I have, for unknown reasons, always been drawn to the deeps. If a film/book/game is set underwater, regardless of other considerations (genre, quality, etc.), I am interested. Something about the bizarre half-lit world down there is endlessly fascinating to me. Subnautica, therefore, is absolutely my kind of thing.
Stranded alone in a hostile environment, you are forced to struggle for survival, learning about your new home and constructing more and more complex tools. This is the core plot of every survival game, and it’s been done a thousand times before with varying levels of quality. What sets Subnautica apart from all of its competitors though, is that the hostile environment in question is an alien world that is almost entirely covered by water.
At first, you explore shallow seas, diving from your damaged lifepod to gather food and research the simple alien herbivores around you. As the game progresses, you are driven deeper, to colder waters with more dangerous denizens. You could stay near the surface, where it’s sunlit and safe, but more precious resources – required for more advanced construction and potential rescue – are only found at greater depths. Unlike a lot of games with horror elements, Subnautica forces you to be a willing participant in the terror. The monsters aren’t coming for you; you have to go to them.
The twin issues of depth and air supply give Subnautica a level of danger and tension that is not often found in similar games – as you dive deeper and deeper, exploring lightless caves and shattered wrecks, you need to keep one eye constantly on your remaining air supply, calculating how long you can stay down before emerging, how quickly you can reach the surface. Even in the late game, when you’re no longer descending in just a wetsuit, but in the (relative) safety of a sleek submarine, these pressures don’t go away; attracting the attention of a predator or running out of power can quickly strip away all your security.
Subnautica is a science-fiction survival game with strong horror elements. Some of the bizarre creatures you meet in the depths are predators, often much larger than you. There’s less and less light as you descend, and that has to be managed just as much as oxygen levels – do you keep your torch on to help you navigate, or is it better to keep it off most of the time, so as not to attract attention? What was that shadow just at the edge of vision? The game is filled with heart-stopping moments – hearing the roar of an apex predator, seeing your oxygen fall close to zero as you search for the exit in a disorienting maze of tunnels. The tone can switch from placidity to panic in a split-second.
When it’s not being terrifying – and often even when it is – Subnautica is beautiful. The alien world has a diverse ecosystem, divided into several distinct biomes, and slowly exploring the strange flora and fauna is genuinely fascinating. You navigate by familiar rock formations, swim through twisting, kelp-filled canyons and explore the ocean floor by the light of bio-luminescent plants. There’s a sense of grandeur to the desolation of the depths- life becoming less abundant as pressure increases and light reduces – and no sight is more welcoming after a long and dangerous expedition than the golden slivers of light filtering through as you ascend.
Subnautica is not a peaceful game – all sorts of alien sharks and squid can harm you – but it is a game which forces the player to play defensively. The game does not allow you to build any offensive weaponry other than a simple knife, and most of the things that might want to eat you have a mouthful of teeth each bigger than your little blade. You can run, hide, distract, and delay, but you are far from the most dangerous thing in the ocean. This is a really interesting and unusual approach to take, keeping tension and the stakes high throughout the game, rather than turning you (as most adventure games eventually do) into an unstoppable death machine. Never being truly safe means that it’s harder to get bored, and harder to break the game and destroy the ecosystem. You have to be patient, cautious, and clever to survive.
The big issue that all survival games deal with is the grind. Hacking open a coconut or crafting a stone axe is engaging the first time, but as tools degrade and more and more resources are needed, survival games tend to go in one of two directions: either the whole game becomes a tedious resource collection slog, or you automate away the core gameplay and are left just clicking desultorily while the problems solve themselves. Subnautica goes a bit into the grind towards the end – I did find myself wearying of yet another nerve-wracking descent into the abyss because I needed just one more acidic mushroom than I had thought – but it’s far less of a problem here than any other survival/crafting game that springs to mind. Partly that’s because you never grow too powerful, and so no expedition is fully routine. Partly that’s because the craft-upgrade-replace loop is tight enough that it rarely noticeably drags.
There’s a heavy focus on research throughout, which I’m all for conceptually but rarely gets done in any depth in games. You must scan creatures and resources to learn about them and identify ways they can be exploited. As you explore the oceans, you find mysteries which also need investigation and research. I would have liked this mechanic to be embedded deeper, but I can’t really complain – again, it’s done better by this game than any other I can currently think of. A little bit more complexity would have made me extremely excited, but I still really liked how much of the focus was on learning and exploring.
The alien world is full of mysteries, and there’s a strong narrative flowing through, told through intercepted radio messages and abandoned PDAs. Emergent narratives are hard to do correctly, as you have to put a lot of trust in the player to care about connecting the dots, and a narrative that feels imposed upon you is infuriating in a game that’s supposedly about exploration. Again, it’s really well done here – I found that the narrative beats took place at the right moments, gently guiding me without feeling too much like bars. Whenever I was at a loss for what to do next, the radio would chirp or I’d scan something that would suggest – but never demand – that I consider a particular approach. The breadcrumbs were sufficient to keep me spiralling further down into the depths, facing the leviathans in the search for new information.
There’s a lot to explore and a lot to investigate – even as I reached the end of the game, I’d keep finding new things that I had somehow missed. The game world isn’t incredibly large, but it’s definitely large enough to keep your interest, filled with variety and wonder and danger. I could definitely have kept exploring further for quite some time without getting bored or running out of new things to find.
Overall, I really liked this. The underwater setting means that I was always going to, regardless of how good it actually was, but quite apart from that, Subnautica is a really well-made game that keeps consistent interest, in a genre that really struggles to pull that off. It’s tense, engrossing, and compelling.