An occurrence! Something has changed in the Neath! Finally, adventure awaits you in the beautiful but treacherous homeland of the Pentecost apes. To find it, keep zailing East until you hear the distant echo of Salt’s song in your bones. Beware of stowaways. Keep a tight grip on your Echoes, your soul, and if at all possible, your dignity. It is a rare captain who can venture so close to the Uttermost Edge and return to tell the tale. Will you be one of them?
Well, I certainly hope so, or we’ve wasted a lot of time! Hello, I’m Richard Cobbett, one of Sunless Sea’s guest writers. You might remember me from Saviour’s Rocks, that charming little island chain with absolutely no spiders on it whatsoever. For the last few weeks I’ve been working on the Empire of Hands, where things are a little lighter, but perhaps no less dangerous. Now that it’s finally live, I thought I’d give you a little behind the scenes look at how Sunless Sea islands are actually made, and how I went about designing and building up this one specifically.
Needless to say, a few spoilers now follow. Nothing too spoilery, but I’d recommend at least taking a trip to it before reading on. The Empire is a place of mischief and surprise, best experienced on its own terms before being peeled back. There. Warning has been given!
This is a brief extra pause for that warning to sink in.
Spoilery content begins… now.
Each island in the game has specific purposes and unique challenges. For the Empire, by far the biggest was creating a place that was a little lighter in tone than many of the islands out there on the Unterzee, but still possible to take seriously. It’s a land of mischief, but also one of cruelty and bitterness, where apes feud for souls and status in a Court on the brink of collapse. As you arrive, the Emperor has announced plans for a Great Exodus that will finally free them from their Admiralty inflicted quarantine and trade embargo. To actually accomplish it though, they need a few supplies. And fuel. Souls too, if you have them.
What’s great about writing for Sunless Sea is that while everything obviously has to fit the setting and the lore, island briefs are relatively… well, brief! For the Empire of Hands, this mostly involved a rundown of what we know of the Pentecost apes from Fallen London, the key island story that they’re building a Zeppelin to escape, and the rewards and trade goods to integrate and balance. With those as a base, and island art by the ever-talented Mr. Arendt, it was my job to turn the Empire into both a place and a delicious slice of interactive fiction.
The first question then had to be, who are the Pentecost apes? Just treating them as comedy monkeys felt wrong, especially as the pieces came together. In many ways, they’re quite tragic creatures. They want to be people so badly that they steal our souls in the hope of being like us, yet can do little with them except bubble with frustration. As the Exquisite Seneschal points out in her first appearance, London rejects them, yet dines with devils.
The Empire’s mood is an exploration of this, from whimsy on the outskirts, to cruelty in the court, to what lies beyond. Their Wildweald Court is a place of constantly shifting traditions, inspired and moulded by stolen souls. It’s not a specific culture, but here and there you might see scraps of a few in the melange. The colour scheme of the court mandarins for instance is inspired by a book I used to own called Havoc in Heaven, based on an animated version of Journey to the West. The palace itself has elements of Versailles, only sealed and cramped and stuffy to the point that you can chew the air. It features a British style courtroom complete with wigs, a silent Emperor who rules in purple behind a golden mask, and what might look at first glance like a modern TV talent show, yet of course is not. There’s even a little Alcatraz, in their apparent freedom to simply leave, but inability to master the engines that they would require to make it to other islands. Instead, they are forced to seed the zee with treasure maps and other lures to greedy zailors, stowing away to forbidden shores.
Rarely though is anything built with a real sense of understanding or full purpose. This is a people who, hearing that great rulers are buried in ancient tombs, will go out and build theirs an ancient tomb. Not once while doing so will they stop to wonder if they slightly missed the point. The result is played for laughs in places, but not exclusively. I didn’t want to write them as irredeemable, and you treat their high-souled nobles as stupid at your peril. I’m not a fan of ‘always chaotic evil’ type writing at the best of times. Exploring the Empire while Something Awaits You may well reveal a slightly softer or more thoughtful side of the Penties from time to time, as well as a hint of what they could have been had things gone just a little differently. It’s a story only lightly touched on, for their Empire is long past the point of no return, but I felt it was important to include. Very little in the Neath is exactly what it seems, or as simple. In their quest to be men, the Pentecost apes inevitably curse themselves with the knowledge of what they can never have or be. Is it any wonder they often lash out?
Dealing with the Penties’ Court though is just part of what awaits you in the Empire. I’m an old-school adventure game fan, and this was a chance to have a little fun with that. As you explore you find a range of characters there to help and hinder, including BOISTEROUS CANNIBAL PIRATES, a new potential mascot in the Monkey Foundling, and a certain Lady Agatha Treadgold, self-proclaimed Delightful Adventuress, who seeks your help to loot the sacred Vault of the First Emperor. This light parody of a pulp tomb offered a chance to do yet another type of dungeon to go along with Godfall and the Mangrove College, complete with tricks, traps, and what I hope is a most satisfying solution to a certain classic puzzle.
My goal with this side of the island was to create something of a playground that you can dip in and out of as you choose. It’s possible to complete the Zeppelin quest by throwing money at it, but each of its requirements has a far more efficient method that’s also a good deal more fun. There’s also plenty to discover both inside and out of the Court, and a few fun little secrets tucked away for once business is done or for your lineage to discover later.
The obvious catch with all this freedom came on the scripting side. As smooth as the Empire hopefully feels to play, there are a lot of gears clicking away underneath. This is largely a self-inflicted injury, of course, born of being a big fan of responsiveness and phasing in games. The first visible example you’ll likely see of that when you arrive is the Mayor of Port Stanton. Initially three-souled, he gets a couple of opportunities during the storyline to step up a level, while you see the difference it can make. It’s far more interesting to do it this way than just casually say it happens, but expensive in terms of branches and writing snippets needed.
At other times, there are plot related dependencies where one thing has to be done before another to prevent a key item or location being locked off, all of which require their own storylets, branches and rewordings. This can very quickly become a tornado of flapping plot threads, especially in larger locations. (To give an idea of the scale, the Vault of the First Emperor alone has over 40 story branches.) In that kind of situation, you can plan, you can have a notebook full of scribbles, but you’re still going to spend about 30 per cent of your time making the thing and 70 per cent looking for bugs and ordering issues and pesky edge cases. What happens if the player does Y before X? Or if Z is removed from the game while it’s still needed for W? All the potential sequences have to be factored in and tested out.
I think the result was worth it though, and I hope you do too. Let me know! Finally, as a parting gift, here are a few quick snippets that never made it from my notebook to the screen, as a taste of what could have been. The love of a Clay Man. Soul alchemy for fun, profit and puzzles. The option “Eat the Monkey Foundling”. And, sadly, a cameo appearance by someone reminiscent of (but legally distinct from!) a certain mighty pirate. What can I say? I was an adventurer writing the secret of the monkeys’ island. I had to at least try.