Subnautica has gotten its fishy, slimy claws into my psyche, and it’s permeated into all aspects of my life. The immense alien ocean, full of mystery, horror, and discovery is one that I can see every time I close my eyes. When I’m driving to work, I’m thinking about Subnautica. When I’m actually at work, I’m thinking about Subnautica. Even when I’m playing other videogames I’m thinking about Subnautica, and lamenting the fact that the game I’m currently playing isn’t Subnautica. Developed by Unknown Worlds, Subnautica is a drastically different game than their Natural Selection series, which are some of my favorite multiplayer shooters of all time. I first saw concept art for this game back in 2013 official blog post, and was surprised and disappointed initially by at how far the company was moving away from their asymmetrical FPS/RTS hybrid roots. Creating an open world crafting survival game in a sea of other open world crafting survival games is a risky proposition, especially considering the plethora of buggy cash grab games on the market that have given the genre a bad reputation. After four years in Steam’s Early Access program Subnautica has finally been released, and surprisingly has become one of the best damn games I have ever played in my life.
The premise of the game alone is awe inspiring and a great hook for the player, but also distinguishes Subnautica from the rest of the survival games on the market. Ejecting from a burning spaceship plummeting towards an alien planet, you land on the surface of an alien ocean in an diminutive escape pod. It’s just you, the hulking wreck of the ship you were just on in the distance, and nothing but peaceful, casually undulating blue waves as far as the eye can see, all lit by a cheerfully brilliant sun. Subnautica’s setting is perfect for the genre, considering how little we know about the ocean on Earth itself. Despite being on our own planet, we have only explored 5% of what our own ocean contains, simply due to how immense the whole thing is. In fact, our entire planet is 71% ocean, with all of major human habitation taking place on a minority of this planet’s surface. In Earth’s oceans, new creatures are still being discovered daily, some of which are frighteningly alien even from our own planet’s evolutionary history. Mankind’s fascination with the open ocean is present in every culture across the planet, as it is truly an unknown territory where humans can’t and will never belong. The planet on which you crash land is uncharted and doesn’t even have a proper name other than the bland numerical designation of “4546B”. The escape pod has a few emergency rations, but due to the remote nature of the planet, rescue is unlikely before you starve to death. There’s no choice but to dive into the water, exploring for resources and searching for the means to keep yourself alive.
The underwater landscape underneath the escape pod is revealed to be an aquatic paradise. Shoals of colorful fish dart around, a wide diversity of coral and plant life carpet the terrain, and the sunlight casts beautiful shimmering rays through the water. The temperature of this region of ocean is a balmy 25 degrees Celsius(77 degrees Fahrenheit for Americans) which means that the water must be quite pleasant and comfortable to swim around in. Discovering and cataloging the local flora and fauna is exciting, and while many have Earth-like analogues, you will often find something that is truly weird and alien. All of these sights are impeccably rendered with an obsessive attention to detail, particularly the animation of sea creatures. These animals chase each other in convincing displays of predation, or patrol around specific biomes and locations, creating a convincing underwater ecosystem. This game is utilizing the Unity engine, which is often denigrated for being a simple to use engine suited for low quality games, but Subnautica proves that amazing work can be achieved with Unity as long as talent and technical expertise are applied. The audio design is also some of the best I’ve ever heard in a game, creatures will emit specific sounds and vocalizations which will clue you into their location and threat level. All of these will likely startle the player at first, but over time will be helpful in determining whether the creature is a harmless herbivore, or a shark like predator with a hankering to bite your face off.
In addition to the depiction of sea life, there are many biomes to discover at various depths, all of which differ in appearance, inhabitants, plant life, and danger level. These biomes are accompanied by an intelligent soundtrack system, which always seems to know what mood this particular location is trying to convey to the player, whether it’s majestic grandeur, to relaxing tranquility, to tense anxiety. The feeling of discovering a new biome is something that’s difficult to explain through words alone, unless you’ve played this game yourself. I’ve never audibly gasped out loud in a game as often as I do while playing Subnautica, as the feeling and emotions associated with genuine discovery is something the game excels at better than any other title. Imagine the point in Skyrim when you discover Blackreach, but amplified to a ridiculous degree. I will avoid talking specifically about the biomes in this game, since by the nature of the heavy exploration focus of this game, discussion about these locations would be a spoiler. Subnautica is best experienced going into the game completely blind, so I implore prospective gamers to avoid any streams or Let’s Plays before playing this game. All that needs to be known is that this alien ocean is a gigantic, dangerous world that is far from uniform underneath the surface. Unfortunately, the graphical presentation isn’t perfect, as traversing quickly across the seafloor reveals significant pop in from terrain features or vegetation. This doesn’t affect the gameplay, but is still something that’s prominent even on the game’s highest settings and can easily break a player’s immersion.
