Quintin Smith created a video a while back about the magical impact that the empty spaces of Sunless Sea have upon the game. Minutes – WHOLE MINUTES – of the game are spent crossing vast, near featureless distances between islands. Quinns ruminates on the importance of this empty space and rightly compares it to the grind found in many role-playing games.
He’s not wrong. But he’s also not entirely right.
Let’s talk briefly about neuroscience. I’m going to play fast and loose with some concepts, but the following will generally be true. Also, if you suffer from depression, this whole section essentially does not apply to you. And that sucks. We’re all sorry.
Also, I am purposefully leaving out serotonin and norepinephrine. The brain is really complicated, folks. I’m trying to be brief.
Dopamine is a strange hormone that your brain uses for all sorts of weird purposes. Most famously, it’s used as “the reward chemical”, but that is a gross simplification. Yes, you release it when you eat food or have sex or exercise. It’s great for this. In these cases, it’s oddly important that the event which is rewarded was planned. Not schemed for days and days, but that you were enabled to build up expectation. That expectation is important as that’s – essentially – when the dopamine is manufactured prior to its euphoric release.
To sum up, the euphoria of reward only comes from making a decision, building expectation, and then executing. Sometimes, dopamine is talked about at the “motivation” neurotransmitter. People with depression often show a shortage of dopamine, and they can sometimes be treated by by adding more dopamine to their system. Sadly, this often causes them to lose their ability to create dopamine on their own.
Game developers use this kind of dopamine release all the time. We create clear goals, and we empower players to achieve those goals quickly. In some ways, this is great! We can sort of help with depression! Sort of!
You’ll see the same kind of goal or task list creation in all sorts of perfectly valid self-help treatments. Heck, loads of qualified therapists will encourage people to create lists of daily, short-term goals. They’ll remind their clients to take moments to celebrate completing those goals. It’s really good for you, and it can remind you how to produce dopamine if you’ve forgotten.
It’s worth noting that physical contact with loved ones – and, no, I don’t know how this works – can also produce dopamine. So, if someone you love and trust is feeling unmotivated – and you have permission for physical contact – hug them or squeeze their hand. It’ll do you both some good.
In this way, Quinns is right about what “boredom” does for Sunless Sea and for RPGs. But he’s missing something in that pairing which is unique to Sunless Sea. It’s a part of all roguelikes, and it’s particularly important to horror.
Dopamine makes episodic memories permanent.
This research is more recent. Researchers were troubled by something. Dopamine, which was getting a lot of attention as the “love neurotransmitter”, kept showing up at unexpected times. It would also be suppressed in people who definitely had not been having the positive experiences of the motivation series. Researchers kept finding dopamine suppression in sufferers of PTSD, and they find elevated levels in people who recently underwent trauma.
What recent research is showing is that dopamine is released when an episodic memory – a memory of an event rather than a skill, etc. – is written into long-term storage. This dopamine release effectively determines how long the memory will be stored. (This is a vast simplification because memory is weird. Really weird.) In Telltale’s The Walking Dead, dopamine is released every time “So-and-so will remember this” appears on screen.
For Sunless Sea, horror games, and for other roguelikes, the trauma which triggers the dopamine release is the death of a character. This traumatic release is what lets us learn from our mistakes in these games. When we die in these games, we write a memory. If we were invested in character or action, we’ll release dopamine and remember the death for a long time indeed. Importantly, whenever we encounter a similar situation, we’ll recall that memory and the emotions we felt at the time.
This will trigger us to set a goal and begin building expectation and… you see where this is going.
Those dull parts of Sunless Sea serve a purpose. They let us remember. They let us build that suspense, that suspense stimulates the production of dopamine, and, ultimately, they let us turn that suspense into joy. Without the dull parts, we can’t learn.
Next time you see me sailing Captain Penny over that calm, sunless sea, remember the turmoil roiling beneath the surface. I certainly do.