The Pirate's Life For Me: Five Stories From Sea Of Thieves

Image: Microsoft

Sea of Thieves was opened up to the world with a Final Beta over the weekend, ahead of its full release next week.

When I first played Sea of Thieves, I was apprehensive. It didn't grab me at all. But, after taking on voyage after voyage - alone or with friends and strangers - I’ve now spent so many hours sailing on the sea that, when I close my eyes, I can still hear the water crashing.

This is how I fell in love with Sea of Thieves.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to play multiple versions of Sea of Thieves with multiple pirate crews in multiple locations around the world. Each time I played, I kept a Log – like all good Captains should – charting my journeys through the game’s mysterious waters.

The voyages you are about to read are the stories of The Five Jacks – and by extension – the story at the heart of Sea of Thieves - the idea that this game is a blank canvas for you to paint and colour as you please.

It’s a pirate-life simulator.

It’s Dr. Seuss’ ”Oh, The Places You’ll Go” distilled, in video game form.

Congratulations, today is your day, you’re off to great places, you’re off and away…

The stories that follow are all entirely different and Sea of Thieves core gameplay loop - a loop that constantly heads off on its own tangent - before finally circling back to the start. Sea of Thieves is about to give the keys to their theme park to the public and from release day on, its lore, its history, its personalities and its stories will belong to you.

You are the author.

Five pirates, five voyages, five stories.

Crewman Jack awoke in a tavern. His crewmates rushed past him, out the tavern’s door, circling around the island outpost. One of them was famous, in some other time – some other place.

All of them had boarded a ship docked at the island outpost before Jack even made it out of the tavern and into the midday sun. Feeling lost, Jack was a reluctant pirate. He was happy to sit in that tavern and take stock of his inventory, sharpen his sword, swill grog until the night.

But he heard his crewmates shouting. They’d raised the anchor and we’re about to depart. Jack darted to the ship and jumped off the edge of the pier, arm wrapping itself in the ladder that hung on the side of the vessel.

This ragtag crew, thrown together in haste, struggled to come together and work as a team.

Crewman Jack held a compass, but he was directionless. A cacophony of screaming demands, emptying guns and high-pitched shrieks pounded his ears in a disorienting aural assault that lasted for twenty minutes.

When he looked up, he was on a beach. Waves rolled in slowly at his feet.

He took out a banana and looked out at the horizon.

What the hell am I doing here?

Captain Jack surveyed the tavern. There was an inkling of déjà vu, like he’d been here before, but in another life, under another name. He approached the barmaid, slumped over the counter, but she denied him.

No tankard? No grog.

After fumbling through his pockets and taking stock of his inventory, Captain Jack took flight, rushing out the tavern’s doors and into the night. The island outpost where he’d docked was dark but for the constant flickering of lanterns. In the distance, thunder clapped ominously. Skulking around the island, he was – first and foremost – looking for signs of life.

He came upon a rock that jutted out over the water and climbed atop.

The entire sea stretched out before him and, at once, he was struck by a sense of loneliness and of optimism. He climbed down and headed for his ship.

As he approached, he began cycling through what he had to do.

Where are my sails? Where is the anchor? Where am I going? This would be easier if I had a crew.

Lack of crew aside, he’d answered his own questions before long, ticking them off in a step-wise manner. He found the routine had come naturally to him – he was a Captain after all, and what kind of Captain would he be if he didn’t know how to sail his own ship?

Raising the anchor and unfurling the sails for the first time was joyous and liberating.

Captain Jack sailed with little direction, arriving at Skull Keep with the sun still high overhead. He dropped the anchor and jumped into the sea without caution, running straight onto the island of wood and rock. He slowly investigated its beaches, worried that any noise would wake the dead. A large wooden keep in the island’s centre was full of skeletons – skeletons he wasn’t quite ready to face.

An old rule Jack remembered hearing once in a smoky tavern, knocked at the inside of his skull.

If there be skeletons, there be treasure.

As he continued his search he noticed, on the horizon, another small ship sailing towards the Keep. The Captain pulled his spyglass from his pocket, surveying the vessel the same way a bear watches as salmon swim up a river stream. Cautious, but ready to strike.

Before long, the invader had disembarked his own ship, jumped into the water and swam over to Jack’s docked vessel.

Avast! This scurvy dog be boardin’ me ship!

Jack ducked down behind a rock, ignoring the skeletons still roaming the island. There’s nothing for the other wayfarer to take, so there’s little point risking confrontation to get the lanky trespasser off his ship – but an overwhelming sense of duty flowed over the Captain.

Before long, he’s up to his neck in sea water, swimming out to his vessel.