Like many survival and crafting games, much of the Subnautica’s focus is on collecting resources and crafting equipment. The ocean’s vast depth by itself is a barrier to exploration, so items like oxygen tubes and various traversal devices are useful in guiding the player to deeper and darker waters, which in turn house more valuable resources. What Subnautica does better than most games in the genre is the ease of which things are crafted. Instead of requiring hours and hours of collecting hundreds of resources for crafting, items only require a few individual pieces to fabricate, eliminating the grind that’s present in other games of the genre. I’ve been trained by other games to pick up literally everything I see just in case I need it later, but the ease of crafting plus the limited inventory space meant I had to force myself to break free from this hoarding mentality. Blueprints for new items are created from either scanning pieces of debris scattered across the world, or through data chips found near remaining pieces of sunken wrecks. This creates an incentive to explore every single nook and cranny, as well as a strong need to dive into claustrophobic sections of wrecked ships and narrow tunnels, with the oxygen counter perpetually ticking down. Sufferers of thalassophobia and claustrophobia should be warned that this game is not for the faint of heart, as you are constantly subjected to anxiety inducing situations paired with moments of extreme terror while playing this game. I’m not a fan of horror games, but despite this the wonder of the exploration and the beauty of the world is something I just can’t get enough of, creating two conflicting voices in my head that constantly tug at each other in my brain while playing. This is a massive world that’s full of endless possibilities, and I doubt I will ever see all that the game has to offer, even after a hundred hours of play.
There are plenty of items to craft which aid in exploration, as well as help you survive in the lonely, dark depths of the unknown ocean. There is a tool that allows you to leave Hansel and Gretel-esque bread crumbs in a cave’s passages to avoid being lost, there are flashlights and submersibles to guide you through the water, and even a couple of pseudo “weapons” that operate much more like pepper spray than anything lethal against the horrific denizens of the deep. You will not be stabbing whales like Ahab fighting Moby Dick in Subnautica, the player is a far more passive character in this game, a vulnerable observer who is just passing through. Most predators aren’t worth picking a fight with, and some are so massive and dangerous that coming into contact with them would equate to instant death for the player, similar to a realistic fight between a human and a great white shark. The horror aspect of this game is something that is always in the back of your mind, even while swimming around shallow, calm waters. When night falls in Subnautica, it is pitch dark, with nothing but the faint glowing of bioluminescent life in the murky water. There is nothing quite as terrifying as swimming in an open ocean at night, as the sea floor below you is teeming with monsters and can be literally thousands of meters deep. The inability of sunlight to pierce the deeper regions of the ocean mean exploration in these regions is conducted in perpetual night, full of the most hostile and gargantuan predators. Thalassophobia is a feeling that most people can relate to, as it is inherently a fear of the unknown similar to fear of the dark, and Subnautica embraces this sensation to create a compelling and frightening experience.
Eventually, the inside of your escape pod will feel cramped, and you will tire of scattering small waterproof lockers around the sea bed to contain your extraneous materials. Thankfully, Subnautica has an extensive base building mechanic which allows you to build a habitat basically anywhere you want, as long as you have the technology and means to power and reinforce the structure you want to create. Bases are simple to construct and offer a great home base to plan trips for exploration, along with many modules that can make your life easier, such as satisfying your inner farmer by cultivating some flora for consumption. However, these small comforts and quality of life improvements do little to curb the feeling of complete isolation that starts to set in. The cold, sometime dimly sarcastic computer generated voice of your PDA isn’t enough to keep the feeling of loneliness away. Initially, I was disappointed by the lack of a cooperative multiplayer mode, but upon further reflection, Subnautica is a stronger game by making you feel completely alone in this alien world. Any sense of wonder or fear would be lost if a friend could easily bail you out of a desperate situation, and in keeping the game strictly single player, the developers have maintained a real sense of danger that a cooperative multiplayer game would have a much more difficult time of capturing.
Many games in the genre fall into the trap of becoming directionless and aimless over time, but Subnautica manages to overcome this issue by having a definite end game and intriguing storyline. The game world is fully open to the player at the start, but invisible checkpoints will trigger radio beacon messages which can reveal positions of other survivor’s escape pods, which do a great job of passively directing the player into what to do next in terms of progressing towards the end game. These are entirely optional, you could always just explore on your own, but these survivor’s last known locations often contain important blueprints to further upgrade a player’s equipment, or show an area to the player which contains valuable resources. In terms of exploration, the game never explicitly tells you where to go, as you are instead expected to use beacons to set your own points of interests, using landmarks and features the same way any real life explorer does, which makes every player’s journey through the game feel unique. However, because of this free form nature, certain blueprints can be hard to find, since it requires scanning of specific objects, which often seem to be randomly strewn about the immense ocean floor. This isn’t a huge issue since it encourages the player to fully explore the environment, but it can be frustrating to run into certain choke points of technological advancement that are difficult to surmount due to plain bad luck.
Subnautica is an amazing entry into the survival game genre, and has invoked feelings in me that no other game has ever made me feel before. As I looked outside from my habitat, watching the sun blocked out by an cyclopean, whale-like creature sailing slowly through the murky depths, belching out a low, mournful song, surrounded by a school of brightly glowing fish, I knew this game was something special. Experiences like this are what exactly what I play video games for, and I am certain that this game will stay with me forever. Small graphical and progression issues don’t keep Subnautica from being a masterpiece, and I wholeheartedly recommend this game to anybody who has ever wanted to explore a world that’s beautiful, alien, and terrifying all at once.
- Fantastic Hand Crafted Creature Design
- Beautiful, Bizarre Alien World
- Exploration is Consistently Exciting
- Robust Crafting and Base Building Mechanics
- Graphical Pop in is Noticeable
- Crafting Blueprints can be Frustrating to Obtain