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The Pull of Nuncio

By Failbetter, January 28, 2015 · Sunless Sea

Note from Failbetter: This is a blog from Emily Short, guest writer on Sunless Sea. She’s discussing the narrative design behind Nuncio, an island on the Unterzee which was commissioned by one of our delicious Kickstarter backers. You should probably zail to Nuncio and enjoy the story before reading any further.

Nuncio is the third island I’ve written for Sunless Sea — I also worked on Station III, based on a concept of my own, and Visage, which was a backer-requested island with an intriguing but open-ended brief. For Nuncio, though, there was a more detailed brief than usual: the backer had specific ideas about life on an island filled with rats and postmen, and the tone was more comedic than the other two islands I’d done.

nuncio

So from the outset I had a clear story arc to work from: the protagonist meets an island of quirky postmen and learns that the island has a supernatural pull on undelivered messages. I broke the arc down into a list of discoveries that the player could make: first find out that the “pull” exists, then learn about its physical and psychological manifestations, then find that it’s been working from this location for a lot longer than London has been Fallen.

Because Sunless Sea is quality-based narrative — that is, story unlocks dependent on the values of different qualities — it’s important to think early on about which qualities are going to provide the structure of your story and how they’re going to advance. In this case, I kept it simple: the Learned in Postal Secrets quality would track progression of knowledge, and there would be a few choke-points where the player needed a secondary quality in order to advance further.

Then for each of those steps I worked out a couple of different ways the protagonist could find out the relevant piece of information. You can encounter the Pull yourself by gathering correspondence on Nuncio Beach, or you can be told about it by postmen in the pub. You can gain access to certain areas of the Dead Letter Office by making friends with the postmen and gaining their trust, or by doing enough shiftwork in the office.

Partly this variation was intended to give the island replay value — if you came back to it with a second captain, you wouldn’t necessarily be reading all the same text. Likewise, a player who visited Nuncio many times would learn the fastest way to progress, which would mean that there could be a satisfyingly long story on the first visit but repeat visits would require less work for those focused on the island’s economic rewards.

 nuncio_portgaz

I had another goal as well: I wanted to let the player choose how much the experience of Nuncio was about getting close to the island’s inhabitants. It’s possible to play through the whole story in a stand-offish way, spending little time in the pub with other characters and focusing on solo exploration; or alternatively you can make it all about getting to know the people. The fact that you can get several kinds of Port Report text reflects this as well: if you do your Port Report right away when you arrive, it will be very different from what you might write after you’ve spent some time on the island and learned its secrets. And yet the Admiralty won’t pay you any differently no matter how detailed your information is: sometimes there’s no mechanical reward for getting to know someone well.

(As a side note: the bergamot-pomegranate curd mentioned in one of the Port Reports is a tip of the hat to Eli Brown’s The Feasts of Tre-Mang, a work that is also about learning to have respect and affection for a set of eccentric islanders.)

More than the other two islands I wrote, Nuncio is designed like a classic adventure around locations, knowledge triggers, and inventory. Go to one location, find something interesting or learn an interesting fact, go use it at another location in order to advance further. To flesh that out, I supplied ways to use each new item or fact unproductively as well as a way to do it right. When you get a sack of dead letters, you can advance the story by taking it to the Dead Letter Office and sorting it, or you can get a chilly reaction from the other postmen by taking it to the Inky Blotter and setting it on fire. There are also a number of branches that let you chat with other characters about what you’ve learned so far.

Nuncio isn’t meant to be a difficult puzzle. There aren’t enough options for the player to get stuck. The capacity for doing “wrong” or non-advancing actions is meant to break up the strict linear progression, and get the player thinking about the logic of the island and what is likely to make a positive difference. The “bad idea” and “optional” story branches also gave me room to introduce some of the sillier elements of the story.

The final structural element is the parcels you can claim at Nuncio Beach or the Dead Letter Office depending on the Something Awaits You value. These parcels help make sure that the player receives some game-economy reward each time she comes to the island. They were also a chance to add references. The whole island was inspired by the rat-sending features of Fallen London and the Ratmas joke, so it seemed obvious to put in a “refused” rat parcel as one of the things you could find on Nuncio, and several of the other parcels refer to Fallen London lore that otherwise might not be mentioned in Sunless Sea.

 ratpostmangaz

Putting some goofiness into the side events left me free to go darker with the core story. The backer brief focused on the experience of being a Fallen London postman, and how unpleasant that might be — all those boxes of semi-feral cats! But I wanted to go beyond the surface discomforts and hint at the compulsive scrupulosity that results from working in a system that treats impossible demands as a moral necessity. The Hairless Postwoman suffers from trichotillomania, a real condition in which people compulsively pull their own hair out. It’s implied that a lot of the other postal workers have developed more or less pleasant coping mechanisms. They are all suffering mentally, even spiritually, because the job of Messenger is so cosmically important in the Fallen London universe but is impossible for them to do completely.

