Available on PC through Steam
Rated E 10+
“Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee…”
– Alfred Tennyson, The Kraken
What are you truly afraid of? Not the fleeting rush and pleasant warmth that comes after something unexpected makes you scream. Not the tolerable sick that fills you before an important interview, or the manageable unease when you’re forced to crush a spider with your shoe. I mean that deep, unquenchable disquiet. A building umbra that slowly engulfs your mind. Rationality can only keep it at bay for so long. Eventually the primal call to flee becomes too loud for you to ignore. You succumb, finding whatever escape you can, as the voice of terror consumes you.
For me, deep water is this object of abject fear. The dark, ceaseless depths, filled with all manner of lurking leviathans is far more terrifying to me than any spirit or monster. In a dark room, at least I can rely on the floor beneath my feet. In that vast blue, a creature of unimaginable form could be coming from any direction. And I’d be powerless to stop it.
This might all seem like a perplexing unfit introduction for Subnautica, a game that at first glance looks more like The Life Aquatic than Jaws. I suspect that many horror gamers—inundated with the flood of survival games alluded to in the biblical end times—will take one look at Subnautica’s bright palate and googly eyed sea creatures and give this one a pass. Well let me be the first to tell you, I came closer to shitting my pants during Subnautica than I did the entire Resident Evil franchise.
I will admit that this has something to do with my previously mentioned crippling fear of the vast uncaring abyss most people refer to as the ocean. But it’s not like Subnautica is trying to help me get over that. Populating the ocean floor are all manner of nasty creatures, most of them ripped straight from my nightmares. I mean seriously, how am I supposed to not be terrified of a gigantic demon eel with a Predator face called the, “Reaper Leviathan?”
As should be obvious by this publication date, it took me longer than usual to get through Subnautica. Ghosts, zombies, and hillbilly cultists all be damned, turns out brightly colored fish are my kryptonite. But I’m a serious critic and wanted to make it all the way through the game, leviathans be damned. Now this sentence should confuse you a bit. Yes, Subnautica has an end. This is unusual for an open world survival game, which are usually little more than sandboxes without any real objective other than building the next big thing. Having a story is sometimes included in a more “meta” aspect, but rarely is there a plot you follow to conclusion.
This is just one of several open world survival trends that Subnautica bucks. The most obvious is Subnautica’s vast oceanic world. You play as John G Protagonist, the sole survivor of the Aurora Alterran Capital Ship. Background of your mission isn’t important, all you need to know is that your guy (or gal) got out of the ship on the Lifepod 5 right before the rest of it crashed into the ocean. You plop down somewhere far away, and get to work scavenging and crafting your way to survival.
In a game like Minecraft, you’re pretty free to just start mining and crafting from the get-go. The ocean of Subnautica is not so hospitable. As you are a land dwelling mammal and not a fish, everything in the environment is a dangerous barrier to your survival. You need water, but the whole ocean is salty. You need food, but the fish mostly swim faster than you. You need shelter, but you can’t just build a cabin on the ocean floor and call it a day. Everything you do in Subnautica is hampered by this harsh and inhospitable climate, and you’ll have to work hard to make it even moderately liveable.
Not that this is bad, mind you. So many survival games feel trite once you figure out the easy early tactics, but Subnautica is consistently challenging. Progress is understandable and direct, without much room to skip over entire tiers of equipment with diligent farming. You’ll bust your ass collecting enough resources to get your next oxygen tank, with the reward being you can now explore deeper and more dangerous zones. You’ll never be confused as to what is holding you back, and it’s really just up to you to explore around and figure out what to do next.
Another trend that Subnautica bucks is multiplayer. It’s really rare to have a singleplayer open world survival game, as much of the fun with these games is building with your friends and showing off your sweet designs. While I cannot speak to the intentions of Unknown Worlds, I suspect the lack of multiplayer has to do with the story. I’ll keep this spoiler-free, but the narrative unfurls based on timestamps and what you have discovered. It’s a unique way to tell story that fits well with this style of the game. You always have the sense that things are happening outside of your own little adventure, despite being alone in this world.
From its visual design to unique setting, Subnautica is indisputably a bold game. But bold doesn’t always mean good. This is the part where I talk about the combat. Or more appropriately, the lack thereof. Despite a myriad of creatures doing their best to turn you into lunch, the people at Unknown Worlds made the decision that fighting is for those uncivilized heathens that would rather not be turned into poop. Your only offensive tool (outside of some vehicular options) is a survival knife. As you might imagine, this is as useful for taking down a shark as an actual pocket knife would be at taking down a shark. Instead, you’re required to mostly avoid enemies or disable them with shock/repulsor rifles while you go about your harvesting and exploring.
I understand wanting to do things differently, but this choice just baffles me. In exploration games, hostile creatures serve an important role as both obstacles to your exploration and sources of loot. You build the bigger sword so that you can see what cool stuff that giant skeleton with a fez was guarding, and you kill dozens of spiders so that you can turn their webs into a fancy tapestry. It’s a tried and true method, and there’s nothing wrong with it. In Subnautica, not only do you not kill the giant sea terrors, but there’s nothing to gain even if you do. You don’t harvest dead bodies like most survival games, making combat in general pointless.
Say what you will about the game having a unique spin or an environmental message. Bottom line, it’s fucking annoying to try to explore, harvest, and watch my ass all at the same time. I’m not trying to kill these fish because I’m a dick, Unknown Worlds. I’m doing it because I don’t want them to bite my ass off while I’m harvesting the rocks you told me to collect. It’s not functional to require me to swim away screaming or set gravity traps every time I want to just harvest some stupid kelp. Moreover, it’s a massive missed opportunity given the scale of the larger creatures. I’d have loved to build up from knife to spear to gun to eventually a massive warship capable of dealing with these leviathans.
I can already hear some of my cooler friends calling me a frothing mouthed troglodyte for saying this, but not being able to kill stuff severely got in the way of my enjoyment of Subnautica. For all that I could appreciate the brilliant visual design and unique gameplay elements, actually playing it became a chore (ironic criticism for a survival game, which at their core are just a series of chores). I’m sure that some people will truly get lost in the bioluminescent glow of the many wonders Subnautica has to offer. At times, I sure did. But then I was inevitably sucked back out by a passing leviathan reminding me that I’m the game’s bitch, not the other way around.
The world of Subnautica is equal parts wonder, mystery, and pure terror. It’s truly remarkable to behold. However, the game’s lack of cooperative play and any form of solid combat takes the teeth out of what could have been a fantastic game. Definitely worth checking out, but doesn’t have the legs of other similar titles.
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