• Zachy Hennessey

Undeniable Proof That 19th-Century Whaling Is The Greatest Gaming Backdrop

As a reader, I gravitate toward three genres: Social Psychology, Pulp High-Fantasy, and Nautical Fiction. (By the way, hit me up if you’re interested in joining my book club; all of my friends and family are “super swamped at the office right now,” which is weird because I don’t think my 7-year-old sister-in-law goes to work??)


Though I like to spend time betwixt the pages, as we readers all say, I spend the majority of my free time playing video games — thankfully there’s a slew of games that I can play to avoid having to split my time between TWO whole different hobbies. Three, if you count my penchant for cross-stitching.


While Jackbox and an unending torrent of shovelware Warhammer games have satiated my thirst for the first two of the above genres, I’ve often felt myself itching for an adventure that lets me live out my dreams of being on or near a boat during the late colonial period. There’s nothing more thrilling to me than the idea of a ship setting out on the salty seas, hauling precious spices, filling out blank spots on maps in the name of discovery, and tracking down a 100,000-pound leviathan and stabbing it with a big pointy stick.


Now, as an environmentalist, I fully understand and acknowledge that there are issues with whaling and the effect it’s had on global whale populations and the marine ecosystem at large. Morally? It’s deplorable. As a thematic backdrop? Inject it into me without hesitation.

“Do you have any proof to back up this bold and alluring claim?” I hear you cry. I’m glad you asked, because NOT ONLY do I have proof in the form of three games, with screengrabs and everything; I also have a pitch for the greatest game this genre could possibly produce, based on the lessons learned from those three games.


Dishonored

A screenshot from Dishonored shows a massive shark partially on a dock with spears sticking out of it.
GOT HIM.

Dishonored is a series that boldly describes itself as “whalepunk,” and it fits that label beautifully. Its world is chock-full of briny flavor, with its levels and character designs all evoking the energy of a world in which hunting and killing the majestic denizens of the sea isn’t just a quirky pastime, but an economic necessity as well as a heroic vocation. Wandering through its skillfully crafted maps gives example after example of why this motif is so great: the reliance on steam energy, the docks teeming with gently rocking ships, maneating rats … my happy place.


Of course, there are also some parts in the game where you have to sneak around and stab guys, and something about betrayal or vengeance or whatever, but if you beeline through that filler you can get to the GOOD stuff: hittin’ the docks and checkin’ out those BOATS, baby.

A screenshot from Dishonored with a steamboat against a stormy sea and sky.
Oh GOD yes.

Return Of The Obra Dinn

A screenshot from the game Return of the Obra Dinn, which uses a monochrome 1-bit graphical style. The image is from the perspective of someone on a ship with complex ropes systems.
The more ropes, the more authentic.

Few games capture the spirit of reconstructing the unfortunate events leading up to the demise of over 50 sailors on a ship in the early 1800s like Return of the Obra Dinn does. Game creator Lucas Pope never fails to deliver on captivating mundane experiences, this time turning his attention to filling out an insurance document. The excitement that you feel as you methodically complete this paperwork is unparalleled; even more exciting is the opportunity to walk the decks of an East India Company trade ship. Ever wanted to sidle your way down the port walk of an East Indiaman’s orlop deck? Of course you have — but thanks to Obra Dinn, that dream doesn’t just have to be a silent wish to the lord every night before bed.

A top-down screenshot from Return of the Obra Dinn showing a map of the orlop deck of a ship.
Don’t even get me STARTED on the Purser’s Office

Return of the Obra Dinn goes to show that with a well-crafted nautical narrative and a historically-accurate boat, critical acclaim is not only achievable, but mandatory. Note: could’ve benefitted from some whales, but every cetacean steak has its muktuk (just a little bit of whale humor there, haha).


Olija

A screenshot of Olija, with a pixelated art style and soft pink colors showing a ship on the open waters entering a new town.
god i wish that were me.

Finally, the experience of being a whaler, distilled to its basest pixels. While not much of this game is actually spent whaling, the opportunity to embody a grizzled man who solves puzzles with a harpoon is one that can’t go unseized. You can really feel the heft of that mighty tool, which generations of great whalers have used in a campaign to brutally harvest one of the most beautiful megafauna on the planet.

A screenshot from Olija showing a rowboat with two people leaving a dock with small buildings heading deeper into the ocean.
Ah, to be one of two colonialists in a rowboat out at sea...

Though this game is the farthest removed from the theme, it proves that even one hint of the core theme (pointy whale-hurty stick) is enough to make a playable experience feel like reading your favorite Jules Verne novel (but without a two-page list of different kinds of fish).


The Greatest Game For The Greatest Theme


I close it, I rest it, my case has been fully exhausted. More, if not all, games should take place in a 19th-century nautical setting, and you can’t argue anymore because I wrote a whole article about it.

A screenshot from Nidhogg 2 shows yellow and purple anthropomorphic characters slashing rib racks and meat hanging from hooks.
Here’s another one for good measure, buy Nidhogg 2.

In conclusion, I would like to submit my concept for the ultimate 19th-century whaling game: Monster Hunter Wet. Bring together the artful world-building of Dishonored, the striking narrative of Obra Dinn (the first Monster Hunter to have a story — we’re making history here), and Olija’s RAW THRILL of using historically accurate whale-hunting equipment, and you’ve got a piece of absolute polished whalebone ivory on your hands.


If Capcom lets me sail around in long, drawn-out battles with the big blue angels of the deep, I will liquidate all of my savings and invest heavily in every piece of DLC they create. I’ll buy two copies: one for playing, and one to just look at. I’ll start whaling and donate the proceeds to the devs.


The planet is dying and I just want to stab a big digital water mammal before it’s all over.

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