friend will stick with you on the train, in the office, in the supermarket … pretty much wherever you are and will not go away; so thank-you Failbetter for that ‘gift’.

More interestingly, my own take on the competition to create a tribute to ‘Leadbeater and Stainrod’, a company responsible for producing many of the ship’s engines within ‘Sunless Sea’, did highlight how important the artificial branding is within games to bring that world to life. Branding is so ingrained in our own lives that we barely notice it consciously, however its absence in games, or the addition of generic brands on shop signage etc. can leave a game world feeling sterile and artificial. There have been some iconic and memorable cases of in-game branding. Some obvious examples that jump out are ‘Nuka cola’ from the fallout series; ‘Aperture Science’ from Portal, and ‘Ryan Industries’ from Bioshock. It is not just the obvious brands that stick with us however, ‘Huff ‘n’ Puff’ cigarettes in ‘The Wolf Among Us’ provides not only a wry smile, but being tied so inexorably to the character Bigby Wolf become part of his identity, linking him to the game world and providing a consistency throughout the events that transpire.

The teams featured in the ‘Wipeout’ series are another solid example of in-game branding. ‘Wipeout’ has a characteristic angular, futuristic, aesthetic displayed in everything from the ship design & architecture to the menu font and information graphics. The team branding in this case needed to both reflect that overall aesthetic whilst also giving each team an individuality within the game making then distinctive. This was achieved by some clever logo design, the use of colours specific to each brand, and tying that all together with the unique design of each ship in everyone’s favourite anti-gravity racing competition. I’ve only scratched the surface the subject, but it’s something I’m often quite aware of when playing a game – Feel free to post any thoughts or favourite in-game brands in the comments below.

Feisar is iconic for a fake racing team

Finally I’m going to don my best captain’s hat and briefly ramble nonsensically about ‘Sunless Sea’ – I’m not a ‘Fallen London’ player, but was quickly absorbed into the mythos and culture of that world from my voyages across that dark ocean. The game puts the player in the well-worn boots of a zee-captain voyaging across a vast underground sea in a tramp-steamer. The sailing sections take place from a top-down viewpoint and during this portion of the game you can push out the ragged edges of your map, do battle with pirates and monsters, and make port at any of the plethora of locations under that cavernous ceiling. Once on land the game switches from top down graphics to those of your own mind, with the story being told almost entirely in carefully crafted text (the creators report that the game contains approximately 300K words) which brings the factions, terrains and incidents to life. In this respect it’s a game to be taken at a leisurely pace and the real value of it is not in achieving any one thing, but enjoying the journey and soaking up the atmosphere – I’d advise lowering the lights, putting a candle next to your PC, preferably having a ferret sitting on your lap, and really taking on that zee-captain role.

… also lighthouses…

In addition to the writing, Failbetter have also excelled in making the most out of simple ideas: the story plays out in a simple ‘pick-your-own-adventure’ style; the combat is essentially a simple application of chance and stats; and the RPG elements (fuel, fear hunger etc.) all work on simple principles. Combined together, these basic elements create something intricate and varied whilst maintaining the identity of a single game. One of the ways they did this was through excellent use of Steam early-access. For example, the ship-to-ship combat originally worked quite differently; it was semi-turn-based and interrupted normal sailing. Early access revealed that this was disruptive to the flow of the game and so it was completely re-worked & refined to the system now implemented.

‘Sunless Sea’ wasn’t a game that I anticipated spending much time on – but I was pleasantly surprised and fully intend to return to those waters with the promise of new content in the near future…

… but for now I’ll just keep humming that shanty…

3 thoughts on “The Company Shanty

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