It’s no surprise that outer space in Sunless Skies isn’t the terrifying vacuum that we know lingers above our heads. After all, the sea in the game’s predecessor Sunless Sea wasn’t the blue ocean of our Earth—it was the Unterzee, an underground sea populated with its own terrible creatures and peculiar folktales to pursue.
In a blog post, Failbetter Games outlined what will likely come to define the High Wilderness, which is the name given to space in Sunless Skies—note: Failbetter has said that this is all in the early stages and “we might revise it, change it completely.” The studio starts out by saying that it wants to avoid the “traditional” space setting for Sunless Skies, hoping to create something “deep, dark, and marvellous.” However, not everything that characterizes the concept of outer space as we know it is missing.
First of all, we’re told that the High Wilderness isn’t unpopulated or empty. There are entire domains, kingdoms even, with ports and parliaments and chapels. Each has their own character that you’ll come to know. “The Empire’s high territories of Albion are mannered, authoritarian. The Reach is verdant and untamed, its throne empty. Eleutheria is sumptuously dark and riotously pagan. The Blue Kingdom is populated by the dead.”
The people who dwell in these domains are able to do so as the High Wilderness is slightly more inhabitable than our own outer space. It has air but it’s thin and toxic. There are also winds that blow through it: “Some of the winds speak in old, lost voices. Some are hot with the embers of forgotten suns. Some are hungry.” Perhaps these winds are used as a way to travel through the vast expanse of the High Wilderness? Just a thought.
Anyway, the people who dwell in the High Wilderness have developed new cultures and practices to deal with life in this hostile space. One new ailment that haunts them is sky-madness, which is apparently a result of being so close to the light of the stars for so long. “Skyfarers fit stained glass in their locomotives’ portholes to filter the light, and pad their brigs so an afflicted crewman may be confined in safe isolation until they can be offloaded at port.”
Outside of that, another fear the people have to deal with are the “celestial powers” that consider humanity’s presence in space an invasion. These higher powers consider our efforts an act of “aggressive hubris” and it is implied that they will attempt to get us out. That said, the unusual physics of the High Wilderness might deter our space travelling efforts themselves. Failbetter tells us that there are laws governed by the stars in the High Wilderness: “To each thing its place. For all that thinks, a name. For all that lives, a death.” But these can be bent and overturned. “What holds true in our bijou corner of the universe may not be true everywhere,” reads the blog post. “An example: beyond our solar system, planets are rare. They are places of expression and experimentation for the bright regents of the heavens; warded, prized, inviolate.”
Those are all of the major differences between the High Wilderness and our understanding of outer space that Failbetter has outlined so far. It has also described two similarities: the High Wilderness is very cold and can kill within quarter of an hour if you aren’t wearing insulated clothing. But the freezing temperatures have encouraged people to form close-knit communities in order to share warmth and meals. Secondly, the High Wilderness has wells (also seen in Fallen London and Sunless Sea), which are essentially black holes.
However, while the wells function practically the same as black holes, the cultures of the High Wilderness have made use of them in ways we haven’t. “Certain unspoken cults gather at their rim to perform distressing rites,” we’re told. “If an enemy is too inconvenient to kill, the courts of the heavens consign them to a well. Do not stray too close. Ignore any voices within.”
Failbetter Games is taking Sunless Skies to Kickstarter in February 2017. You can find out more about it on its website.