Fear and Fun
Subnautica is sci-fi, exploration-survival at its best. Let’s dive right into it. Er… sorry.
Subnautica is a survival game where you crash land on an ocean planet. The normal survival mechanics exist where you have to manage hunger and thirst. You’ll have to manage your oxygen as you dive into the depths. You can scan objects and creatures to learn more about them and the absolutely rich ecosystem in the game. You can build bases to expand your exploration prowess. Subnautica excels at providing a beautiful ocean of creatures that gives you an amazing sense of wonder.
I’m not exactly the keenest on survival mechanics. They tend to get really annoying at some point. I don’t want to have to find more food to eat. I just want to explore, and while that option is available as a way to play the game, I definitely would not recommend it. One of the difficult things about survival games is designing how the player manages their progression. How do we make it so food is a challenge, but not annoying? Should we make it so tools break? And how do we design tiered tools? Subnautica smooths out those experiences so these things rarely are an issue. If you’re continuously doing your gameplay loop of survival, I feel like these things don’t ever feel like much of a problem in this game, but they receive just enough attention to make it still feel like you’re surviving on an alien planet.
This brings me to the thing that I enjoy so much: you don’t really have a weapon. Okay, you get a knife early on, but that thing is puny. It is clear in the game that you are a guest in a foreign world. Creature designs are beautiful, strange, and sometimes dangerous. The world is hand-crafted, so everything has its set place and I think that was the better way to go here. Every time I stumble on a new area my mouth is agape. I’ve really never felt such excitement and joy from exploring a new world as I do in Subnautica. However, this may be a bit of a bias having studied biology as a focus in school. I love learning about the physiological properties of creatures when I scan them. I just…I need to scan them. I need to know more. If biological lore is a thing for you, then you’re playing the right game. Or maybe you just like codices.
I’m also…incredibly scared of this game. There is a story in the game and it is a game you can finish. I love stories in games, but it’s also frightening that, in order to progress, sometimes you have to go into huge spaces of open water. Maybe that’s also what makes Subnautica exploration so invigorating is that while there is a sense of awe upon finding a new biome or area, there is also fear. You are a small human in a big ocean. Sometimes all you can see is darkness or foggy water. The fear is so natural. It’s not like there is going to be a person with a pyramid head or a zombie leaping at you. It is just…water. I admit it, there have been times I swam forward and had my eyes half closed…maybe, maybe fully closed. But I think this fear of the unknown is done very well here and is a core part of Subnautica.
Oxygen. I’m going to say one thing that I think is both frightening and so visceral that I really love in Subnautica. It’s getting lost in an underwater cave. Perhaps you’ve heard this from divers or instructors before. In real life, underwater caves are extremely dangerous to dive in. If you don’t have a guide or a line to keep yourself in check, even experienced divers can die from lack of oxygen. And all these things are definitely felt in Subnautica. I think the intense panic I’ve had knowing my oxygen was running out and being completely disoriented from the multiple dimensions of being underwater is some of the best panic I’ve felt in video games. Frantically and desperately swimming around hoping that I remembered things right. It’s a rush. I know I’ve run out of oxygen before in video games, but I think it’s the whole mise en scène and maybe claustrophobia of it all that makes it such a great underwater experience. I mean, it is called Subnautica after all.
I hate spoilers, and definitely won’t ruin the game’s story here. It is a good story though, and it is well worth your time, or at least I like it. But like most things as games, it has to hold up well as an experience, and I don’t know if I’d play through the story if the way you move through the story wasn’t as well done. I think in survival games, story tends to be pretty minimal. I mean, actual survival games, I don’t mean open world games with survival elements. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are open world games with survival elements. You do have to “survive”, but you can also get stronger and survival kind of gets cast to the wayside. That first area with the plateau in Breath of the Wild is the survival part, the rest is exploration. Mostly. In Subnautica, you’re always just trying to survive.
I think the biggest factor of all these things is just awe. It is a game that puts my feeling of how much I love exploring the world of video games into overdrive. But even if this is so great, don’t go forcing yourself to like something if exploration is not your thing. Perhaps you may find a certain aspect of it exciting enough, like creature design. No matter how much I can praise a game on its strengths, if they’re not to your liking, it may be an unnecessary playthrough. While I won’t deny those strengths are there, I would like to remind everyone that your opinions on what games to play are always valid. Just remember that there may also be a new thing to love if you’re willing to give it a go.
Subnautica is a game that brings me back to childhood exploring Super Mario 64’s levels again. And for a game that is good enough for making me want to keep playing even though I’m so scared of open water, it is #29 on the ULTRA.
Thanks for reading, I’ll see you again!
Note: If you’re feeling woozy because of being in the water and going around disorienting caves, try adjusting things like motion blur (…if the game has them I don’t remember because I always go straight to options to turn this off) and the field of view. If you feel like puking, adjusting the field of view almost always seems to do the trick.