In November for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I wrote a novella about the Sea of Thieves. I posted the whole thing to AO3 which seems the natural home for it as a work of fan fiction. I still haven’t decided if I want to also serialize it to my blog, but I did want to blog about it and where it came from.
This novella, A Visit to the Sea of Thieves, is my second NaNoWriMo “win” across many attempts. The first (final working title was The Space Train on the Way to the McMaster Heist) was an interesting game of dual unreliable narrators experiencing the same events (planning a heist while living as the hospitality crew on a space train) from different life perspectives and also a weirder game of pronouns (most of the crew used they/them, characters change pronouns midway through, some pronouns were chosen to intentionally be clashing beside traditional familial relationships). Those games kept it interesting to write, I felt like they were in service to the story, and helped contribute to making it a “win” in NaNoWriMo, but the beta readers I got (great) feedback from didn’t like it very much and I entirely understand why that would be. So far my best idea for reworking it to be more readable involves adding a third, maybe more reliable, narrator and while that makes sense in my head, I think on paper it would just add more confusion.
A Visit to the Sea of Thieves also did not impress some of the beta readers I tested it with, because it a work of fan fiction, and because there is a stylistic choice I felt necessary to make, but I will get to that. I posted it to AO3 in case maybe someone has nearly as much fun reading it as I had writing it, but I’m not sure who that audience is beyond just myself.
I Am a Big Fan of Sea of Thieves
I’ve been a regular player of Sea of Thieves since its launch. There are multiple blog posts in my archives here where I go on at length about Sea of Thieves topics. You can also see the threads of why Sea of Thieves would appeal so much to me in even earlier (and still discoverable) posts about games like Puzzle Pirates. I love the pirate theme. I love the cooperation aspects of crewing a ship together with other people.
I’ve developed a lot of weird skills across a lot of regular play. I may not be the best contributor to PvP on a ship, but I can helm and sail (solo if need be) any ship in the game. (Sometimes that need is strong: the rest of the crew is busy and you need a ship from one place to another in a hurry.) At one particularly weird point in my play I got absurdly good at dual controller play while soloing a ship. There aren’t a lot of good reasons to need to multibox in Sea of Thieves, it was mostly for the challenge of it at that point. It hurts my head thinking about trying to do it again, but I had some fun with it and it would probably come back to me as useless skill that it is like riding a bike and patting your head at the same time.
At helm, I’ve basically memorized the entire map at this point. Give me an island to get to and I will often sail there without needing to check the map or ask for a heading. I can generally provide headings by scanning the horizon and getting a feel of nearby island silhouettes again without needing to reference the map.
On islands, I’ve become known as a nut for gold hoarding. Give me an X marks the spot map and I’m generally on the Xs first dig attempt. I’ve basically memorized most common riddle spots and can run riddles at a relatively quick pace. I’ve had nights where the entire crew were on different islands (while I was on helm of the ship) doing different riddles and each riddle step I was able to offer useful headings to speed run the riddles to the crew member at each island over Discord comms. There are many puzzles in the game that I know intimately and can solve quickly.
I’ve become known as something of most ship’s Lore Master. I’ve read the books and I follow the in game storytelling. I’ve gotten real deep into the game’s Tall Tales. (I earned the gold curse doing the majority of it solo the hard way in the time before checkpoints were added to them. I fought many players and kraken to get those completions.)
Writing a novella about the Sea of Thieves seemed like an easy “win” for NaNoWriMo given how much of the lore I can explain when prompted, and how much of the map of the Sea of Thieves just lives rent free in my head at this point.
I Have Been a Big Fan of Uru (Myst Online)
A lot of my lore hound nature has been built and tested in other games over time and Uru was a strong fandom for me. I’m sure there are blog posts to be found on that subject.
A core conceit to the lore of Uru was always that the events of the other Myst games were (somewhat apocryphal) legends of events that happened sometime in the 19th Century (the 1800s) and Uru was “real” and player actions happening “now”. You, an Explorer among many peers, were personally taking a trek out to the desert in the American Southwest, finding a trail of directions to a peculiar cleft in a mountainside, solving puzzles, and from there making a winding journey down below the surface into an extraordinary Cavern full of ruins of a lost civilization.
Uru fandom was full of many different players’ journals of their explorations of the Cavern, and though there are many places to reach in the game of Uru outside of that cavern in one way or another, generally the whole fictional landscape was described as “in cavern” (as opposed to real life events out of cavern; the overlap with more usual uses of the abbreviations IC and OOC amusing and intentional among that fandom).
Some players’ journals got surprisingly detailed. Sometimes because they became guides/walkthroughs. Sometimes just because that’s how NPCs were generally written, too, and the example was set. Sometimes just because players had fun imagining the work they put into their expeditions to the American Southwest, the gear they’d pack and the things they need to do (for safety), as if they were planning a caving expedition to Mammoth Cave in the early years of its exploration or some other similarly famous cave. A lot of the drama in cavern was the push/pull between the organization set up to try to keep people safe in their explorations and to do respectful restoration (the D’ni Restoration Council [DRC]) versus the people that just wanted freedom to explore without an oversight organization tell them not to do unsafe things. Some of the irony in players’ fun journals of their explorations and how careful they planned their expeditions was directly contrasted with an early puzzle that relied on every player either having forgotten to pack something as common to cavern exploration as a flashlight or some variation of losing their flashlight or not having enough batteries or something (and the DRC was apparently quite stingy with their lovely branded cavern exploring helmets with attached flashlights).
