The best moments in Sea of Thieves usually come at the very end of a session. Me and my crew have turned in our treasures, gotten drunk at a nearby inn, and spent the night vomiting our guts out all over town. That leaves us to watch the sunrise and play a little ditty with wooden instruments in hand as we prepare to part – arguing over whether to play a mournful dirge or a jaunty melody – before we get distracted by our cannons and start firing our own bodies to the top of a local mountain.
When Sea of Thieves made the rounds at E3, the question everyone kept asking was, ‘What do you do?’. Honestly, after all my time with the game since release, I’m still not quite sure I can answer that. Sure, you collect treasure, use gold to buy fancier equipment, and occasionally do battle with rival players or sea monsters, but those are just tangents.
Every few weeks, we get the crew back together – me, my wife, and a couple of friends from opposite ends of the country – and just go. In the midst of one of our first voyages, we were suddenly enveloped by a mass of tentacles and found ourselves in a battle against the kraken. That sent us all scrambling to different parts of the ship, shouting out orders to each other over the din of crunching wood and monstrous roars.
Somewhere between our wild gunfire and the big slaps of the tentacles, my wife was knocked overboard, just as we dealt the last bit of damage to loosen the kraken’s grip. Our unmoored ship was suddenly free and lurched forward with the wind – my wife, stuck in the middle of the ocean, cried out ‘You bastards!’, as she thought we were leaving her behind.
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Strictly speaking, the so-called kraken is just a handful of disembodied tentacles that sprout out of the water at random locations across the map. It’s only with the game’s most recent content update that there’s even been a reward for fighting the thing. Those rewards are pretty fleeting, too – a bit of gold to spend on new cosmetics that you can earn a hundred different ways.
There’s no denying that Sea of Thieves has a dearth of content. Even after months of updates, the loop is still about gathering an endless set of treasures and selling them to a nearly indistinguishable group of NPCs.
This is a game space where you’re not out to win or even make progress. It’s a true sandbox for emergent play
But while the game lacks variety, it has an incredible amount of feel. For instance: the way you can drop anchor and send your ship spinning in a massive handbrake turn. Pulling that move off to line up your broadsides against an enemy vessel is still satisfying, no matter how many times it happens.
It’s in the way the sun glints off of the ocean; the hideous scrapes when you run your ship aground; the desperate rush of escaping a skeleton horde with treasure in hand. The way your compass spins around in a storm, or the way you get sick after drinking too much – blinding other players with the resulting bile. It all makes the game feel physical and personal, and that’s what makes all that social interaction work. This is a game space where you’re not out to win or even make progress. It’s a true sandbox. You do you.
That’s why I still remember the fight with the kraken. Or the time another crew swooped in to save us from a skeleton fleet, and then proceeded to say, with very fake Australian accents, that they needed to see our papers. Or that fight we had with two other crews over a skeleton fort, which ended as one crew sneaked away with the treasure and we fought the other losers in an empty vault, all the while singing Bohemian Rhapsody for no reason other than our own amusement.
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All those tiny bits of art and game design combine to make Sea of Thieves an anecdote generator – a place where fun stories keep happening no matter how many times I come back to it.