Set Sail With These Five Seafaring Games and Books


Ahoy, mateys! Pirates, privateers, merchants, sailors, people who have a friend who owns a boat… hell, even landlubbers—this list is for you. I’ve always been drawn to the sea, so long as it’s fictional and I can sail it from the comfort of my couch and without the sun’s lethal rays beating down upon my exceedingly burnable skin. The lure of imaginary ocean voyages has led me to amass a cargo hold full of seafaring fiction, and I’m here to share some of my bounty with you today.

Let’s set sail for five thrilling seafaring SFF games—and along the way, I’ve paired each one with a novel or book series that captures similar vibes…

Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew

Mimimi Games shut down for bittersweet but ultimately noble reasons in 2023, but not before releasing its swan song. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew puts you in charge of a cursed pirate crew aboard the Red Marley, a sentient ship. You explore the Lost Caribbean to hunt for Captain Mordechai’s legendary treasure, but the Inquisition of the Burning Maiden has its own goals, and you must stealthily avoid the Inquisition’s minions along the way.

Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew pulls together a mix of disparate elements with delightful success. The core gameplay is a mix of stealth and RPG elements, with a bit of combat peppered in. It is at once challenging and forgiving—if you find your party (you can take three crew members on each mission, with a few exceptions) in a pickle, you’re able to reset to your latest memory, captured by the Marley. You can give it another go or try a new approach until you accomplish your goal, then head back to the ship through swirling vortex gates.

Each character has unique powers that can contribute to the success of your mission, and the game incentivizes players to try each character by offering additional experience points if you use a character who has been sitting out for a while. The real magic of the characters is their on board interactions. The dialogue is expertly voice-acted, and the writing is swashbucklingly sharp. You’ll want to sign on and join the pirate crew mere minutes after meeting them.

Book pairing: The Gentleman Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch

The Gentleman Bastard series centers around a ragtag crew of lovable thieves and misfits. The setting is like Venice with a fantasy twist, and the second book (Red Seas Under Red Skies) even has a whole seafaring section filled with perilous voyages and pirates. It’s a great choice if you like the strong characters of Shadow Gambit and want a little bit of that flavor in your next read!

Dredge

Next up, we have Dredge, which starts as a simple fishing management game and graduates into a full-blown psychological horror experience. You captain a small fishing boat and set out to catch various marine creatures, which you can sell for money and resources to upgrade your ship. The game has a colorful cast of characters and sinister things lurking beneath the surface (which I mean very literally). There aren’t many outright jump scares in Dredge, but there is a constant sense of unease, as if the ocean itself is ready to swallow you up or send its minions to throw your psyche off-balance.

It feels weird to say, but the main feeling I had throughout the game was pure joy. It layers its discoveries and mechanics so well that I always smiled when I caught a new fish or docked on a new island. Even amidst the foggy uncertainty at the heart of Dredge’s terrifying seas, I had an absolute blast!

Book pairing: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter is my suggested Dredge pairing for the simple reason that the two share very similar vibes. Both feature mysterious archipelagos and unanswered questions. Things lurk beneath the depths of Stewart’s novel, the first book in the Drowning Empire trilogy, and it’s a delight to uncover tidbits as you follow the characters on their journeys.

Return of the Obra Dinn

In Return of the Obra Dinn, you don’t do much seafaring yourself. Instead, you play an investigator with a magical pocket watch that lets you see a person’s moment of death. You’re charged with boarding the Obra Dinn, which docked with all of its crew missing or dead. You navigate scenes on the ship to discover what happened, where the survivors are (if any exist, that is), and how everything went wrong.

It’s all detailed in an artistic black-and-white style that lends itself perfectly to the mysterious nature of the game. What’s more, Return of the Obra Dinn is the most outright horrific seafaring game on this list, starkly depicting gruesome scenes and fierce betrayals unfolding right on the screen. There’s also an element of discovery to it all, as it’s your job to identify each character’s name, role, and current status (dead, escaped, in X locations, etc.). The game only reveals three correct answers at a time, which means there’s a lot of doubling back to hyper-analyze little details. It’s among the most unique gaming experiences I’ve ever had, and it’s ideal for fans of fantasy on the high seas.

Book pairing: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

A detective boards a ship bound for Amsterdam in 1634 and is quickly plunged into an investigation of mysterious (possibly supernatural) crimes aboard the ship. It’s like Return of the Obra Dinn in book form!

Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer completely passed me by in 2020, and it’s a shame. It would’ve been a fantastic lockdown game. Instead of dwelling on the past, I finally picked up Spiritfarer a few months ago and fell in love almost instantly. You play as Stella, who takes over from the mythological figure Charon to become the new Spiritfarer. You commandeer a massive ship and run errands in a vast ocean speckled with islands and spirits who need their final wishes fulfilled before they move through the Everdoor.

Spiritfarer is a cozy management game about death and the afterlife. The stakes of the gameplay are low. You grow crops, make fabric, cook food, feed passengers, and manage the day-to-day on your ship. You’re accompanied by the fluffy cat Daffodil, who is an utter joy (and who can be controlled by a second player for some fun co-op play). The gameplay loop is entertaining and satisfying, but the story is what really captures hearts in Spiritfarer. Each spirit has their own story and relationships to discover, and their personalities are distinct. These characters have flaws and positive strengths, just like anyone else. As you slowly get to know them and eventually say goodbye at the Everdoor, you will start to discover the heartbreaking meta-narrative of the game.

The actual sailing isn’t super essential to the game’s story; it’s just a vehicle for the story. This makes Spiritfarer the most peaceful and relaxing pick on this list.

Book pairing: Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune

If Spiritfarer is the coziest game about death, acceptance, and saying goodbye, then Under the Whispering Door is the coziest book about those same things. Be warned—in this case there is no seafaring within the pages of the novel, but there are plenty of warm hugs and heartfelt explorations of moving on.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Chances are, if you’re even a casual Zelda fan, you’ve heard of Wind Waker. Diehard fans of the series will know the unique rush of sailing the open ocean in your small ship, steering the winds to your advantage and encountering whatever wonders and dangers loom on the horizon. Wind Waker evokes that distinctive sort of whimsy that the best Nintendo games are known for. The game mashes up the classic Zelda formula with a breezy and delightful take on sailing that will endure in the memory of anyone who plays it.

Book pairing: Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson

Wind Waker is one of the most mainstream game picks on this list, so let’s go with a similarly well-known author for the book pairing. More than that, Sanderson’s Tress of the Emerald Sea captures the same whimsy and features a charming seafaring crew.

Honorable Mentions

Naturally, I had to send many other worthy picks to the brig to keep this list tight, but here are a few more great ways to enjoy stories about sailing in different media:

  • Our Flag Means Death (series on MAX)
  • Dead Reckoning (board game)
  • The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker
  • Sea of Thieves (video game on PC, Xbox, and PS5)
  • Dave the Diver (video game on PC, Mac, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch)

I could go on, but I’ll leave the list here, and hope you’ll share your own recommendations in the comments below… icon-paragraph-end



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