The Fun Intersection of Sea of Thieves and Uru Lore
One of the things that you pick up over the years as a Sea of Thieves crews’ “Lore Master” is that all of the official lore (such as the comics, the novels, etc) happened years before players arrived in the Sea of Thieves. Most of it happened some time near the real world Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th Century (1700s). (But also some ancient civilizations older still than even those events.) Meanwhile, for very similar reasons to Uru, events that the players are participating in are “real” and happening “now”.
Like Cyan Worlds with Uru, Rare wants to give Sea of Thieves players the feeling like their choices matter and their actions are really happening in the scope of the lore. Unlike Cyan Worlds, however, Rare have tried to take a strong stance against any lore happening “now” that the players aren’t directly contributing to and “playing”. There are no NPC journals of “today’s events” for players to discover. Almost all of the “current events” lore today is word of mouth lore passed among players in game and on Discord and social media. There are NPC quest givers for some events, but in general they leave almost all of the interpretation and the choices to the players. There’s a nobility of purpose there that I respect. There’s a weird joy in feeling like your play matters to the overall storyline. (There was nearly an entire year of events that contributed into building up the resources of a less than respectful faction and as as a completionist event player during those events I remain amused how complicit I have been in the troubles that faction has since caused, the repercussions of which current events have been fighting.)
Unlike with Uru, there’s a lot less of a journaling culture around the events in Sea of Thieves in quite the same way as Uru. With fewer NPC examples and not as much of the player base even aware that what they are doing is happening “now” (which should explain things like Halo and Gears of War themed liveries). There are some equivalents: so many of Sea of Thieves events and culture are captured daily on Twitch. I loved reading the science reports of Merfolks Lullaby. (Their weather reports especially on Sea of Thieves have been quite valuable.)
But as far as I’m aware there was a big sort of hole there that I thought would be fun to explore: how do you plan a visit to the Sea of Thieves “now”? What does that expedition look like? How did you, a wannabe pirate, fall into making such an expedition?
Planning A Visit To The Sea Of Thieves
With my Uru experience the premise of telling that sort of expedition tale seemed “obvious” to me, especially because it would be so much harder and weirder for Sea of Thieves. It’s easy enough to understand how Golden Age Pirates crossed over to the Sea of Thieves, but much more complicated to figure out how you might expect players to cross over today. Relatedly, it’s easy to imagine preparing a trek to the American Southwest for spelunking alone or with friends. People do that relatively all the time. I’ve certainly enjoyed my random tourist trips to Mammoth Cave. Even though I take somewhat regular vacations at this point to the Caribbean it’s still a lot more complicated to imagine trying to find a hidden sea in the Caribbean, much less doing so in relatively piratical garb and with an 18th Century style wooden ship. I thought there was a lot of fun spaces to world build what that would be like and why it would exist and at least some of the sorts of people that might be crazy enough to do it. So I decided to try writing a “conspiracy thriller” about visiting the Sea of Thieves.
The one stylistic choice that felt like a natural constraint given Rare’s assertion that events that happen “now” should be actions of players (that left some of my beta readers unhappy) was to write it entirely in Second Person. This is the language of a Choose-Your-Adventure novel or an Interactive Fiction work where everything happens to “you”. It’s something I’ve grown up with from a young age and love. Outside of these play spaces, Second Person is extremely rare as an art form. (There’s two Charlie Stross books I can point to in the science-fiction mainstream today, at least.) I had English teachers in school that loathed Second Person deeply and tried to squash my love of writing Second Person tales. I appreciate that given how rare it is outside of CYA and IF that I got immediate dislike reactions from some of my readers. I’m sorry for that, and I understand exactly where that gut reaction can come from.
I never did find counter threads in the narrative I wanted to tell to try add interesting and meaningful choices and make it an actual CYA/IF novel, but I considered it while drafting. I think it is why the working title stuck through to completion in the form that it took, it’s a (single) visit to the Sea of Thieves, one of possibly many. While I didn’t write more than one, I intended too, but then got cold feet.
Beyond Uru, another influence I might mention is that I’d just recently before November binged For All Mankind. I think that influence is pretty obvious when you get to it, but I felt I’d mention it as a great binge watch since it so far has escaped many people’s radars.
Aside: Signal Flares
Something that amuses me was that in trying to write myself a world building problem, I accidentally predicted a new real game feature that showed up to players later in November.
I wanted to give the impact of a Discord alliance communication in-game with the in-book restriction that there’s no Discord connection on the other side of the Devil’s Shroud (while in the Sea of Thieves) so I figured signal flares would easily fit the game’s aesthetic and allow some distant communication. Rare added signal flares into the game inventory alongside fireworks in the following update after I’d already started making that a key part of my alliance fleet’s action plan in the novella.
I like that “great minds” feeling, though some may not believe me I predicted it ahead of time. (I do somewhat regularly play Insiders builds where things are tested ahead of time to collect cosmetics in the main game. I was busy writing the novella that month and missed a few weeks of Insider play. I also tend to avoid spoilers in my Insider play as much as I can reasonably do it. My usual MO in Insiders is “to test if basic Gold Hoarding still works” and friends know I tend to refer to it as “riddle hour”. I really do just grab the most basic Gold Hoarder voyages and grind X mark the spot and riddle maps just because I find it fun and relaxing and mostly avoids spoilers of new content/mechanics.)
So yeah, I wrote a fan fic novella mostly to fill a need I saw in the lore that would amuse me. I hope there’s at least one reader out there with enough of a cross-over to appreciate the novel as much as I enjoyed writing it. I also hope it is a fun read whether or not someone has Sea of Thieves lore knowledge or not. As fan fic I’m letting it’s primary home be AO3 for now.