The would-be thief jumps off Jack’s boat and into the sea, climbing back aboard his own ship. He hasn’t seen Jack at all. Perhaps he’ll leave and we both keep our heads and our hearts on this day.

The thought barely leaves Jack’s head before cannons fire and wood splinters.

Shitshitshit.

The trespasser is trying to sink Jack’s ship.

The Captain makes the decision to board this new enemy’s vessel and cut his heart from his chest. Focused purely on the destruction of Jack’s ship, the trespasser doesn’t even see Jack climb aboard, draw his sword and slash at his shoulder. Neither of the men speak.

With four swift strikes, the trespasser collapses.

The Captain raises the anchor onboard the enemy’s ship.

He unfurls the sail and turns the wheel, spinning it straight.

Then he jumps off into the ocean and, climbing aboard his own ship, watches the invader’s ship sail into the horizon, as empty as the day it was first placed in the sea.

A ghost ship. A warning.

Ne’er mess with Captain Jack.

Captain Jack is drinking, again. Grog sloshes around in his tankard as he rushes around the island outpost by night.

Before he climbs aboard his ship, he stops by a tent. A man stands rubbing his hands, bathed in yellow light.

He feels around inside his pockets.

No gold.

With the decision made for him, the Captain picks up a voyage from the trader. It’s a simple task: Retrieve a treasure chest. All the Captain has to do is pluck his map from his back pocket and find exactly which island is home to the chest.

He sets the sails to capture as much wind as possible and pushes north, to a small Cay only several miles away. Then he jumps into the water. Jumping into the sea has slowly become Jack’s favourite thing. The splash, the way the blue engulfs him and what the act itself means – he’s off to find treasure.

He’s off to fill his pockets.

The journey is far from perilous. A few skeletons patrol the coast of the small island, but Jack dispatches them with ease. He pulls out his map. A small red X points him to the chest’s location.

X marks the spot.

Taking out his ancient shovel makes him smile. One of those ‘hello old friend’ smiles. It gleams in the sunlight. Dull, but true.

Meticulously tracing his path to the red X is easy. It lays just inland. As he stands over the location he expects the treasure to be, he holds his breath. The shovel plunges into the sand.

Clunk.

The chest. His first – the Captain’s first ever.

He pulls the heavy box from its earthly home and races back to his ship, beaming. Beaming, but nervous.

The sea is full of pirates and, after all the hard work – the surveying, the voyaging, the digging – he can still lose it to an unseen rival before bringing it back to the Gold Hoarder. It’s worthless to him in its current state, but its promising. He just needs to get home.

Wherever that is.

On the return journey, Jack spots a bunch of barrels bobbing in the ocean. He drops anchor close by and swims out in the open water.He looks straight down at the fading blue of the sea and he can feel his stomach sinking. Suffocating blue surrounds him and he makes a mental note not to look down. Ever.

Wading through the water, he grabs whatever he can find in the barrels – mostly bananas – and then begins swimming back to his ship. But panic grips him by the feet and threatens to drag him under.

But that’s not panic. There be sharks here.

Jack pulls out his gun, but by then it’s too late. The shark, in one bite, finishes him. His body goes limp. Lifeless. It slowly floats toward the surface. Moments later, Jack is sailing on the Ferry of the Damned, no longer a Captain. No longer alive. No longer with any treasure.

The ship is steered by a ghastly aqua ghost, clothes dancing in a gentle breeze.

Jack stands at the Ghost Captain’s side and watches as other souls enter and depart.

Quartermaster Jack held his tankard of grog in the air and cheers’d to his crewmates. Bonding over beer, the real pirate way. He’d not sailed in many days and was keen to get back out on the sea. It called him.

But first, the beer.

His crew had over-indulged at this, the island’s tavern and were now fighting against gravity, churning stomachs and each other to get out the door. Jack was drunk and he couldn’t walk straight.

If you asked Jack the last ship he’d been on, he’d struggle to tell you. He stumbled around groggily, trying to recount, but a mixture of booze and time conspired to keep those memories from him. He followed Captain Joe out the door and tried to sober up, running into a stream that opened up into the sea. The water helped.

Captain Joe guided the novice crew through the island’s various trading outposts and the voyages that they could attempt, should they be so inclined. Jack was still laughing at just how drunk he’d been. Though the crew sailed for a half hour, digging up chests and taking down skeletons together, Jack couldn’t do anything but smile.

He remembered the days when he’d sailed a ship on his own but he knew this was where he was meant to be. With other pirates, drinking the day away, on an island outpost in the sun.

