It’s late and the moon hangs high in the night sky, the only noise besides my breath is the crashing of the waves beneath me.
On board my small little sloop, I make my way towards a small outpost to sell off a few items I’ve acquired throughout my journey. Then, over the horizon, I see the faint glint of another spyglass. I take out my own and peer over the sea to see a massive galleon, fully crewed, steadily approaching. My heart races as I begin to panic. A full-on confrontation would be suicide.
After turning the helm as far as it can go, I drop my anchor to quickly turn around, only to pull it up quickly and begin sailing again. I turn my sail to catch the wind as best I can and pull out my spyglass again to get another look at the galleon. Before I can, I hear a faint gunshot in the distance. The bullet misses me, but I know they’re approaching. A small island isn’t far away, so I head in that direction. I don’t have much of a plan, but I know there isn’t much else to do.
Before long, the galleon begins to catch up. My quick turn bought me some time, but not enough. They begin firing their cannons and shooting their rifles in my direction until one of their crew members boards my ship. I unsheath my sword, but I’m not a fighter. Before long, my ship is at the bottom of the sea and my treasures have been stolen.
I think most people who’ve played Sea of Thieves since its launch a few weeks ago can relate to my predicament. The game has been widely criticised for a number of reasons, like its sparse content offerings and frustrating playerbase. Situations like mine are all too common for anyone who dares to set sail in the game on their own, let alone anyone on board a fully-crewed galleon. Players in Sea of Thieves have become inherently antagonistic, using the game’s pirate setting as a justification for bad behaviour.
I can’t deny that I too haven’t been 100 percent satisfied with what Sea of Thieves has turned out to be. After a week of playing the game with a few friends, gallivanting the open ocean in search of treasures and other ships to battle, I felt that I had experienced all the game had to offer. Before putting it down altogether, however, I decided to give it one last go but this time, I was without my crew.
Setting out on your own in Sea of Thieves is an immediately different experience than when you’re accompanied by your friends. Certain simple tasks, like just establishing your first task, become more complicated since you have to do everything on your own. When I decided to go hunt for some chickens to upgrade my Merchant Alliance rating, I realised how unintuitive the process is. Before I could even set sail, I had to board my ship and set my voyage, then go back to the Merchant Alliance vendor to get my coop and bring it back onto the ship. A process I had to repeat three times, because there were three coops to pick up.
At first, I found it aggravating. Surely, Rare should have realised that with fewer players the game’s quality of life attributes suffers. Yet once I set sail, I began to change my tune.
Dropping the anchor, lowering the sails, and taking hold of the helm feels so much different on board a one-manned sloop. On a galleon, you’re never fully in control of anything. It’s all a team effort, which is why Sea of Thieves is so great as a co-operative game. Yet when you’re by yourself, that extra bit of control makes the game feel more freeing. You can go anywhere you want, do anything you choose. It almost feels like when you get your own car for the first time. Its’ liberating.
There is a tradeoff, however, because when you’re on your own you are now an easier target for anyone else playing the game. Sailing alone in Sea of Thieves is a dangerous endeavour, with little reward for the risk. Fully-crewed galleons, of course, are able to take on the more gratifying aspects of the game like its skeleton fort raid. When you’re on your own, you’re forced to take on smaller voyages that offer smaller payouts of gold. It’s a playstyle that forces you to disregard what most find as the main draw of the game. When playing alone, Sea of Thieves refuses to give you anything outright. You must find the fun of it for yourself.
This idea of “finding your own fun” in a game isn’t something unique to Sea of Thieves. Plenty of games have done similar things, where the point is the act of playing the game itself rather than the constant attempt of besting it. No Man’s Sky was a similar experience, although I still find its empty universe unappealing because of how mundane the act of exploring it is. The more I force myself to find my own experience in Sea of Thieves, though, the more it reminds me of how I used to play games as a kid.
When I was young, my older brother and I would often bond over split screen co-operative games. Specifically, we played a lot of the original Halo’s campaign. The campaign mission “The Silent Cartographer”, the two of us would play through the opening of the mission before venturing off onto our own path. Since the level lets you roam the entirety of the island it takes place on, we’d play out our own stories. I did so in almost every game I enjoyed back then, going so far back as to LEGO Island, a game I would only play minigames in because I was afraid of the villain “The Brickster”, who escaped prison at the beginning of the game.
In Sea of Thieves, the difference between playing it alone and with friends can make it feel like a completely different game entirely. I can only assume playing it alone is similar to the feeling people must have had when reading Joshua Sloeum’s book Sailing Alone Around the World. The first ever account of someone sailing around the world on their own, it sparked a sense of wonder in sailors around the globe. Countless found inspiration in the book and attempted their own lonely adventures and, while I’d never be one to do so in real life both in part to how expensive it is and how terrified I am of the open ocean, playing Sea of Thieves by myself has been a uniquely rewarding adventure.
All of the game’s many detractions fade away when you find a way to play it that’s fun in and of itself. The beauty, thrill, and tension of sailing around by yourself is maybe one not everyone would enjoy, but playing it that way reminded me a lot of the first time I played Journey. A meditative experience that is more about the, ahem, journey than the destination, Sea of Thieves similarly feels unique.
Although it may lead to a more frustrating time with the game, I never looked at my time spent playing Sea of Thieves alone the same way I did with friends. It wasn’t about how much gold I was accruing anymore. Instead, it was just about the act of doing it. If it’s any consolation, the few times you do run into someone else who isn’t trying to kill you is a magical experience. Like the moment when I stumbled upon someone who I could only communicate with via the game’s very specific chat options, we somehow were able to explore for hours before finally parting ways. It may not be for everyone, but this particular way of playing the game somehow turned it into pure magic.