Why I Love: Subnautica

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!
Elise

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.

The Open World Crab

A lateral journey

I really don’t like the idea that open world design is an evolution of gaming.  I think it’s progressive in the fact that our technology can now handle it, and that we can create such things, but a game going from linear or another design to open world is not necessarily an evolution.  I think it’s a lateral change.

Like most things in design, from art to games, changing the rulesets always have consequences.  You can’t change the variables in your style and design without consequence, no matter how abstract you make it seem.  In abstraction you willingly remove authorial interpretation and put it up for the consumer.  I’ve probably said this a million times, and I will say again, I believe authorial intent to be important.  The mistake is always believing it to be the most important.  How important authorial intent is depends on the context of who made it and who is consuming it.  

Open world styles will give up some paths for others.  It’s difficult in a linear game to have the Red Dead Redemption moments that are the source of much hilarity or amazing feats.  You won’t get that in DOOM, but you won’t get the level designs in Red Dead unless you’re playing a mission or something.  Open world isn’t so much an evolution as it is a choice in design.  It could be that a game’s style better matches the open world setting, and even then we sacrifice much.  

One of the things that tends to be commonly sacrificed is story.  To have a story work well in an open world means spreading content.  You give up pacing if the player is allowed to go on a 20 hour journey into those mountains on the map.  Subnautica would be very unfortunate as a linear game, but there is a story in there and the writers are restricted to building it in a way that allows it to be approached in any way and timing the player chooses.  You can indeed choose to go view that beacon that popped up on your HUD, or you can spend more time harvesting that copper.  

You give up development time for the advanced writing you’re going to have to make if the player wants to get creative with their progress.  As I previously wrote in an article, most open world games have custom characters, and that means sacrificing some story telling developments of your choice.  Sacrificing these things are not necessarily bad things, but they’re exactly that: sacrifices.

An unfortunate example of not sacrificing things just to fit your bill is Far Cry 5. The game is a fun open world sandbox, but too many things are squished in just to try and be the open world sand box game. They want a story, but they don’t want it on the terms of an open world. You are constantly interrupted by the story and the open world feels staggered because of it. You are restricted in some points in the story, and then it openly mocks how bad your “choices” were when you couldn’t really make choices at all. The whole time I was just kind of thinking, “Well, I was just trying to wander around and do stuff.” I felt pushed to the point where the story was an annoyance and felt unworthy of my time. Far Cry 5 could have been good if it was story based shooter or the open world jaunt, but it chose both, and it did not work. Can you implement a story into an open world well? Yes, you can, but you have to play within the consequences of your designs. Otherwise your designs will end up competing with each other.


The linear world is easier to control.  As a designer you can set the stage, and you can arrange the scenes.  What do you want the player to see?  What do you want the player to feel?  You can get some of these things in the open world.  How far along the spectrum of the two extremes do you want to pull it?  

I think the other difficult thing is changing development mindset when designing open world games.  I don’t think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is some sort of evolution.  It’s just an open world with a lot of design implementations in it.  They made sure climbing, running, and gliding felt good.  And yet, those are not things that need to be in an open world game.  They took into account how locations looked at different angles as players were approaching them.  Hills, mountains, trees and all geography was taken into account.  Where they hid treasure and secrets were considered in the design of the landscape.  These are all things that you also consider in more linear games.  It all goes back to design, and how well you implement it.

You can always create a systemic game and plop large swathes of land and say it’s an open world game, and you will get those open world moments naturally, but designing the world to also be a huge, explorable set piece is what sets Breath of the Wild apart from other games.  Red Dead Redemption 2 leans towards the large swathes of land with random events, but that’s the whole feel of Red Dead.  It is a large, untamed land full of animals, mystery, and highwaymen.  There is a balance between what is handcrafted and what is meant to be accidentally encountered.  You can say they handcrafted what wouldn’t be handcrafted.  What you intend to do with your open world can be a guidepost to how you want it to be designed. 

There are a fair amount of games where it’s just a content dump.  You can feel some of that in the Assassin’s Creed series, especially in the earlier games.  Dynasty Warriors 9 takes the franchise and sets it in the open world, but it really doesn’t adapt the series well to the new design.  What you do and what your guidepost is, which is usually some sort of franchise core concept, is what can really hold your game design together.  


