Sunless Skies sees you take to the heavens in a flying train. You shuttle your wares from port to port, in the quiet expanse of space. Rain falls, crickets chirp, and through it all the engine of your locomotive gently chuffs along. In your downtime you ask one of your officers to play you a tune, and he promises to make you cry. At night, when it’s just you and the stars, and your crew lie asleep, there’s a knock on one of your windows: it’s the frozen corpse of a lost crew-member. They’re wearing the scarf you gave them the last time you met; it’s cold outside. Won’t you please let them in?
Sunless Skies is a meditative experience. It can take minutes in real time to travel from one port to another, carrying with you the honey requested by devil actors, or the tea needed to fuel a worker’s revolution. In this time, the landscapes gently shift below your bird’s eye view of the world. Familiar buildings drop away, and you navigate with landmarks both mapped and unmapped: a wreck swarmed by marauders; the fallen spectre of Big Ben; the sound of rainfall that announces Port Avon. Your officers’ remarks appear in the world as you travel through it, and past them, as only transitory moments in your journey.
With no fast travel, it is only encounters with hostile ships and wild creatures that break up your journey. You’re left with long moments to simply be mindful of your surroundings, as a tiny figure surrounded by the great expanse of the high wilderness.
Sunless Skies is a horror game, with no illusion of safety. From the moment you leave port and venture out into the pressing darkness, your fuel and supplies begin to dwindle. Your terror grows, literally blooming in the HUD, and with it the threat of madness, and of mutiny. As in any captain’s map, a threat lingers at the edge of the known world: here be monsters.
To run low on fuel may see any crew member thrown out among the stars to gamble on the attention of the gods that they might accept a sacrifice in return for a small amount of aid—if you’ve even earned their notice to start with. It’s a risk that only sometimes pays off, and a choice that will come back and haunt you.
The ports where the game saves and you replenish your supplies are no safer than the wilderness of the skies, but instead serve as homes for opportunities to be curious. Horror in Sunless Skies isn’t something that simply happens to an unaware captain, but something they explore, eyes wide open, because the alternative is not knowing what could have happened.
In Langley Hall, you are warned that, should you hang up your hat and declare your intention to stay awhile, you’ll find it all the more difficult to leave behind. “[T]he Hall engenders dreams that weigh like an anchor on the dreamer.” If you keep your guard up, and your coat and hat, you can explore the house—a little—but find yourself unable to mingle with other guests, enjoy the ongoing party, or seek out the mystery of the missing lord of the house.
It’s only if you accept the invitation to stay, to make yourself comfortable, that Langley Hall can become a source of horror. In one instance, among its endless corridors and myriad rooms, it shows you a warm lounge occupied by a warm fire, sleeping cats and dozing guests. You’re offered the option to rest—and the note that it will cost you one of your crew.
“You curl up amidst the menagerie of cushions scattered onto this couch and lay your head to rest. The crackle of the fire lulls you into a state of half-sleep.
You dream of a cellar, deep beneath the building, where creatures long sleeping begin to wake. Grey-green and mottled, like cancerous worms. They were tasked with the devouring of distance, but have been lured to sleep. In their absence, a great crime has been perpetrated on top of them. One day, one day soon, they’ll wake. They’ll be very hungry.
You wake. One of your crew informs you they intend to remain in Langley Hall.”
There is no compulsion, no skill check to fail. You’re simply offered a cosy room, a comfortable chair—and the known cost of another person. You can easily choose not to engage, or pay the price to satiate that curiosity: what lies behind this cosy, unassuming scene that will take another person’s life? Whatever nightmares Langley Hall may hold, the implicit answer is: your own choices.
There’s horror in the solace of Sunless Skies. The quiet meditation between ports isn’t a moment of peace for a survivor of terrible things, or the penetrating quiet of fleeing into the night; it’s an indulgence. There are monsters on the horizon, and what’s left of your crew that you haven’t killed through negligence or necessity may be planning to kill you in turn. You may have caught the attention of the gods, and they are seldom merciful. It’s a beautiful night, however, and the thrum of the engine is so soothing and consistent. Why not choose to take this moment to relax?
Much like in Langley Hall, horror lies in finding comfort in a discomfiting place. It takes a commitment, a knowing compartmentalisation of the risks. The rain won’t lull you if you’re in a state of vigilance for sky beasts and draining fuel—no more than you would think to curl up and sleep as a passing visitor in someone else’s house. It’s the act of making peace with the threats around you, and the ones you pose, that makes your quiet travels in Sunless Skies so terrifying.