Romance in Sunless Sea, part 3: “A Fleeting Clench-and-Wriggle in the Dark”

By Failbetter, February 17, 2015 · Narrative Sunless Sea

Romantic narrative in games is often criticised for being superficial, with a short narrative arc that’s mostly about sex. But some romances are superficial, and mostly about sex. They can still be used to explore character – and to provide more underpinning for the SUNLESS SEA theme I talked about here and here, that of loneliness. Here’s how I wound up writing twenty-six sex scenes in a game that’s mostly about terror, darkness and zee-monsters.
[This is part 3 of a series on romantic themes, mechanics and narrative in SUNLESS SEA. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. Also, MASSIVE SPOILERS for character storylines in Sunless Sea.]

Early on in the Kickstarter, we promised that players would be able to romance their officers. I spent some months, while I was writing other chunks of the game, working through the challenges here.Firstly, we have over a dozen officers, most of whom undergo some profound personal change over the course of their story. I trimmed it down to about nine, but some of these had up to four different states as they went through their own personal arc. That was a lot of content to write, if the romances were substantial branching storylines.


‘There is always the delicate menace of the hook.’

Secondly, I’d already decided (link) to keep the sweetheart storylines quite minimal to avoid skewing the balance of the game, and it would undermine their importance if I put too much flesh on the officer content. Already, the sweethearts were shadowy off-screen presences compared to the officers who are constantly smiling at you from the top of the screen. That made sense too – the allure of the immediate – but it still risked the sweethearts feeling too trivial.Thirdly, I wanted to avoid what’s sometimes called the vending machine model – you use the appropriate currency on an NPC, sex pops out and the story ends. I wanted the sense of something ongoing, but repeat encounters would be tricky without writing a lot of content or, to use an especially unfortunate term, grinding.

But finally – this would be a captain fraternising with an officer. This never went down well at sea. It would cause suspicion and unrest among the crew. It would likely have to be secret.


“Perhaps they’re gone. Perhaps you’ve thought better of it.”

This last made the design click into place. If these were secret affairs in stolen moments, then:

– the player could initiate a romance with an officer, and enjoy a pleasant fictional event and a Terror reduction. But they couldn’t bunk down casually with the officer every night for cheap thrills and terror reduction. People would talk!

– So further trysts became quite rare random events, with both fictional and system effects – it felt like a rare treat, and it didn’t need to be unbalancing.

– This also allowed the Tryst mechanic to mesh with the Sweetheart mechanic. Each time you engage in a Tryst, you increase the risk that your sweetheart might discover what you’d been doing when you returned to port. (We’d established already that your potential sweetheart was either a spy or a diplomat.) In this case they’ll probably leave, taking their substantial terror reduction and possibly their dynasty-creating child with them. Fidelity or comfort? the sailor’s dilemma.

– Finally, in order to make officers feel less trivially available, I had most of them require that one player stat be sufficiently higher than another: this officer prefers cunning to brawn, that one values intuition over intellect. This was also a gentle way to suggest an actual affinity between a PC and an NPC. There was a loophole – players can rearrange equipment to reconfigure their stats – so I considered making the gap much higher. But ultimately I liked players being able to bend the mechanism a little rather than have to reconfigure their character completely to bed an officer they were curious about.


“Sometimes you see through its eyes: sometimes you swear you feel the changes begin in your own flesh. No one must know. No one must know.”

This left me with at least two sex scenes to write for every officer-variation, which I have to admit made me a little self-conscious. Not all writers roll up their sleeves and think ‘oh, wonderful, a sex scene!’, especially if they’re, you know, British. I wanted them to be gently titillating but not explicit, I wanted real variety, and I wanted the officer’s character to shine through in each case.

The tryst setup was enormously useful here to generate variety, and to show character Maybe’s Rival enjoys the risk of an encounter in a gun-barrel. The Genial Magician proposes the discretion of a rope-locker – but if he’s been possessed by a serpent-king of dreams, he can sneak you briefly behind mirrors. The Nacreous Survivor, our most alarming and unhuman option, prefers‘the haddock-scented recesses of the pantry’.


What would be left of us, do you think? ‘A rag and a bone and a hank of hair.’ A devil sang me that song once.”

Another saving grace: having established a pattern, I could then fruitfully break that pattern for variety and character. The Campaigner, in the grip of a fatal disease, will happily seek comfort with the PC – but once cured, she’ll end a tryst with an it’s-not-me-it’s-you speech. If you’ve persuaded the Magician to turn aside from his revenge-quest, avoiding the risk of possession, then his melancholy means the encounter ends rather disappointingly. And so on.

And, as far as I can tell, it’s worked out. Players seem to have enjoyed their illicit flings – and they seem to have engaged more deeply with the officers as a result.  A number of folk have suggested that they’d like a sweetheart who’s a little more broadminded about playing away. Others have been disappointed that they can’t pursue a ‘real’ relationship with officers. And, ultimately, we’re okay with that. SUNLESS SEA is not a life simulator: it sets out to generate stories aligned with a very specific set of themes and events. We’ve achieved what we set out to, and I’d always rather leave players asking for more.


At least two characters out of each row are romanceable officers.

(The title of this blog post is a quotation taken from Fritz Leiber’s ‘Rime Isle’.)


Leave a reply

Harmony Cahill May 31, 9:49am

Is there any way to have a child with an officer? I want to be able to have a kid but I don't want to cheat on the officer I'm having a fling with. It's not like I'd have to tell my crew who the dad of my kid is, after all.

Captain My Lady Mogge IV Mar 9, 10:35am

Not a romance, but I was disapointed to discover that the Ferret is the only one of the mascots you can talk to.

Yuun Feb 28, 7:02am

I appreciate your position, but I for one was really looking forward to options to take officer romances as far as the docked (ahem) romances. If the captain never picks up a London sweetheart, it would be wonderful if their officer sweetheart were mentioned somehow when the captain retires, in a "happily-ever-after" sort of way. Such endings are so rare for this game.... The equipment-swaps you mention were the least of it - getting reputation with my officer was especially hard, since I'd started with double the stat they didn't like. But it was a doable, if lengthy process and I respected the challenge. As a result the experience was even more immersive, since I had to pass on obvious upgrades and questlines simply because it would give me the wrong stat, and this had become a quest in itself. Out at sea, having a wound, not being able to train, and needing only one more point to set it in motion, I found myself choosing the option to sell ones soul to the deviless, just for that point. I thought it was romantic, anyway. Only then to face the surprise and disappointment that it was never intended in this way after all :( So much has to be left up to the imagination in SS - names, for one - it was a shame what became my retirement objective had to also.

Sam Kabo Ashwell Feb 24, 2:29am

Five points to Ravenclaw for getting through this entire series of posts without making a pun on 'ship.'

DragonDai Feb 18, 11:26pm bottom row...I know you can romance Maybe...but who's the other one? Please dear god tell me it's not the cat?!? (hehe)

weregamer Feb 17, 8:25pm

I want to commend you on how well this turned out. I think you achieved everything you mentioned here in my experience of the game. I've managed to go through only 5 captains so far, and I've tried to roleplay each one differently and this particular set of choices has been a big part of that.

wallofillusion Feb 17, 3:54pm

As a writer who (ahem) is occasionally the sort to role up her sleeves and exclaim, "Oh, wonderful, a sex scene!", I'm really looking forward to reaching some of this content. Especially seeing how it reflects and expands character +_+