There is nothing wrong with having open world design.  There is nothing wrong with having linear design.  The only thing wrong is not having good design.

Thanks for reading.  I hope you’re all staying safe out there.
– Elise

Why I Love: Team Fortress 2

Less is More is Less

I said I would talk about some of the design side of video games.  I have been sitting on this idea for almost two weeks, because the more I think about it the more I realize this is such a big chunk of something that I do not believe I have the skill capacity to do so.  I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but even more so, it’s just so much.  

But I said I would.  It’s going to be watered down, but I’m going to do it.

Clarity is something the developers choose on whether or not it is an important factor.  It is not something that is required, but in many cases it is helpful or important to the game.  Fast arcade style FPS games are a good example of good clarity.  You want the brain to be spending as little time as possible understanding what you’re shooting at.  Team Fortress 2 is an excellent example of one of the most common forms of clarity in design, silhouettes.

Team Fortress 2 consists of 9 classes, each with very different functions and important approaches one must consider to remove or run from.  They’re all men, and most of these men are of similar body type.  These characters move through bright terrains and shadowed caverns, which means things like contrast, in color and line, are not always up for consideration.  Let’s take a look at Breath of the Wild.  

Just looking at the trailer, you can see how contrast is used.  Shrines stick out like a sore thumb because of their bright contrast with the desaturated landscape, towers break from the silhouetted forms of the hills, and enemies bring your eyes to them with their many tangenting and crossing forms of line.  The simplicity of other colors, brings your attention through complexity.  Line, value, and color contrast are all done in Breath of the Wild.  But color and value are diminished in an environment that can have the lights be on and off like Team Fortress 2.

And that’s where the strong silhouette design comes into play.  One of the reasons personality is such a strong concept to push for in Team Fortress 2 is because it shows in their demeanor, and that gives a perfect idea/excuse to change silhouettes.  The squat stance of the Scout makes him stand out.  His running animation has his legs swing wildly compared to other characters, which makes him even more obvious.  This is especially important as the Scout will almost always be moving when you see him.  The Medic’s trenchcoat sways in a shape that is not common with other characters.  Small things allow for extra clarity: the Soldier’s poofy clothes, the Pyro’s smooth suit, the mountain that is the Heavy, etc.

It really wouldn’t be so much of a complaint if we saw them all pretty similar.  There are plenty of games where realism is the focus, and clarity may be a matter of combat awareness.  But having the characters just different enough so you can tell from their shape helps in such a hectic environment. 

This is just one of the many things that Team Fortress 2 does so well in visual design that makes it stand out as a class based shooter.  Unfortunately, a lot of this deteriorates when everyone is wearing hats and holding different guns, but in return they (the guns at least) provide a different gameplay variety.

There is more to just these that make Team Fortress 2 a great design though, and there is definitely more that I would encourage you to check out from their developer commentary in game.  I choose Team Fortress 2 as a model multiplayer game, not because other games are bad design, but because Team Fortress 2’s designs are the most clear cut and obvious to a normal player that has no experience in design.  It is sometimes difficult to find out the why behind game designs, but Team Fortress 2 does an amazing job at that.

These kinds of things are also the reasons why “feedback” from players in a competitive environment is oftentimes more dangerous than helpful.  The spectrum of skill that spans the players always looks different when you’re supposedly very skilled, because developers don’t design only for the very skilled, and to encompass all of that without creating two separate games is just terribly inconvenient.  Team Fortress 2 takes in a lot of those variables and makes things like level design, gameplay mechanics, and art design work together as best as possible and makes a fairly balanced game within all of that.  Too many times I read of players who want something changed without considering all sides of the equation, which is to say programming, art, and balance at high levels, low levels, and those in between.  

There are SO many things that Team Fortress 2 does well in art design that involve the other elements, but I love that the silhouettes work so well when all other elements are absent.  So please check out the developer stuff to learn about those other things if you have the time.  The game is free to play and is available on Steam.

Team Fortress 2 is #105 on the ULTRA.  And it’s still a fun game to play now.  I really wish I could speak more in a better descriptive manner, but I’m just a normal person who plays a lot of games.  I just have a desire to talk about games.  I hope I can point you in a direction that helps you appreciate games, as that seems to be the best I can do for now.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.

