If Rare’s Latest Adventure Were Named Cartoon Pirate Simulator, Would People Feel Differently About It?
In hour three of a five-hour session of Sea of Thieves recently, I found myself standing at the bow of my galleon with my two crewmates (both friends I play with on a Discord). The sun was setting, the waters were calm, and there was nary a whiff of danger anywhere near. In this moment, I decided to take out my accordion to begin playing a light tune. My two crewmates each took out their hurdy-gurdy, and we played beautiful music for about a minute as we sailed the open ocean. We took a break from our usual dick jokes and bad pirate accents just to appreciate this moment of powerful tranquility, accented by the beautiful hues of the skyline and the light crashing of waves. The scenario is silly enough (why does every pirate have a hurdy-gurdy?) but was incredible in how it let all of us find a moment of wonder in a way that felt organic and unforced.
Once our pretty little moment was over, we headed straight for a fort of skeletons in search of an enormous bounty. In the course of fighting hordes of seemingly invincible skeletons, all of us died several times, our ship was destroyed twice by another galleon of aggressive pirates, and we ended up forfeiting all of our progress at the fort just for everything to be over.
Some may find experiences like this disheartening or demoralizing, but everyone in my group just sort of shrugged it off and moved on. There will be other treasures and thrills to seek. We can take the L on this one.
Both of these experiences, while wholly different, represent exactly what Sea of Thieves is about: trying your best to salvage booty from deadly foes, enjoying the beauty of the sea, and occasionally dying an embarrassing and completely unavoidable death. Such is the life of a pirate.
The Skinny on Sea of Thieves
In Sea of Thieves, the latest Microsoft platform(s) exclusive, you play a pirate setting out to the open waters in search of treasures, loot, fame, and apparently magic skulls. Either alone or in a group of up to four, you complete quests that come from three different sources: the Gold Hoarders quests, where you are given a map (or a riddle) and are told to search for buried treasures; Order of Souls quests, where you are tasked with finding infamous reanimated skeletons, killing them, and returning the bounty to the Order; and Merchant Alliance quests, where you basically just have to go to random islands in search of supplies (e.g. chickens, pigs, etc.). This all appears to be pretty standard fantasy pirate fare, and that’s pretty much the bulk of the game. Other challenges include Skeleton Fort raids, during which your crew attacks a fort containing multiple waves of powerful skeletons in the hopes of retrieving a shipload of booty. In addition, you may find the occasional sunken ship, which could contain some valuable loot in the form of spice crates or powder kegs.
Content-wise, that’s pretty much it. The quests get harder the more you level up in each category (Gold, Souls, Merchant), but the spirit behind them remains largely the same even as you progress further and further. Quests in Sea of Thieves are procedurally generated, so in a sense they’re all birds of a feather; you may not do the exact same thing twice, but you might do five missions consecutively that are 90% identical.
If this sounds like there’s not a lot to do in Rare’s newest title, well, I suppose you’re not totally wrong. The game doesn’t ask you to do too much; there are no epic plotlines or deeply developed characters to be found in Sea of Thieves. The game pretty much just says, “Be a pirate, do pirate things” and leaves you to do that for as long as you want. There’s no concrete finish line or endgame (though if you level up your pirate enough, you gain access to a secrete pirate hideout where you can do “legendary” quests. I have not achieved this yet, so I don’t have much to say about it).
Still, it’s not entirely fair to say that “there’s not a lot to do” in Sea of Thieves, as the actual quests themselves are hardly where the challenge and the complexity sets in. Most importantly, you have to actually captain your ship to said locations, and controlling the ship requires a number of functions: looking at a map to find out where the hell you’re going, pulling down your sails and angling them in the best way possible, knowing when to lower or raise the anchor, and then actually steering your vessel the right way. This isn’t Wind Waker or The Witcher 3, where you get on a boat and just use the joystick to get where you want; you’re actually sailing in a realistic way. If riding with a crew, everyone can assign themselves different roles, including one person (usually me) to make sure the ship isn’t flooding if the ship gets hit with a cannonball or accidentally crashes into a rock.
Every part of riding the boat is more nuanced than in any other pirate game I’ve played. If the deck starts flooding, you have to board up any holes and literally remove the excess water from your ship with a bucket. If you’re caught up in a storm and the ship’s steering wheel and compass are spinning out of control, you can take a compass out of your pocket to find out where you are. If you see an enemy ship in the distance (which you can see with a spyglass), you can then start loading up cannons and preparing for battle. In some cases, a kraken may emerge from the deep, forcing you to defend your ship with cannonballs and well-timed gunshots. So many potential dangers litter the open seas, and Sea of Thieves wants you to experience all of them.
