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Subnautica creates a unique and powerful emotional experiences on top of relatively simple mechanics. Why aren't we studying this more closely? I argue that this isn't merely a one-off cult classic, but an excellent example of a new emerging genre.

Christopher Menart, Blogger

February 5, 2021

13 Min Read

(15 minute read.)

My aunt used to be a real travel junkie. When I was just a small boy—this was before the plague, you understand—she took me to a bay where bio-luminescent sea creatures lit up the water like stars at night.

It was nice. Our tour group actually got to swim in the bay; you could try in vain to grab the faint little stars in your hand. If you stared hard into the water, its inky blackness played tricks on your eyes so that even those pinpricks just out of reach seemed thousands of miles away.

I’d been in seawater before, but never at night, and never out so far that my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. If you’ve never been yourself, it’s a hard experience to put in words; the brain is hard-wired to feel certain things about the ocean. Swimming pools do not trigger these ancestral memories. Wild water is dark. Moreso at night. If you put your hand beneath the surface, it vanishes.

I wondered if I could get closer to the lights, which always seemed to hover just below my flippers. When no one else in the tour group was looking, I took a deep breath and plunged in over my head.

As soon as I submerged, I was paralyzed by fear.

Now, it’s not like I was in any danger. All I had to do was look up, actually, and I could see the motorboat, the lights and the other swimmers—right next to me. I thought I’d sunk deep underwater, but as it turned out, I’d only gone a few inches down. My hair was barely under.

And I tried going deeper. A bit frustrated by my cowardice, I tried forcing myself even a few inches further beneath the waves. Surely I, a brave, strapping lad, could dive a measly foot deep! Why, surely I could touch one of those bio-luminescent creatures, if I could just get the slightest bit closer.

I made it—oh, maybe it was a foot down, who knows? After a certain point, my body refused. With each additional inch of depth, I was overtaken by the knowledge that I had no idea how deep the water really was. For all I could tell, I was inches from touching bottom—or there were fathoms and fathoms of water beneath me, enough to hide anything. And, in fact (said the hindbrain to my zip-tied rational mind), I had no idea what things might be tucked into the sea’s infinite black corners, far below or just beyond sight, watching me tread water, waiting for me to sink just a little closer…

Oh. And, uh…and in the game.

In related news, I recently learned that Below Zero, sequel to hit AA game Subnautica, is nearing the end of its early access period. My long wait to play it is nearly at an end. This calls for celebration!

What I’d like to do is link to all the game’s greatest reviews. But upon closer examination, it turns out that there are no great reviews of Subnautica.

Oh, I don’t mean there aren’t any positive reviews. The game has gotten high marks from critics and consumers alike since release; at time of writing, it’s sitting at an 87 on Metacritic. The number is colored green, so I think that’s good?

But there are no great reviews of Subnautica. We’re talking about one of the best games of our generation here! This game should have reviews like the Kotaku review of Red Dead Redemption 2. There should be sycophantic reviews of Subnautica; peans to Subnautica.

Instead, most reviews conclude that Subnautica is “a solid survival/crafting game”. Which, far as it goes, is true. They say it’s popular with streamers, which is also true. Rock Paper Shotgun, who I can normally rely on for flowery prose, praises the game’s message of non-violence. And listen, that’s nice and all, but come on! These reviews don’t do the game justice (though RPS comes closest). They don’t make it tap-water clear why you, the person reading this, should drop whatever you’re doing and go play this game. They don’t explain why every developer working in an adjacent genre should hold Subnautica close to their heart as a guiding star.

So I guess I have to do it.

For those of you just tuning in on this game: Subnautica is a game about exploration. Underwater, as the title might suggest. At the start of the game, your spaceship crash-lands in an alien sea, and you must survive off of nothing but your wits and your godlike 3D printer until help arrives.

