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 Scavenger’s Loop

Scarcity Succeeds

In a lot of open world games and, of course, even more so with survival games, there is a loop of scavenging.  There is the challenge of making sure that you stay alive.  That could be trying to get better weapons.  It could be finding ammo.  Maybe it is finding food or ingredients to make a product that will increase your ability to survive.  I think the Scavenger’s Loop can be very simple: find a thing to survive for longer.  How deep the design goes determines how rewarding it is, and how risky it is to make that a reward.

At the very lightest of scavenging, we can point to games that are not survival games like Borderlands, where ammo is what you chiefly need and better guns to shoot that ammo with.  You’ll ultimately do fine, as there are many alternatives should your gun not be very strong.  Alternatives like…shooting more.  The preferable result is still that we’d like to have a high-rarity weapon with enough bullets to defeat the enemy.  Chances are we will have other guns on hand, grenades, skills, or another player to help out.

Every layer we add makes it more complex and requires more management.  These layers could be things like potions to heal ourselves when there is no auto-healing, limited inventory space, low amounts of ammo that can be found in the world, or a hunger/thirst bar.  Normally these things are a relief to have to not worry about.

You, the Scavenger. You, the Manager

I think part of the feeling of success comes from knowing that we managed correctly, to know that in Resident Evil we saved those bullets for a good time.  The distribution of fears as to whether or not we should expend bullets in the moment is one of the main things that make the game feel challenging.  In the end, we will have made it to the next area, but it feels like it is because of our management.  If it isn’t the management of your resources, it is the management of your skill in gameplay, and both choices end up being rewarding.  Or if you are running from a monster, just the relief itself that you can now catch a break is a reward.  You also have just shown you have the skill to make it to the relief as well.

The emphasis of the reward of you being proven as resourceful or skillful is different than the reward of the actual items themselves.  Sure, we may find a fancy crystal for making that one equipment, but the reward in survival games is usually concealed.  We do not expect the actual item reward.  It is merely a bonus for exploring the world.

The variables involved in items obtained depend on how well you do everything.  In games like Fallout where there are more variables such as durability of weapons, scarcity of ammo, and constantly being bombarded with radiation from different sources, you overcome these trials not because you are the chosen hero, but because you are the spunky, everyday person that has fought their way through a wasteland.  You’ve survived long enough so that you can be as strong as you are now.

Thievery

I’d like to add one more thing to the idea of being a scavenger, especially in survival games like Fallout, Subnautica, and Void Bastards.  You are rummaging through other people’s stuff to survive.  It is the weird intensity of stealing parts from a ship in Void Bastards when you know you’re not supposed to be there and the comic words saying “Squelch, Squelch,” indicate someone is in the next room over.  It’s similar to the feeling in games like Dishonored where you’re grabbing some valuables in a house where the person is still down the hall.  It’s the feeling of “How far can I go without getting caught?”  

The high risk, high reward makes the scavenging feel even more rewarding.  Games such as the Subnautica and Void Bastards have the alternative that if you do not risk enough, you will not survive, but if you risk too much, you are going to die anyway.  These games become a balancing act.  This is even more of a risk in Void Bastards where if you like your character on that run and you die, you likely won’t see them again.  

In the end, the Scavenger’s Loop always points back to the main idea of a survival game and that is to point out the fact that you are not dead.  And that is solely because you were digging through someone else’s or something else’s stuff.

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