The game teems with different systems to learn at any given time, but what adds to the difficulty is that there’s no constant HUD or mini-map on your screen. What you see is what’s in front of you, and that’s it. If you need to know which way your ship is sailing, consult the map room and check your compass. Some treasure maps you get only give you the shape of the island you need to sail to, so you have to consult the map room with the treasure map to figure out where to go. In addition, you have a cutlass and a pistol for combat scenarios, but the pistol has no crosshairs; you need to aim down the barrel if you want to inflict any damage.
Sea of Thieves is defined by a ton of bare-bones fetch quests, but it’s everything else that makes it an interesting pirate sim. One might get bored searching for white chickens on Rum Runner Island for the third time, but there’s never a time when the game isn’t actively asking you to do something, even if it’s just to get back to the outpost. Whether you enjoy the game largely depends on how much you just love good ol’ pirating.
Less is More
The first hour of Sea of Thieves was one of the most confusing, frustrating experiences I’ve ever had in a game that I ultimately liked. Once you create your character (in a random character generator, which I actually appreciated), you just sort of appear on an island outpost without much explanation of what’s going on or where you’re supposed to go. You can speak to several NPCs who ultimately tell you to grab maps and directions from others, but that’s it. Nobody tells you how to use your ship, how to read maps, how to fix holes in the ship, where to find extra supplies, or the best ways to fight enemies. You are 100% on your own.
Once I figured these things out, though, the entirety of the game opened up. I felt like I could go anywhere and do anything (well, maybe not everything, but a lot), but not in the same way I can in other open-world games. Sea of Thieves has no overarching story, so you’re not beholden to anyone or anything; you literally can do whatever you want and the only potential consequence is death at the hands of a skeleton, shark, or overzealous pirate. The game unfortunately doesn’t reward you too much for exploring without purpose, as you won’t likely find anything too valuable on islands without triggering missions. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no enjoyment in taking extra time to soak in the gorgeous scenery of the next island you visit. You won’t find a ton of collectibles or interesting side quests by exploring beyond the pale, but that doesn’t mean aimless wandering is a completely worthless endeavor, especially if you enjoy pretty world design and finding the occasional powder keg or errant chest (which you can sell at any outpost).
At first I was peeved at the lack of quests beyond the basic ones offered, but as I’ve played more and more, I now appreciate the game’s unusual structure, because the game knows what it is. Sea of Thieves never tries to be more than it needs to be; it lets you look for treasure and attack other ships at any time just like any pirate would, without having to worry about some princess to save or alien invasion to stop. I understand that many have called on Rare to add more content to the game, and more would certainly be welcome, but Sea of Thieves isn’t really about the tasks themselves; it’s about the processes and challenges of getting to and from the islands where the goodies lie. It’s about, well, the highs and lows of being a pirate.
Too often, game developers do too much. They make stories more complicated than they need to be, add more systems than certain games warrant, make open worlds too large, make certain sequences too difficult and others too easy, and artificially extend the length of games in favor of having more “content.” Sea of Thieves eschews many of the tropes that plague games of its ilk (namely open-world, multiplayer pseudo-RPGs) in favor of a stripped-down, straightforward experience. Rare’s latest foregoes much of what defines most AAA titles, and what results is something vast, pretty, simple, and challenging enough to keep players on their toes.
Forever Alone vs. Hell is Other People
Though most people playing Sea of Thieves much prefer the multiplayer aspect, I’ve actually grown to enjoy the single-player experience, which comes with a different set of challenges. When playing with a team, everyone can have their own role, whether either on the ship or on land, which adds to the immersion. When playing alone, however, you fill every single role, which makes the seemingly easy task of getting in a sloop and sailing to a nearby island a challenge on its own, as you have to navigate, steer, and manage the sails all on your own. The same is said for digging for treasures or fighting off hordes of skeletons; in a team, these tasks are usually manageable, but alone become extra challenging, forcing the player to strategize differently.