Checklist or Game? Both?

There are a lot of arguments against games that send you off on a checklist, especially if it is an open world game.  You might wonder how these games still sell when you’re just being led by the hand all the time.  This is like games that tell you exactly what to do in the quest objective and everything makes it pretty obvious: a glittering line, a ping above someone’s head, or pop-ups that tell you when something is going to happen or there is something you need to do.  Then there are side-quests or small things you can do, but they’re just pins on a map that need to be completed.  The same thing here or there.  Why do these kind of games still thrive?  I was just thinking about that this morning and I realized that it’s because although they are not exactly great game design, they can still be satisfying.

You want your player to explore and find the way by themselves.  Signposts and rules can only feel so…explorey.  But if you look at games like The Division, the Assassin’s Creed series, sometimes Skyrim or Fallout, and some others, they just pile on objectives and little collectibles everywhere.  In the end, you’re not really playing a game, you’re just doing a checklist.  Yes, you could explore without looking at the map, but since everything is already marked on the map, how much exploring are you actually doing for yourself?  

But we’re talking about why the checklist style is still present in some games.  I think it comes down to the combination of two things.  One, is just the base that checking off a list really can be satisfying.  The focus can end up focusing on checking off a list, but it’s still satisfying.  We do this with things like chores or goals that we set for us to do during quarantine so we can feel good about ourselves.  And we are doing things, so we are legitimately feeling accomplished.  

The second thing that combines with this is that video games make us feel good.  They are entertainment and art, and those two things cover such a vast distance of things that the satisfaction of checking off a list can feel like it fits in there.  I think there are times that playing a game just to check off stuff on your quest list or pick up items is not necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes that’s what we need at the end of the day.  We just need to feel like we’re getting stuff done.  And…I guess we are.

This satisfaction is not the same thing as playing a game with good game design though.  It is a similar trouble with art and the layman.  Both amateur and professional art can be appreciated, but the difference is difficult to distinguish for someone who doesn’t understand how the painting process or color theory works.  Both levels, and all that is in between, can still give a feeling of satisfaction, but not the same understanding of what makes an art piece seem to be at a higher level.  

I said sometimes Skyrim or Fallout, because concerning the main exploration, all the guidance is is a marker on your compass to tell you that something is nearby, which is not too bad of a hand-holding thing either.  Just enough for you to get lost in the world.  The smooth tutorials of Half-Life 2, the extremely well designed difficulty curve of Celeste, and landscape design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild bursts into our playthroughs.  We can feel that these games push us forward and make us feel like we’re out there in the video game world doing something great, without having us check off a list.  It makes us feel like we’re doing it because we ourselves are making our own list or trudging our own way through the land.  That feeling of fun is from good design.  At the right times, I think it is possible that satisfaction of checking off a list suffices, but can be misunderstood as that same fun from good game design.  Guidance doesn’t have to be removed from a game, it is how they approach it that makes it feel good.

Entireties of games are not just the checklist though.  There are still many good gameplay and design elements in these kinds of games.  Remember that this (hopefully) does not make the whole of the game.  I personally feel like they may bring the game down a notch, but I don’t think it should cause the whole game to feel like it collapses on itself.  There are good games that are like this, and that may be because of other elements in the game that hold up what may be a lackluster guidance in the game.  Because games are such a mixed media, no one pillar of games, whether it be graphics, gameplay, sound, or something else, can really bring down the whole game, at least not easily.  

You know, I think the reasons for playing a game are really up to you.  I’m not saying to not support these games just because they have this design.  If you really enjoy them, by all means, you should play them.  But we have to remember that these two types of entertainment are indeed different.  The checklist is using gaming as a medium, while the good game design is emphasizing that it is a game and works on engineering itself to be better at that.  I’m not going to say that the checklist style is good design, just like how I wouldn’t say that my art is professional, but just like how I can still appreciate my art even though it’s not perfect, games can still be appreciated for the level or style of design that they present to us.  I mean, unless they’re a glitchy mess or highly inappropriate or something.

This is Elise.  Thanks for reading!  We’ll see you next time.