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Moments of 2018: Skeletons from the briny depths in Sea of Thieves

Yo ho, yo ho...

Picking Sea of Thieves feels like a bit of a cheat. After all, the ever churning innards of Rare's multiplayer pirate adventure are expressly designed to generate memorable adventures. But in a year packed with wow moments (that first glimpse of Subnautica's bountiful choral reef, for one) and full-on WTF moments (why hello there, Fortnite's inter-dimensional butterfly), no other game has, for me at least, managed to create so many wonderful, lasting memories as Sea of Thieves.

So much so, in fact, that it's a bit of a struggle to narrow it down to one. If I had to choose though, it would probably be what started out as a relatively simple moment, a little bit of theatre in a game capable of far grander spectacle. It happened following Sea of Thieves' Cursed Sails update, where, a few minutes after logging in, I found myself anchor down in the middle of nowhere, waves tossing my tiny sloop back and forth, with only the intermittent crash of water against wood to break the silence.

Suddenly, a distant horn rings out across the waves and, after a few moments of strange, uncertain calm, a ragged galleon explodes upward from the murky depths, making its presence known in a roar of rushing water and sea spray.

Sea of Thieves is awash with meticulously realised cinematic flourishes, and this was another perfectly orchestrated moment of swashbuckling adventure, a moment when my childhood fantasies of a life of derring-do on the high seas, among swarthy pirates and fearsome sea monsters, came alive. I honestly think I just sat there for a moment, slack-jawed at the sheer spectacle of it all unfolding in real-time for my own personal pirate escapade.

Of course, this being Sea of Thieves, that initial, glorious encounter with a skeleton ship was quickly usurped by another, even more impressive moment of grandeur. That motley crew of skeletal sailors was followed by a second, both unleashing a seemingly interminable rain of cannon fire upon my poor sloop. But then, even more wonderfully, ship after ship of human players began swarm the area, until the rolling waters were a mess of boats, both big and small, of smoke and ringing gunfire, of frantic cries from suddenly co-operative crews, and the ceaseless trumpet of unearthly horns as more and more skeleton ships joined the fray.

I struggle to remember a game with the same sense of presence of Sea of Thieves; when I'm meandering about on the waves, the swell of the ocean, the sway of my boat, the creak and groan of wood and gentle slop of water trickling over the deck, is utterly mesmerising. The illusion is so complete, in fact, that I'm often faintly surprised when I look up at the end of play session, wrenched out of Rare's hypnotic spell, to discover that I'm actually sat on the couch in front of the telly. In that frantic moment of battle, though, with six human ships noisily unleashing fury on two skeletal vessels, I really was lost at sea.

There were other moments too, of course; back in May the Hungering Deep update arrived and, after months of battling an unending procession of hostile crews, I found myself in the midst of a makeshift armada, surrounded by friendly vessels (something almost unthinkable weeks before) all using megaphones to bellow jokes at each other from afar, as we drifted idly across moonlit waters, lamps aglow and spirits high, readying to take on an ancient megalodon.

I've found myself frantically bailing water after running out of planks, as storm winds and towering waves lash the side of my ruptured boat, yet still somehow surviving the hilariously fraught journey back to the outpost to turn in my treasure. I've been diving for the spoils of cursed statues, chased death in pursuit of halloween trinkets, raced through boiling waters and dodged volcanic hellfire, made friends and double-crossed enemies, raided fortresses, even lived to tell the increasingly preposterous tale in a battle against a giant shark where a skeleton ship, then a human galleon, and then a thick swell of impenetrable fog all elected to join in.

Of course, sometimes things aren't nearly so eventful. Often, it's just me and a few friends, drifting lazily from port to port, telling jokes, digging for treasure, and just kicking back out on the waves. But even in these quieter moments, there's joy to be found, whether in that idle camaraderie, or simply in the gentle, comforting sway of a boat and the quiet roar of the ocean - which, for me at least, is the perfect tonic to the stresses of a hectic day.

Undoubtedly, 2018 has seen bigger games and busier games than Sea of Thieves, but give me a choice between any of them and, always, it's the pirate's life for me.

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