Reviews have knocked Sea of Thieves, the big new multiplayer pirate video game for Windows and Xbox, for its lack of content, for repetitive quest structure, and for generally feeling sort of hollow and unfinished. My colleague Heather Alexandra over at Kotaku wrote that playing it “feels a bit like working in a theater before the set has been completely built.” That’s exactly right. But Sea of Thieves has another big problem that only a crusty old fart like me can appreciate.
First, the good: Sea of Thieves is gorgeous to look at and listen to at a level that seems like it should not be possible for a video game to attain. The choice to fix players almost exclusively in a first-person camera view (you can slip to third person for moments here and there when you make your minimally customizable pirate character perform canned emotions or dance) is annoying at first, but ultimately a wise move: With the actual pirates shoved mostly out of sight and hearing—there’s pretty much no speech at all in the game, so far—the ocean itself emerges as the game’s central character and most dynamic personality. And, my friends, it’s a fucking incredible character.
Video game types more knowledgeable than I can discuss whatever quantum leaps of, uh, like, physics rendering or modeling or whatever have allowed this to happen. The important thing is, it looks and sounds and feels like actual ocean, heavy and moody and variable, huge, in constant and sometimes weird harmony with the weather in the sky above it. With the sun directly on it, the surface sparkles above a luminescent blue that makes my heart ache. In the orange light of the game-world’s late afternoon, it turns choppy and deep green, overstimulated, on the verge of burnout; in real life, this is when it’s most fun to wade in at the beach, when it feels just a little dangerous and riptide-y. Sailing into a squall in Sea of Thieves can be genuinely terrifying, especially if you’re alone; the first time I did it, my ship sank from the battering, and I had to turn the game off because my nerves were wrecked. The ocean in Sea of Thieves is the best character in any video game I’ve played in years. It’s almost worth the game’s absurd purchase price just to sail around for a few hours.
Mostly what you do, if you decide you want to do more than just sail here and then sail there for the sheer wonder of it, will be familiar to anybody who has played, well, basically any video game in the past few years: You, or very preferably you and your buddies, pick up quests (they’re called “voyages” here) that require you to go here and collect this, or to fight some designated bad guys for a reward, or to escort somebody through danger, or... yeah. That sort of thing. Then you sail to somebody who pays you for your efforts. And so on.
(Theoretically you can do this by yourself, but sailing even the smaller of the game’s two ship types, the single-masted sloop, by yourself puts you at a severe disadvantage: You can’t work the sails and the rudder and keep an eye on the horizon from up in the crow’s nest and, should it become necessary, man the cannons. Should your ship spring a leak, from being battered by waves or cannonballs or because you steered it onto a rock, you can’t plug the leak and bail water and steer the ship away from whatever put the holes in it. You get the idea. It’s a multiplayer game.)
Via what seems like pretty much endless repetition of this—I’m not far into the game, maybe it changes later on—you accumulate wealth, which you can use to do stuff like customize your boat and your pirate, or buy contracts for bigger voyages later on. This is all very flimsy and repetitive, at least in the early going; there’s infinitely more fun and surprise to be had in scanning the horizon for other pirate ships—these are other human players—and setting off to try and sink them, even if they’re a large, well-supplied and -coordinated crew manning a giant galleon with six loaded cannons and you’re just a scurvy dog steering a half-sunk sloop. It’s just fun as hell. It’s just good stupid-ass video game fun, but made brain-meltingly awesome by Sea of Thieves’s amazing ocean..
(I’m told this has given rise already to a lot of frustration among players who just want to do voyages and earn gold, but, like, it’s a pirate game, c’mon. Avast ye and all that.)
Anyway, here is the thing. The problem. I am very old. I’m older than hell! Also, I have two rambunctious sons, twice as many rambunctious dogs, a very silly job I nonetheless care about very much and stress over probably more than is healthful, an absurd forest dwelling to maintain, dinner to cook, lunches to pack, dishes to wash, a marriage to nurture, et cetera. My life is not especially hard relative to all lives—in fact, it is especially easy and stupid relative to pretty much any other—but on a day to day basis I tend to be at least mildly harried from the time I wake up until the time my children go to bed; on a given day, by the time I have both the impulse to play video games and the solitude to indulge that impulse without bogarting the television like an asshole, it’s pretty late at night, and I am pretty tired.
Nevertheless, I can get sucked into, say, being repeatedly humiliated on NBA 2K18's playground courts by psychotic shrieking gamer teens for hours on end. The time just flies by, and before I know it, it’s 1:30 in the morning and my eyeballs are like wads of chalk and I have to stagger off to bed to salvage what little I can of the next day. Likewise, a couple times a year I will have an unexpected overpowering impulse to jump back into Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition and, quite without realizing it, will burn away nearly an entire night doing dull side quests in one or the other of those grim, cold, mostly unpleasant game worlds.
By contrast, the minute-to-minute experience of playing Sea of Thieves is immeasurably more joyful than any of those games, bright and colorful, abounding with gorgeous sights and sounds and what turn out to be delightfully straightforward, almost Nintendo-ish pleasures: The simple tasks of angling the boat’s sails into the wind and steering it along its heading are more immediately gratifying and rewarding than any ten claustrophobic, nightmarish dungeon crawls in Skyrim. And yet, no matter how good a time I am having, no matter what is going on in the game, within an hour of launching Sea of Thieves I will be too drowsy to continue playing. And in a game that involves traveling at mostly fairly slow speeds across large empty distances, and in which just drawing within shooting range of a ship you’ve decided to attack can take upward of a half-hour of sailing in one direction with only minor adjustments, an hour is nothing.
The problem, I think, is this: The ocean is too dang lifelike! It’s lifelike enough to trigger whichever part of my brain has been conditioned by years of experience and/or the marine origin of all life to relax, profoundly, when in the presence of the sights and sounds of the real ocean. The game loads up, my pirate spawns on this or that little island, the sounds of gulls and lapping waves and ocean breezes hit my ears, and my body goes Ah, it is time to doze off now, into beach sleep, the next deepest and most relaxed sleep after the warm embrace of death. That was the cue.
This is bullshit. Sea of Thieves is a beautiful and wonderful game-world that is just fundamentally incompatible with how old and tired I am. Enjoy your damn pirate adventures, millennials! I’ll see you in hell.