So it has some survival elements, and it has a lot of crafting elements, but I’m not going to waste your time explaining individual mechanics or story beats. It’s more fun to discover those yourself. And they aren’t the heart of the thing. What you need to understanding is a moment: a particular, magical moment that occurs several times throughout a playthrough of Subnautica, and which, to me, is a microcosm of everything that makes this game a classic. In the course of understanding that moment, we’ll wind up exploring all about how the game’s systems come together to make it sing.

The twist is, I’ve already described the moment!

Subnautica takes me back to the sea at night, back to staring into the abyss, and it pulls that trick not once, but over and over. No other game triggers those same primordial shivers—precious few even think to try.

In the game, this moment occurs when you decide it’s time to dive deeper. You realize that in order to survive, in order to solve the mystery of this crazy planet, you’re going to have to explore more of it. And there’s only one direction to explore in. What you need is down there, somewhere.

So you paddle, ever-so-slowly, past the edge of—for example—the well-lit coral reef that’s become familiar to you. To the place where the seafloor drops out like a cliff. You’d be falling to your death now if you weren’t underwater. You try in vain to pierce the soupy depths, to look before you leap, but it’s just no use. You have no idea how deep it goes. You can hear things down there, maybe even catch a glimpse of movement. There is something down there. And you, floating on the threshold, decide whether you’re going to work up the courage to dive, or retreat to the safety of the shallows.

There are, of course, some obvious elements that go into creating these emotions—and these may even be the most impactful ones. More effort is put into rendering Subnautica’s water than almost anything else in the game. Submersing and surfacing feels great. The sound design is very clever—you can hear many of Subnautica’s creatures long before you meet them face to face. And the game pulls a lot of tricks with lighting to get the mood just right.

But these, like the coral reef, are just the surface. This moment also works for structural reasons.

Notice how I didn’t say that there’s a moment when you have to dive deeper. Oh, you understand that you’re eventually going to need to go down there. The crafting, survival, and story all lure you out, promising that you’ll find amazing things—new resources, new clues, equipment from the wreckage of your spaceship, maybe even other survivors.

But the game gives you such freedom that you never know exactly when you’re supposed to dive. The game doesn’t take you by the hand and show you to the next level, as it could so easily have done. There’s always something else you could do. You could go to a different area. You could try to craft more advanced gear or a bigger house. Or maybe you could just scour the areas you’re already familiar with. Subnautica’s three-dimensionality means there’s often a nook or cranny that you’ve missed.

Maybe that upgrade you’re after is down there. Or maybe you won’t be able to survive until you have new equipment. Maybe you need that weapon to find off whatever’s living there. Or maybe you don’t have a big enough O2 tank to reach the treasure and make it back before drowning.

It’s not always perfect, and there are times when the gating of areas is more obvious, Metroidvania-style. But at its best, Subnautica makes you genuinely uncertain about when you should dive. This is so incredible because it means that it’s your decision to swim down, not that of a script, and that makes it infinitely more terrifying.

For comparison: I love me some Amnesia. They were some of the first big horror games I ever played, and my first experience with them scared me silly! I once got stuck behind a door for the better part of five minutes, too afraid to open it because I could hear monsters squealing on the other side.

But do you see the structure here? It’s a linear one. When I was stopped at that door, listening to those monsters, there was nothing for me to do but work up my courage until I was ready to open it. In Amnesia games, you almost exclusively travel on a linear path—from the start of each level to the end. And while you absolutely can and should participate in suspending your disbelief, there’s a deep-down way in which you’ll always know that you’re supposed to open the door. It’s not really your decision. It is fated to happen, just as an actor’s next line is fated by the script. As such, you know that whatever’s on the other side will ultimately be something you can handle. You know that opening the door is not a mistake.

Subnautica’s open world takes those guard rails away. You don’t realize how tightly you were holding them until they’re gone. Subnautica occasionally prompts you to explore specific locations, because it wants you to find main story beats—but, crucially, these prompts are often given before you can safely reach the locations being pointed out to you, meaning that you still have to figure out, using in-game knowledge, when and how to get there. The rest of the time? You’re on your own which direction to swim.

