There’s a long running joke in the 90s sitcom Seinfeld about Jerry Seinfeld pitching and producing a TV show. It’s a show within a show and it has the exact same pitch and premise as the show that it’s within; it’s a show about nothing. It delves into the banality of human life, picks at the tiny things that annoy people, and amplifies the absurdity of daily life. Sea of Thieves is a game about nothing in particular, and it’s part of what makes it both brilliant to many and bafflingly boring to many more.
Personally, I love Seinfeld and I’ve long loved the idea of Sea of Thieves. Delving into the alpha and beta tests over the last few months, it’s been fascinating to see what Rare have been crafting over the last few years and just how far they defy established gaming conventions. There’s no meaningful character progression beyond simply getting better at the game and saving up to buy some cosmetics from the vendors, there’s no grand story, there’s very little real structure to the game. At the heart of it is your crew and your ship, and it’s really up to you to find fun for yourselves within this world.
At one point, a quest was taking us to an island in the middle of a storm. As much as we tried to skirt it, I was saying to my crewmates that we should just sail through. What was the worst that could happen? Well, we nearly sank as the boat filled with both rainwater and seawater as the patched up planks popped below decks, and manning the helm really makes you fight to keep the ship steering straight as the wind and waves effortlessly blow you off course. There’s no point checking the map, you’re just trying to stay alive!
There’s three guilds from which you can take quests and set sail to uncover chests of treasure, take on the skeletons of resurrected crews, or catch pigs and chickens. Essentially, they’re fetch quests, but they can have interesting and fun twists, such as adding multiple steps or presenting you with a series of riddles to follow in order to find a chest. At the same time, you can simply stumble upon chests on islands, find messages in bottles or happen upon sunken ships to raid for treasure and supplies.
More advanced players can try to take on the skull forts when a daunting skull cloud hangs above them, drawing ships from all around to try and take on the army of skeletons, but there’s an uneasy tension whenever you see another ship, an uncertainty as to the other crew’s motivations. With the skull forts, you might wordlessly band together in a shared goal, but outside of that, combat is pretty likely. it’s a little like the Dark Zone in The Division, in that you’ll either be trying to make it back to an outpost with your treasure, or see the other ship as an opportunity to fight and steal from them. It can lead to great moments and fights, but can also be rather disheartening to have your haul lost or stolen from you.
One trick of online gaming that Sea of Thieves does miss out on is the ability to control a co-op party with seamless drop in, drop out multiplayer. You can set your pirate crew to one, two, three or four players before you embark on a play session, but there’s no way to adjust this after the fact. If three of you set sail, you can’t hold a spot open for a fourth player without risking that someone is match made and dropped onto your crew, as you can’t set a crew to “private” or “friends only”.
If you do just want to join others or invite randoms into your crew, it’s effectively a coin toss whether you’re going to be matched with a great bunch of chatty sailors or silent incompetents that won’t even use the in-game chat prompts to communicate – these context sensitive prompts are fantastic, incidentally, changing depending on if you’re holding compass, eyeglass, or whatever.
That can really break the game for me, I feel. When this is really all about working as a team, talking about how to catch the wind, soaking in the simply gorgeous seas and relaxing with some shanty playing, if you can’t communicate with your crew, the beating heart of the game stops dead. It can also be soured by the PvP elements and complaints about trolling and where the more combative players are respawning aren’t difficult to find amongst the community, though they are outnumbered by the delightful stories of impromptu collaboration.
What’s undeniable is that Sea of Thieves has its own unique flavour and character. Maybe there’s not enough “game” there for many people, but that’s also part of why it’s so wonderful.