“Can we go to the skull fort?” an excited voice shouts through the headset. I look over and see my nephew on the ship’s prow, clutching a telescope and signalling over to a terrifying skull-shaped cloud in the sky. Against my better judgement, I agree to his request, and over the course of the next two hours we battle countless waves of skeletons while fending off brigantines, sloops, and whatever else the sea can throw at us.
For my nephew and I, Sea of Thieves has become an important way of keeping in touch, as it has for many families who play the game. Between his busy social calendar of football and children’s parties and my own hectic freelance career, pencilling in some quality time has become increasingly difficult to arrange. But with the aid of Rare’s shared world adventure game, we’ve been able to hang out and create hilarious and unforgettable memories while on the seas.
I’ve taught him how to drink grog — don’t tell his parents — and schooled him on how to wield a sword like a mighty pirate, 90’s adventure game insults and all. But perhaps my favourite moments are when we’re at sea together, where the achievements I often take for granted while playing with people my own age become momentous feats to be celebrated once again. Whether that be sinking the skeleton ships that arrived with the Cursed Sails expansion or defeating the enormous megalodons from the Hungering Deep, which rise from the depths to waylay unsuspecting victims.
We’ve not been alone in this, either. Since I asked on Twitter about players’ experiences with the game, I’ve heard from from people like twin 16-year old boys who play with their 59-year old father who had never touched a video game before, and two brothers in their twenties who live six hours apart and keep in touch via their piratical adventures. For many, Sea of Thieves seems to be an excellent way of coordinating family time together and keeping in touch with relatives over long distances.
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Getting Your Sea Legs
One reason for the game’s popularity across different age groups is its accessibility. Whereas typical live-service games are usually built on the idea of vertical progression through earning loot and upgrades, Rare ditches this concept in favour of a cosmetic-based progression system. This means that everyone entering the game is on a relatively even keel, regardless of how much time they’ve spent playing.
“My fiancée is not an experienced PC gamer but she loves sailing with me,” says 24-year-old English teacher Logan Piper, from Michigan. “She’s mentioned that she feels more comfortable playing it too, because there is never really anything to lose besides some loot. She likes that we can just log on and play together and not have to worry if her character isn’t powerful enough to play with me and whatnot. All in all, it’s a wonderful game that gives us quality one on one time.”
He continues, “Just last night actually we were escaping with the fort key when a kraken spawned on us. An enemy sloop waited on the outskirts of the ink while we took out the kraken. We ended up sinking that sloop and getting our loot. She isn’t a huge gamer so PvP scares her but she was actually taking out these Athena legend pirates! I was laughing as she would be like ‘I did it! I killed one!’”
“I think what appeals to us is that it’s so multi-faceted,” says MeanaFaerie, a 37-year-old from the Shetland Islands, who plays with her two daughters and her son. “I can load up a sloop with the youngest (9yo) and putter about at her whim. Or we can load up a galleon with four of us on it and see where the wind takes us. It’s one big make-your-own adventure, and you never know what will be thrown your way. It encourages teamwork and good communication [and] is something that we can all enjoy, no matter our ability or age. We can also play without each other, but still hop back in and play without worrying about others not being at the right level.”
She tells me about a recent voyage she had with her kids, trying to complete the new time-limited reaper runs. Here players must raise a glowing, red flag, revealing their presence to other pirates on the map, and complete a profitable and dangerous quest across several islands, digging up buried chests.
“We spawned at Galleon’s Grave and got krakened not once, but twice,” she recounts. “The second time we had just left the outpost without the middle child. Instead of coming and helping she watched us from the safety of the outpost as we fought the beast. Unfortunately we sank. [But] we carried on to have a great adventure that day, with middle child doing an awesome job with the riddles and rowing between islands, and the eldest digging up the x-marks-the-spot. It was a good day with lots of gold earned, many laughs had, and memories made.”
Captain Hitbotc, a YouTuber and streamer from Oregon, has had a similar experience with the game. He’s been running game nights with his family — who are spread across the US — for the past five years. But Sea of Thieves has connected them in a way others game simply haven’t. You can see this across his videos, as he creates daring adventures with his crew The Black Death, comprised of his nieces, nephews, brothers, and sisters. One of his favourites is the time he snatched an Athena’s chest from under another crew’s nose at Morrow’s Peak outpost, with the help of his sister Shapijc, detailed in the video The Great Heist.
“What I love about Sea of Thieves is that it is a game that allows you to truly create your own adventures with your friends and family,” he says. “I love that everyone is on the same playing field whether you have been playing forever or not.”
Enjoying the Downtime
Another aspect that makes the game an excellent fit for families is the abundant downtime. Between voyages in Sea of Thieves, there is usually a slight lull in activity as you sail from island to island. It’s here that players can let their mind wander a little and strike up some conversation with their fellow crewmates.
“The downtime lets us chat about the daily activities (school, etc) and still have an experience in the game,” says Tom Bevivino, a software worker in his 40s, who uses the game to keep in touch with his daughters while away on business trips. “It really has been great and allows us to do something we do at home while on the road.”
Rather than using traditional communication apps like Skype or FaceTime, Bevivino and others like him prefer using the game as a virtual space to spend time with loved ones living in other states, and in some cases, ironically, across vast stretches of ocean.
“I love that it gives us a way to connect and keep in touch on a weekly basis,” says Seanaci, a kindergarten paraprofessional from Colorado in her 30s who plays the game with her sister in Washington State and her brother-in-law who lives in Canada. “We get to connect on a different level than a phone call and it allows us to have fun and goof around while catching up. It also allows my son to jump in and visit with his aunt and uncle in a way I never had when I was little. And it warms my heart that we continue to stay connected.”
Sharing Interests and Adventures
Carrie Linden, a 40-year-old teacher and streamer from California who goes by the name Chocmoojoo on Mixer also uses the game to stay connected with her family. She plays the game with her father who is in his early 70s and lives roughly 400 miles away in north California. For them, it’s all about the spirit of adventure and sharing experiences and interests such as sailing and model ship building.
“Facetime and Skype are just apps to talk, that’s not really the same as adventuring with someone,” says Linden. “When I lived up north, my dad and I did things together: camp, hike, yard work, science stuff, art projects, game, etc. So, we enjoy being able to log on and adventure, it means even with the distance we can still share an activity and an experience.
“My favorite moments are the times we roll up on someone new and I get to watch my dad teach new players some tricks to the game,” says Linden. “Or when we unknowingly save ourselves from an attack by being ‘so nice.’”
When Sea of Thieves first launched in March 2018, I doubt many would have predicted it would be adopted in this way. Nevertheless, it’s become an important way for many families to interact and keep in touch with one another. In the game’s lore, the Sea of Thieves is often depicted as a cruel place where self-serving souls go to make their fortune, but for these individuals, and myself, it’s as much a place to treasure what we already have.