Sea of Thieves is not a game that initially sells itself on its lore. Most of the word of mouth for the game revolves around the thrill of player-versus-player combat; there’s not a lot of nuance or world building to be found there. Despite the fact that the game doesn’t make story a top priority, there’s still a surprising amount of lore there, and the last two expansions (Cursed Sails and the currently running Forsaken Shores) go to new lengths to build the weird and wonderful world of Sea of Thieves.
The storytelling is silly, brightly colored, dramatic, British and firmly tongue-in-cheek, and it’s become one of my favorite games for story and world building in 2018. I have played through countless games in the past few years where I am forced to look down at my protagonist’s own hands and wonder: Am I the bad guy? Sea of Thieves, on the other hand, has you investigate a skeleton lord’s hidden base only to find the smoking gun labeled “The Evil Pirate’s Code.” The game is a breath of fresh air, and Rare is moving forward to flesh the world out.
“Ultimately, what we really wanted to focus on was the pirate adventure, the sense of travel and exploration and discovery,” said Rare executive producer Joe Neate, during a gameplay session with Polygon.
Shelley Preston, a senior designer, agreed whole-heartedly. “We wanted to go for a feel of children playing dress up, that sense of playing pirate.”
As for what “pirate” means to Rare, Neate later clarified that its a pirate world built by British people who are wholly landlocked; a very wholesome take on the cultural zeitgeist of piracy. It may not be as historically authentic as, say, the upcoming Skull and Bones from Ubisoft, but it doesn’t want nor need to be. This is a world where you get clues from parrot skeletons, and your primary enemies are skeletons who eat bananas and menace you with sniper rifles.
It’s a breath of fresh air, and even better, Rare is taking the story to new and slightly more serious places. Forsaken Shores is the most story-heavy expansion yet, and it arrives alongside tie-in novels and comics that flesh out the world of Sea of Thieves.
Execution and operation
Sea of Thieves is a game that screams classic Rare, from the environments to the locations to the sound design. Each NPC is voiced by a Rare employee, which creates a feel that Preston and Neate admit is less professional but more, well... Rare, harkening back to classics like Donkey Kong Country and Banjo Kazooie.
You don’t actually talk to NPCs that often though, or rather, they often aren’t the ones giving you critical information. If you load into the game for the first time or the five hundredth time, you’ll encounter one of the Gold Hoarders at a trading outpost ready to give you a quest. If you look closely at them, you’ll notice that parts of their skin have sloughed away, revealing... gold. It’s mildly unsettling, even though the Gold Hoarders are all cheerful chaps who will happily extol the virtues of their lifestyle.
What about mermaids? If you fall off your ship, a helpful mermaid will appear next to you with a big plume of blue smoke to teleport you back to your vessel. It’s the sort of gameplay interaction most people have taken a thousand times without thinking about it, but there’s just one problem. We’ve seen mermaid statues, thanks to one of the Bilge Rat Adventures, and the mermaids who help us look much more human than the bug-eyed, malicious mermaids of the deep sea.
If you look around on islands, you’ll see cave paintings that reveal the truth: When sailors fall overboard, they are found by mermaids and taken to the depths, where they are transformed to join the merfolk. The mermaids who help us are presumably sailors who are trying to save us from their fate.
For the most part, this is how players learned about the Sea of Thieves — they just encountered the world around them through organic play, and the occasional short campaign that went along with an expansion pack.
To new shores
Forsaken Shores seems to be the expansion where the developers are setting up some big things about the world. What’s nice is that it all remains pretty background; this isn’t World of Warcraft or something, where you’re reading through paragraphs of text to understand why characters are doing things.
If you play through the Sea of Thieves campaign, however, you’ll find out some interesting facts about the world — facts that seem to be building toward something bigger. You find out that the fog around the Sea of Thieves can be parted by enchanted figureheads, which have shattered and spread to the four winds. Stitcher Jim, the pirate who betrayed his crew and left them to die in the Devil’s Roar, serves a large and wealthy master, with plans in effect. While it’s a relatively minimal and barebones story, it’s the first Sea of Thieves expansion campaign that’s left open-ended. In The Hungering Deep and Cursed Sails, we find and eliminate the antagonist. With Forsaken Shores, Stitcher Jim simply taunts us and tells us there’s more to come.
Frankly, I’m excited to see the next steps in the Sea of Thieves story, because even when the game flirts with darker storylines, it’s all so refreshing. The game’s lore is appropriately deep and full of mystery, but it refuses to take itself seriously; it’s a pirate game of dress-up, and it’s a welcome change of pace from so many other big titles in 2018. Sometimes, I just want to sail the seas, fight skeletons and hang out with a sassy haunted pirate. Sea of Thieves’ world strikes the best possible tone of piracy for me: tongue in cheek, sassy, and with just enough childlike wonder to keep me hooked.