'Moby Dick' Makes for an Improbably Good, Very Strange Strategy RPG

Reviewing Picaresque's 'Nantucket'; Or, 'The Raid-Boss of the Oceans'

Rob Zacny

screenshots courtesy of Fish Eagle

When it comes to adapting classical works, subjects, and themes, games have a way of literalizing what was intended as metaphorical. Kieron Gillen summed up this impulse well when he dismissed The Watchmen video game trailer with a two-line blog post at Rock, Paper Shotgun: “Honestly, nice try guys, but you may as well turn Anna Karenina into a Railroad Tycoon clone.”

So here we have Nantucket, from Picaresque Studio, which situates itself at the end of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and lets us continue the nautical adventures of Ishmael in the form of a commercial whaling strategy game / RPG. This Ishmael has apparently come away with a surprising lesson from the events of that story: If the embodiment of nature in the form of a giant whale ever upsets you, you must go to the ends of the earth and fuck that whale up—and you aid him on his quest by helping him climb the ranks of the whaling industry, buying and upgrading better ships and equipment, and hiring better crew.

It’s an endearingly earnest approach to Moby Dick, and it’s not as thematically inappropriate as it might appear at first blush. As generations of bored high school and college students have learned, Moby Dick is as much or more a whaling procedural as it is a psychological drama about obsession and nature. So adapting it into a resource and crew-management game, with a lot of economic and narrative elements that invite you to push your luck to the breaking point, is not as preposterous as Gillen’s hypothetical Anna Karenina Railroad Tycoon game.

In fact, everything in Nantucket seems like it works better than it should.

The over-wrought, fatalist writing style suggests Melville without directly imitating him, which gives the game an historically authentic flavor while still keeping it approachable for most players and readers who might find 19th century prose unwieldy and over-engineered. The map and the art are rich with period style, and even the recordings of sailors’ songs are so well-chosen and performed that I never thought about turning them off. Far from the cartoon, Disneyland Caribbean of Sid Meier’s Pirates, the oceans of Nantucket are vast and beautiful in their loneliness, at once haunted and haunting.

The simple rhythms of outfitting and supplying a ship for sea, then heading out for distant waters to hunt whales for as long as possible before returning to port, are the best kind of repetition. Time doesn’t much matter in itself, but is instead measured by stocks of food and water draining away like so many grains of sand, and the sudden press of sail as you try and make a hunting ground before the season ends.

But there is also not enough of it, of any of it. The game has a challenging early learning curve (my first several captains met, in order, death by starvation, death by pirate attack, death by dehydration, death by whale attack, and death by starvation preceded by cannibalism), but once you learn how to properly supply your ship for its voyages and which events you need to worry about, a lot of that early danger and tension dissipates.

Likewise, it never feels like there’s quite enough story. There are major narrative threads, like your captain’s ongoing, clearly cursed hunt for Moby Dick (have you considered, maybe, not hunting him?), or the dismal fates that have befallen just about everyone who came into contact with Ahab’s fatal expedition.

For the most part, the same random story events happen again and again: A bolt of lightning strikes a lookout in the crow’s nest, and you roll to see if he can be healed or if he’ll be maimed. A squall sweeps a hand overboard and you can sail on or attempt to rescue him. A pair of crewmen are caught having sex in the cargo hold. But too little if it unfolds into any kind of narrative, and life aboard ship falls into series of predictably random chances.

I’m also not sure what I make of the game’s treatment of homosexuality. Most games set in the Age of Sail tend to ignore it entirely, which is its own form of erasure, but I’m not sure Nantucket’s inclusion of it amounts to any kind of observation or message that it’s trying to impart.

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When you come across two crew members having sex in the hold and, you are given a choice of actions. If you don’t interrupt, they both acquire the “sodomite” trait and have a 10% chance of developing the “syphilis” trait. If you join it, you get the same chance, and develop the sodomite trait yourself. Or, in another event, an adoring crew member comes to your quarters late at night, and you have the option of accepting his advances, declining them, or having him flogged in front of the crew.

None of these story events really lead anywhere, and character traits themselves are a bit too easy to ignore in Nantucket, so it’s not like these new statuses are going to throw a major wrinkle into how you play your character or manage your crew. Gay sex is just there, dressed up in uncomfortably old-timey language, the threat of sickness, and with the open possibility of player-driven homophobia. If these story beats led anywhere, or if they fit into a broader picture that Nantucket is trying to paint of the inner lives of sailors and their officers, then they might not seem discordant. But as it is, they come across as “othering” when they seem to be striving for “matter-of-fact”.

And in the end, whale-hunting itself gets tedious and ever-more absurd. Because Nantucket is perhaps less a Moby Dick game than a game about how Captain Ahab saw the world. In this view, the ocean full of prehistoric sea creatures waiting to do battle with the mariners who hunt them. Narwhals flash tusks just like switchblades, blue whales roam the deep dreaming of capsizing whaleboats, and every hunt is a fight to the death.

The end of Moby Dick is about a group of men who realize they’ve been brought to their doom by a grotesque narcissist’s obsession, that they could have avoided tragedy if they’d just turned for home. But Nantucket is a game about sharing that very obsession, and pursuing it to ever more dangerous extremes, and then justifying it with game mechanics.

Which is a fine bit of artistic license, but the game itself isn’t strong enough to make it entertaining for an entire campaign. Every encounter feels randomly determined: a combination of dice rolls and character cards means that you don’t face many tough decisions in combat. Either your best fighters and hunters land their hit or you use a support character to avoid or heal damage. There’s not much in the way of tactics for hunting the whales, nor much difference between the types of whales themselves. Once I’d gotten a few characters leveled-up a few times, and was sailing a larger ship than the “rotten sloop” you start with, there was very little that was of-interest on the high seas or in combat.

But it does Nantucket a disservice to consider each aspect discretely, because the game really is better than the sum of its flawed parts would imply. Its bleak, fatalist atmosphere might be let-down by some of the design, but it’s still a game rich with style and some memorable vignettes and tragedies. If it’s narrative events had more impact on characters, and vice versa, and if combat and exploration felt a bit more fraught throughout the game, Nantucket might be welcome new peer for Sunless Sea. As it is, it’s a fun maritime management game with trappings of Melville, but which can’t help but indulge in some of same fantasies of power and purpose that Moby Dick meant to caution against.