The difference from a linear level design is subtle, but incredibly powerful. At least in Subnautica’s best moments, when you decide to go to a new place, you genuinely do not know how things will pan out. And it’s not just negative emotion—Subnautica’s other systems have you salivating over the loot you might find! There’s just as much eager anticipation as there is dread. It’s common to drown after diving too greedily and too deep.

Subnautica does all that while being almost as scary as Amnesia, one of the internet’s most beloved horror game franchises, and for most of Subnautica’s lifetime its developers weren’t even trying to make a scary game. That’s the level of raw emotion unlocked by player freedom. There’s nothing more frightening than facing the consequences of our own actions. That’s why video games can be so much scarier than movies in the first place! When we’re watching a movie, it’s not up to us whether the monster will catch us or not. In games, it is.

People, especially players, love to talk about freedom and control. It starts to take on the sound of a cliché, or worse—something players think they want, without knowing better. It’s true that there are limits. Developers have a budget which must be spent wisely. But Subnautica offers an excellent reminder why player freedom is so valuable, and why open worlds are so cool.

When an event is caused by player decision, it comes alive the way food does after you add salt. Suddenly, it’s possible to make a good decision, and find secrets and goodies other players might not. And conversely—crucially—it’s possible to make a mistake and get killed.

Ubisoft’s icon-encrusted shopping malls have given open-world design a bad name by defeating the point of open worlds. When you know in advance what and where all the #content is, the decision to go here and not there ceases to be exciting. It doesn’t feel like a world; it feels like a diegetic menu. Mere level selection.

In defense of AAA developers, genuine player freedom is very expensive, especially at high fidelity. You end up terrified that players will miss any of the cool content you’ve prepared. As systems like RPG progression and dialog trees get layered on, you have to worry a lot more about whether the player’s difficulty curve will get all messed up if they go the wrong way. The Ubisoft formula is a miracle of design in its own way. It allows systems to be slapped together by many different people at a huge scale, and still result in a final product that basically works.

A lot of the games that manage to break out of this paradigm are procedurally generated. It’s fine if players miss #content in No Man’s Sky or in a roguelike.

But Subnautica is hand-crafted. And it isn’t creating a ton of content that you might miss. By the time you finish the game, you’ll have seen the vast majority of its ocean! But by not telling the player what order or direction to explore in, it still sets the player free.

At the most abstract level, I see the structure like this: many different locations are offered, like face-down cards, some of which must be visited in order to win, and some of which may be lethal. There are various dependencies on order, mostly meaning that many locations will be lethal, but only until certain other subsets of locations have been visited. Crucially, all these characteristics are heavily obfuscated and/or totally hidden from the player.

Not highly strategic—but great gambling. And when applied specifically to the activity of navigating a fictional space, this structure taps deep into the human hindbrain. Even our most distant ancestors knew the joys and terrors of exploration.

In recent years, we’ve seen a whole raft of small games which prove that open worlds do not, as previously believed, require budgets the size of Skyrim. A Short Hike. Subnautica. Outer Wilds. And they are some of the decade’s best games! Along with titles like Breath of the Wild, No Man’s Sky, Skyrim, and arguably Minecraft, to which many critics trace a lineage for these games, a new genre is emerging. These are games evolving—from games about fighting, shooting, and leveling that just happen to take place in a 3D environment—to games in which those mechanics play a supporting role to the environment, serving only to contextualize a core gameplay loop of exploration.

Exploration has always played a role in games. But its place in the spotlight is new. It feels like something whose time has arrived—driven, possibly, by prettier graphics, new hardware and computing tricks that enable simulating larger contiguous spaces, and designers more comfortable with telling multiple parallel stories (which fit much better into these experiences than choose-your-own-adventure or linear plots). This new genre is honing a focus on the simple, elemental pleasure of seeking out new hills and dales, rounding new bends, and spying new horizons.

And I am so here for it.

I’d say something cliché, like “Come on in, the water’s fine!” But the water might not be fine. You never know what’s lurking down there. That’s the point.

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