And so the final question of the story is a reflective choice: how do you feel about that? Do you have sympathy for the postmen, or do you look down on them? Or do you not think that the human cost of Nuncio really matters at all?

 

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the truthseeker Aug 4, 6:30pm

Just wanted to take a moment and thank you for one of my most fun story progression stops in SS. It's nod to the toils of doing an impossible to complete task and the duty of doing it anyway really was touching. [indirect spoilers to Sunless Sea and somewhat Spoilers to Fallen London follows to other readers if applicable.] The revelation of the corresponding (or should I write Corresponding, considering what are truly "Gods" in this and the Fallen London universe) presence at the bottom of the hollow island making this order even what what it orders is secondary was a brilliant touch! It made my first-time discovering captain (not understanding it but intuitively) "love to hate the Chain" so to speak! I hope to see more work like this in FL/SS, but wherever you write like this, do keep it up! (And sorry Frost, you were close, but not quite there. Look to the Stars, literally. Defiant was one. Dawn Machine is not a god, yet, but would be a false one if ever so. Men making their own stars to rule means an in-pain abomination that could rule men and the world instead hatefully. Other things like a certain mountain and such are worshiped like gods even if not, but are also abominations that would not be allowed to exist if the Neath were hidden from Correspondence by a lot of Irrigo in a Nadir cavern. But yes, the only way to order lost mail was done this way by something that must maintain order, even in a place where Law is often is unenforced. Think of that the next time you wish upon a shooting star.)

Frost Aug 1, 3:17am

So, I've played through Nuncio several times. I didn't really get it at all until I read this blog. If you walk along the beach and take soundings of how deep the water is, the entire beach vibrates like a drum: which makes me think the island is hollow. This isn't answered directly, but I think it's implied that blemmigans will change this in some way. I haven't been back yet since I seeded the island, but its on my list. The spire at the bottom of the pit makes me think there is a deity at work here. Early on in the game, 3 gods are established to exist in-universe. They are Salt, Stone, and Storm. But when you get to Kingeater Castle, it's implied that this place is an altar to the gods. And around the crown of the stadium, there are 5 heads (possibly six, but it was removed to allow players to enter the arena. I say six because rather than being shaped like a stage it is shaped like an arena, and it is clearly designed for six patrons. This leaves 3 gods unnamed. One I believe is Defiant, I met him in Wither. The fifth could be the Dawn Machine, just throwing that out. But I believe The Pull of Nuncio is caused by an unnamed Deity of Nuncio. Think about it. All this post that washes up on the beach, it doesn't just come from Fallen London or the Khanate. I believe this island draws in lost post from all over the surface world. To me, the entire island exists as a way for lost letters and parcels to be "un-lost." So that someone, someday could come to collect them. This deity is striving to make sure that even messages lost en route are not truly lost. Thus, it could be a form of forgiveness for the postal workers having "failed" in their "duty" to deliver the messages. Even though they messed up, or couldn't handle the job, the post is still saved. So they can be content with the knowledge that even though the receiver won't receive whatever it was they were waiting for, the package itself is not truly lost forever. It's simply..........in purgatory. Waiting.

Lord Herman Jan 29, 7:30am

I came across Nuncio just the other day. My ship was almost out of fuel and supplies, and my crew was about to resort to cannibalism when I reached the island. So I imagine my captain resigned himself to living on the island permanently, joined the post office to make a living, and, his curiosity getting the better of him, found out things (post)man was not meant to know. Then he fled the island and got eaten by his crew. This was probably my favourite island so far, and a great place for a desperate crew to be saved by. Thank you!

TheThirdPoliceman Jan 29, 4:11am

I just encountered EmShort's name reading a story in Elegy for a Dead World. Pleasantly surprised to see it again.

Zee! Jan 29, 1:52am

I had the pleasure of playing through Nuncio soon after launch, and I knew that it was a place that I would love. I think the glimpse of the postman's outfits was tremendously telling, and that spurred me to message a friend at 2 in the morning telling her "You have to go to Nuncio!" I have no particular love for the Rattus (why yes this is a Rat-skin Jacket!) but the other elements on the island make it such a bittersweet mix of terrifying and adorable that the whole experience is delicious (like a fine chocolate). :)