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On Sunless Sea, and the ‘Intended Experience’

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I originally posted this to r/patientgamers, and it sparked some interesting discussion. I thought it might fit in here too.

So I recently 'finished' 'playing' Sunless Sea (SS, an unfortunate acronym, but the one the game demands).
I say 'finished', because I have not seen everything the game has to offer — I doubt anyone has but the developers. I simply reached a point where I had seen everything I cared to see, including most of the substantial locations and storylines, and several endings.
I say 'playing' because, for most of my time with it, I didn't engage with any of the game elements of SS as they were meant to be engaged with; I cheated.

For those out of the loop, SS is an interactive text adventure with a bolted-on sailing-exploration rogue-light survival-horror game. If that sounds muddled and confused to you, I would agree! I played the game as intended for about 8-10 hours, and it was the impression I received.
There is the huge Unterzee (the name of the game's placid underground ocean) to explore, filled with diverse, beguiling locations that house stories which are almost always interesting. But exploration is hard. You need fuel, food supplies, weapons, crew. If your terror rises too high, none of those matter anyway, when the entire ship is suffering from nightmares and a mutiny is one bad day away. Even supposing you do reach the far-flung wonders of the sea, you might fail a skill check, losing both resources and the interesting stories promised by the port. Or you might not have the right resources on your ship to begin those stores. Then you need to leave, travel to a place where you can get that resource, and return. That travel will be most of your time with SS, slowly chugging from island to island, watching your various resources dwindle, avoiding the monsters and pirates along the way that will permanently kill your captain and force you to start from the beginning again. That's the rogue influence, by the way, upon death all your progress resets and you create a new captain who can only retain one possession from the last.

In every respect, SS expresses hostility to the player, all of its mechanics actively preventing most players from seeing the text that is the game's biggest selling point. On the one hand, I can appreciate this as an artistic decision. Such dedication to obtuse difficulty and a complete lack of respect for the player's time reinforces the danger and mystery of this Lovecraft-inspired world, making every nugget of information gleaned feel truly rare and powerful. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of words in SS, most of them sequestered away behind enough distance and skill-checks and inventory items that no one will ever see them. Those words are often genuinely interesting, and are what most players will have bought the game for. However, as players die, they will be forced to repeat the same few stories on the same few islands that surround Fallen London, the player's base of operations.

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I hope I have communicated my respect for SS. It is singularly committed to its mood and themes, even compromising its gameplay and storytelling for the cause. I'm usually okay meeting games with a vision like this on their own terms; I completed Pathologic 2 on its default spirit-trampling difficulty, and genuinely think the cruelty enhanced the play. However, I ultimately wanted to see more of SS, to make journeys further East, uncover the characters and stories obscured by ungainly mechanics; most of all, I wanted to see all of this without spending months of my life staring at my ship crawl through the featureless black ocean as if it were treacle. So I installed Cheat Engine.

Now, a few weeks later, I'm done. I've seen stories, events, and character moments I never would have reached before. I've seen the game at its best and worst. I don't feel at all guilty for this experience; I did what the developers wanted and appreciated their craftsmanship, now I wanted to examine the writing that functioned as a back-bone to all the surrounding systems.

To bring this all to some kind of conclusion, I guess this was something I wanted to get down as I've been thinking about the nature of games as a collaboration between developer and player. Developers create content to see and systems to engage with, all (hopefully) working toward some overall purpose — whether that be creating a certain experience for the player, or communicating a message, or whatever else art can do. Players can then choose to interact with the game-as-developed however they choose, as the developers intended or otherwise. Neither is right or wrong, and neither is guaranteed to produce a 'superior' experience. I played SS as intended, and found a unique experience where I expected only frustration (although there was some of that!) I then ignored or actively subverted every mechanic, and found a new type of enjoyment, comparable to more traditional text-based games.

I would suggest everyone give the developer-intended mode of interaction a chance. For most games, it probably will lead to the most interesting, fun, or artistically fulfilling experience (after all, the developers know their game better than you do). I've already mentioned how Pathologic 2 was — for me — best met on its own terms. Even SS might have been more interesting as the developers intended, despite my need to see all the text. But you are the player, the lead actor and sole audience member, and you can fill your role however you damn-well please!

TLDR: play games however you want, I'm not the fun police. Does anyone else have thoughts or experiences about unintended ways to play games?

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