The sea is a perplexing place. It simultaneously evokes calm and calamity, birth and death. Saltsea Chronicles (2023), an adventure game by indie game studio Die Gute Fabrik, is a journey across a sea full of contradictions. In Saltsea Chronicles, you inhabit a world whose previous civilization was the casualty of the world’s seas becoming “…taller, the sun hotter”, and access to resources became increasingly scarce as a result. Yet, all is not doom and gloom; the people have adapted, life continues, and new societies have been established.
In Saltsea Chronicles, you guide a collective through the archipelago of Saltsea, a nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea fantasy series. The story begins with a disappearance and the growing uncertainty around preparations for a voyage. Your ship, the De Kelpie – the name perhaps an omen – is missing its captain, Maja, and the crew sets out to find her. Thus begins the story, and from there, the story goes into increasingly unexpected territory. If you are open to it, Saltsea Chronicles will conjure a myriad of emotions ranging from excitement to fear and grief. The game’s story arc leaves room for the imagination to wander.
Seldom are post-apocalyptic tales as cute and welcoming as Saltsea Chronicles. However, those who dislike reading should be warned that the narrative is predominantly told through written dialogue. This makes the “gameplay” an exercise in active reading. There’s more to the game than this, as story progression is tied to making decisions, answering questions, or relaying emotions at specific moments. Die Gute Fabrik makes experiencing Saltsea Chronicles as accessible as possible while considering the limitations inherent in text-heavy games. The game even has a built-in dark mode for those whose eyes strain easily. The option is appreciated.
Throughout the adventure, you are tasked with making choices, including which crew members will be taken on expeditions. Choose wisely, as a character’s personality and foregone knowledge are critical to how your tasks unfold. Your decisions matter and will alter interactions with the inhabitants of Saltsea and the course of the story. This doesn’t become stale as new crew members join throughout the journey, increasing the likelihood of conflicts and misunderstandings. Tribulations are part of the journey, and conflicts can serve as opportunities to strengthen bonds between crew members.
In Saltsea Chronicles, like in other adventure games, you interact with the environment by clicking on objects, people, or animals. As you explore different locales at your leisure and talk to locals while searching for clues like a sleuth, other parts of the world become available to visit. If you grow tired of the relaxed gameplay and need a little break, try your hand at Saltsea Chronicles’ card game Spoils—a perfect diversion. When you’re ready to dwell back into the narrative do so at your leisure, though doing so after an extended break might be difficult unless one has a photographic memory.
In a year of great video games, Saltsea Chronicles stands out due to its narrative structure and well-told story. Its pace is breezy. The game is segmented into chapters that function as arcs in a wider story. It’s an ingenious way of presenting an interweaving and complex narrative. Structurally, these chapters are self-contained episodes that begin with a title screen, opening cutscene, and theme song. As you continue to venture forth into the world of Saltsea, story threads are slowly tied together, and the world and characters’ motivations are elucidated.
Hannah Nicklin, the game’s creative director and narrative designer, and her team at Die Gute Fabrik have achieved a seamless narrative syntax. Nicklin’s book Writing for Games: Theory & Practice (2022) is an indelible resource for those looking to learn more about writing in video games. Her expertise is on full display in Saltsea Chronicles.
There is more to Saltsea Chronicles than its stellar narrative and good writing. The game’s other artistic qualities are easy to appreciate and cherish. Time passes uninhibited in the world of Saltsea. The soundtrack, composed by Eli Rainsberry, is as vibrant as the game’s art and writing. The ambient score livens the world. And what a world it is! There are wondrous sights to behold. One such sight is the stranded luxury cruise ship Sisao which at a glance looks like it’s aflame, but closer inspection reveals it’s just overgrown with yellow, red, and brown vegetation.
Saltsea Chronicles also offers replayability with its different story paths and branching narratives. There are also a good number of in-game achievements to unlock. Maybe Maja’s, the captain of the De Kelpie, last words before her disappearance, “I always come back to you”, are a prophecy and not just an in-game allusion. I will return to Saltsea to better understand the characters’ motivations and complexities.
Within the wider context of story-driven games, Saltsea Chronicles is a work that, at its core, interrogates choice and freedom. What results from this interrogation is a deeply romantic vision of storytelling. By creating the narrative intricacies present within the game, Die Gute Fabrik has pushed Saltsea Chronicles towards the baroque. The game stands at the precipice of cutting-edge narrative design—potentially even falling into literature.
Video games with great writing aren’t new, only scarce. The past few years have seen the release of truly outstanding works where the written word is utilized to great effect in games for narrative purposes and to celebrate and experiment with how stories can be told. Certain games become avenues of innovation on how we engage the written word. Words have always been fun, and video games like Heaven’s Vault (2019), Robert Kurvitz’s Disco Elysium (2019), and now Die Gute Fabrik’s Saltsea Chronicles are works that the literary cognoscenti mustn’t ignore.
Why Studios Like Die Gute Fabrik and Games Like Saltsea Chronicles Are Important
In Saltsea Chronicles, the sea is the entire world. Sure, there are islands, but what are islands if not for their demarcation created by the sea? Like these bodies of land, no character in Saltsea Chronicles is an island. They need each other just like we need other people. Die Gute Fabrik has made a work that places the intricacies of human relationships and their importance at the forefront of the narrative.
Saltsea Chronicles doesn’t shy away from the challenge of facing a grim future, whether real or imagined. Its cute visual presentation plays an essential part in easing players into tough themes. Tales of societal collapse and the difficulties of rebuilding after traumatic events are told with great care and without an ounce of callousness. The inhabitants of the Saltsea archipelago live with the collective trauma of their ancestors’ ruined world, whose legacy of environmental destruction and material decay was caused by greed and twisted ambition. Yet, it’s not a naïve vision of the future or the world after social and environmental collapse.
Why does this matter? Ultimately, Saltsea Chronicles is a vision of a post-apocalyptic world where society is not structured on violence. Most post-apocalyptic works in popular Western media are emphatic to the point of being fervent and fanatical in their visions of futures where extreme violence, cynicism, and the end of society are constant staples of the post-apocalyptic imaginary. This representation of a world after an apocalypse is rampant in video games, where these themes are rarely interrogated and are presented as almost a form of common sense within the works themselves. An example of this is The Last of Us (2013) and its sequel, which presents a world stuck in an unending cycle of violence both in the game and for the player playing.
This dark vision of the future has become a tired troupe and offers no insights into humanity. Its main purpose, no matter the merits, is to feed consumers’ appetites for a spectacle of carnage. One wonders if their creators know that apocalypses happen every day, either in places under siege thousands of miles away or next door where your neighbor has been evicted.
As the video game industry eats its own with its constant layoffs, studio shutdowns, and endless remakes/remasters (the recent announcement of a remastered version of The Last of Us Part II, a game originally released in 2019 comes to mind), Antonio Gramsci’s words ring out “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. In this interregnum, small studios like Die Gute Fabrik show us a path forward. By focusing its narrative on building a world where society and humanism are the anchors, Saltsea Chronicles presents us with another world, another possibility for imagining our collective future.