Image: Microsoft

The clouds rolled in swiftly by night, followed by the fog,
As the hurdy-gurdy musician played and drank and, at once, downed his grog.
The captain, sword pointed at all four, shouted at the crew,
And then with sails down and anchor lifted, the four set sail anew,
Embracing the ship like a long lost love, the waves caressed the hull,
To the east in the blackened, starry night, a storm resolved to a skull,
A fort for taking, a fort with gold,
Is fraught with danger, the musician was told,
So with time to pass between outpost and land,
A sorrowful tune played by the deckhand,
From the Crows Nest, an accordion sang the most sad melody,
Until the old bell rang in the musician’s head and he pulled out the hurdy-gurdy,
Climbing the ladder, rung by rung, until he reached the ship’s peak,
A silent contract entered into, one that said ‘play, but do not speak’.
The captain and the quartermaster then, had heard the news,
The crew were playing sad songs and paired of in twos,
So they climbed the ladder, rung by rung, and at the top tolled the bell,
Another accordion, another hurdy-gurdy, another story to tell,
As they played, two by two, they watched the rising sun,
The musician broke the contract then, belting out My Heart Will Go On,
Laughter and tears abound, for it was a bad rendition,
Please don’t ever sing again, the three signed the petition,
The musician then, had stopped singing, but no longer had to worry,
He’d given the crew the real treasure, a heart made full with story.

After five voyages (and many more undocumented here), Sea of Thieves has gradually begun to make sense to me. My experiences with it have been shaped not just by the limits and boundaries of the game world itself, but by the people that I have encountered inside it.

I was apprehensive. My first encounter with the game – as a crewman – left a bitter taste in my mouth. I said as much to Executive Producer, Joe Neate, when I first met him outside the Polly Woodside during PAX 2017. I didn’t understand the goals, what I was doing or why I was doing it. I didn’t see how the game could have any legs.

Wouldn’t I just get sick of sailing and finding treasure?

I’ve slowly come to the realisation that Sea of Thieves is a happy accident simulator, a framework that Rare have built for players to create their own stories.

Though Sea of Thieves has been designed to try and make those stories as interesting as possible, every time you play, there will be times when they aren’t. There will be times when I don’t want to sail the high seas looking for treasure. On those occasions, perhaps I’ll look for something else to do, like sit in the tavern and talk to friends on the other side of the world. Or play a hurdy-gurdy in a crows nest for fifteen minutes. Or decide to come back to the seas another day.

The business buzzword that sails alongside Sea of Thieves is ‘games as a service’, the notion that the video game extends beyond a single shippable product. Instead, it becomes the type of digital theme park that is constantly open, managed, controlled and updated to keep patrons coming through the doors.

But throw ‘games as a service’ overboard.

Sea of Thieves is ‘games as a canvas’

It is a clean slate. A blank canvas. A portal to a time when you ran around the park and played pretend. It’s a place where barriers crumble, where players can create stories together.

At final release on March 20, the question that remains for me won’t be “Where does this all lead?” or “What’s the end game?” – though both of these have tangible answers, I am not interested in them anymore.

The question for me will be: “What kind of pirate am I?” And then, by extension: “What kind of pirate do I want to be?”

Congratulations, today is your day, you’re off to great places, you’re off and away…

Oh, the places we’ll go.


Comments

    Sea of Thieves is ‘games as a canvas’. It is a clean slate. A blank canvas. A portal to a time when you ran around the park and played pretend. It’s a place where barriers crumble, where players can create stories together.

    'Players are the content' and 'create your own stories' is generally developer code for: No actual content.

    Not always a bad thing in itself, of course... If this game provided a nice structure for the author to fill in the gaps in the game with their own imagination, they should really try Dwarf Fortress sometime.

    Everyone still thinks this tech demo is a full release game.

    I've played a bit of the beta, and watched others stream a whole heap all, and I like it... to a point. The whole time I felt myself wondering if I was missing something? Was this all?

    Matching maps to islands is childishly simple, the combat is a very simple, and there simply isn't a lot of variety. Actually, childish and simple describes most of my concerns. Games like this rely on a lot of people playing them a lot, and as it stands I can't see how it has much stickiness.

    It may be that the full release will address all of this but, for the moment, my favourite pirate game is still ACIV: Black Flag, with a much more robust (and far prettier) sailing experience, and a heap more to do. And I really enjoyed listening to my crew singing the latest shanty I'd collected.

      All I want Sid Meier's Pirates! rebooted in the style of AC4.

      Sadly, it seems like all anyone wants to make the last few years is fucking multiplayer 'the players are the content,' and 'emergent gameplay,' PVP games.

      I will not be getting my wish for some time.

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