Failbetter Games’ Sunless Skies is out, as of January 31, and I contributed: Carillon, a port in which Devils work to refine the souls that come their way; Sky Barnet, the gateway to the Blue Kingdom; and the Repentant Devil’s officer quest. There was also some nightmare content, a story that you can fall into if your terror grows too great.
I’m going to talk a bit more about those stories; this will be light on any actual specific spoilers, but it will touch on the general lore of Sunless Skies and the Fallen London universe.
Devils, in Fallen London, are intentionally ambiguous. The first Devils to appear in the game would try to romance you, but they were really only after one thing: your soul. (As a player in Fallen London, I once lost my soul by misclicking a button and agreeing to sell when I didn’t mean to.)
Later it emerges that they’re into some souls more than others. By the time I was writing for the Fallen London universe, they’d started to pick up a bit more lore about what they liked and wanted. One of my early stories, Secrets Framed in Gold, touched on that in ways I won’t spoil; a later story, Discernment, involved a Deviless who collects souls but is picky about the life experience of the donors. And of course, because it’s Fallen London, the lore keeps it a bit ambiguous to what extent souls matter at all, and whether there’s any objective reality to the Devils’ pursuit.
Grounded in that lore, Carillon is not a type of Inferno. It isn’t punishing people for specific sins or actions. It is instead a place where people can — often voluntarily — have experiences that will alter their habits, their self-image, and their relationship to the rest of society. (Society, here, includes rubbery squid creatures, stars, giant bees, and everything else in the chain of existence.)
I was particularly interested in exploring the ways people misunderstand and refuse to see themselves, or rely on input from outside to try to determine their own value. But the Devils aren’t there for your convenience, and their treatments may not do much for your self-esteem.
Sky Barnet is the entry point to the Blue Kingdom — and the Blue Kingdom is an afterlife, both bureaucratic and highly ritualized. Souls matter here, too, maybe, but the Devils aren’t the only ones meddling with them.
Sky Barnet gave me an opening to write about the moral meaning of mortality: what does it mean to be creatures who will die, and who have a finite amount of time? What does this indicate about the balance of working towards justice and working towards our own happiness?
The Repentant Devil has his own storyline with several endings, and I won’t spoil that here.
Like quite a few of the officers in the Sunless verse, he can be romanced; and per Failbetter custom, sex scenes are meant to advance the story and the relationship, not just to function as a win condition or a collectible. Besides, “just write something you think is hot” approaches to sex writing are, ah, prone to produce embarrassing results.
Meanwhile, most characters in the Fallen London verse are monstrous in some respect, while the player character’s sexual characteristics are unspecified. Olivia Wood once did a whole talk about the challenges here, which I will link instead of merely paraphrasing it.
Because of all that, the seduction scenes in Sunless are often moments of connection or revelation about very unusual beings, only as explicit as they have to be, and packed into a fairly tight word limit. The combination of imaginative and technical requirements makes for something challenging but extremely fun to write.
As for the nightmares — well, about thirty years ago I had a series of vivid nightmares about something being extremely wrong with my body. The imagery never left. And now you can have it too. You’re welcome.