Playing in a crew creates more hilarious situations and stories, as is always the case when playing with friends, but playing by myself helped me soak in the scenery better (and get a better handle on how the ship works). Sailing through the open ocean on my lonesome, I’m able to fully appreciate the sound of crashing waves and the beautiful, starry sky. Much like riding a horse in Breath of the Wild or driving through the Australian desert in Forza Horizon 3, captaining your own ship in Sea of Thieves can be peaceful and therapeutic in ways I didn’t expect.
Unfortunately, what often obliterates any semblance of tranquility is, well, other people. Not the skeletons aiming to destroy my ship or the random kraken or even the occasional thunderstorm – those things I can manage – but other players deciding to fuck up my game plan and ruin my day. Sea of Thieves is constantly in PvP and PvE simultaneously, so even when you’re minding your business searching an island for chickens or just returning your loot to an outpost, some jerkoffs may decide to attack your ship, steal everything you have, and send you to the Ghost Ship of Death (I don’t know if it’s actually called that, but that’s what I want to call it).
I get it: it’s super piratey to kill and steal from other pirates. But there are times when such actions come off as more annoying than exciting. Some of these miscreants (known as “griefers”) will simply dock their ship at an outpost, waiting to rob and kill others simply trying to complete missions. Others sail across the ocean with no other intention than to plunder from other players. Most of my least favorite experiences with Sea of Thieves have involved these PvP scenarios, and I hope Rare does something to mitigate some of this tomfoolery, lest I opt to spend my time elsewhere.
The added challenge of other pirates ruining my game causes more frustration than anything, though I suppose it makes sense given the overall sentiment of the game; as a pirate, nobody you meet is trustworthy, and nowhere is safe. That said, I’d at least like the outposts to be safe.
A Quick Aside on Gamer Expectation
Several critics of Sea of Thieves claim that the game feels “incomplete” and fell short of what had become lofty expectations. With respect to the first criticism, I largely agree: the game could definitely use an injection of more content as well as a number of technical fixes (there have been a few instances where I couldn’t access my items menu and therefore couldn’t really do anything, while other times I got booted from a server mid-quest, causing me to lose progress). But did it actually disappoint relative to expectations? Pretty much everything Rare showed at industry conferences, in gameplay previews, and in the game’s beta actually made it into Sea of Thieves. Obviously playing a game is very different from just watching it, but rarely do I play a game that’s nearly identical to all of the promotional footage I’ve seen of it.
If anything, much of the disappointment with Sea of Thieves’ content (or alleged lack thereof) stems more from our own manufactured expectations for a title we never actually played ourselves. Gamers are groomed to expect bigger and better things from their favorite pastime, especially when major publishers are involved. If we see a kraken destroying a pirate ship in the beta, we assume something like that happens a lot or that the kraken (or another large enemy) only gets bigger and stronger as the game goes along. We expect that developers don’t want to spoil any part of the story at E3, so any lack of a coherent storyline prior to release must mean a more detailed plot (or series of plots) will be present at launch. From what I recall, Rare never said Sea of Thieves would be story-heavy at all, nor did it really tell anyone that the title would involve much more than being an average pirate in a cartoon world.
That said, it’s not on the players (or, notably, the customers) to expect less of large corporations when it comes to these products. Gamers invest a good amount of money on games like Sea of Thieves, so it’s completely understandable if anyone feels cheated by a game that only has three kinds of procedurally generated quests and no clear finish line. I just think it’s important to recognize that Sea of Thieves never claims (or claimed) to be anything more than what it is: a cartoon pirate simulator. It’s not exactly No Man’s Sky.
Sea of Thieves already appears to be the most polarizing game of 2018, and rightfully so. Those who love the game appreciate its beauty, its simplicity, and its chaos. Those who hate it lament its shallow mission variety, lack of guidance/purpose, and annoying PvP design. One’s opinion on Rare’s latest game serves almost as a referendum on one’s tastes and preferences in video games, and what you’re willing to overlook. There’s no real consensus, and that’s fine; this might just be a game you either hate or love.
I happen to fall on the side that Sea of Thieves is a great concept that gets a lot right, even if what it gets wrong hangs over the experience like a raincloud. Its ingenuity and streamlined gameplay won me over for the most part, even if I yearn for a wider variety of tasks.
When it comes down to it, I’d prefer it if more games tried to be as weird as Sea of Thieves. Rare could have easily made their pirate sim a story-driven experience like The Secret of Monkey Island or stuffed the world with tons of different activities like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Instead, the developers created something that left behind much of what players expect from their games in favor of something largely unique. Sea of Thieves is a ship I’m happy to sail.