Subnautica is a survival game in which you are tasked with living through the crash of an interstellar freighter on a world covered almost entirely by water.
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Xbox Series X
Mac/PC: January 2018; PS4/Xbox One: December 2018; Switch/PS5/Xbox Series X+S: May 2021
Sometimes the easiest way to talk about a game is to talk about the games and other media which seem to have influenced it. This game looks and feels a lot like No Man's Sky
, but instead of being set mostly on land in a vast and undifferentiated universe, it is set mostly in the sea on a relatively small game map. Much of how you progress in both games is by exploring in the wreckage of crashed spaceships. You search for resources to build and improve gear, bases, and vehicles. You are occasionally harassed by alien life, but are never especially threatened by it. Survival is more a matter of time and bookkeeping than anything you might genuinely fail at.
But here's where Subnautica diverges from No Man's Sky: The oceans are worth swimming around in. Like, really worth it. Above the water, the game map in Subnautica feels utterly, depressingly barren, with only a crashed ship and one or two islands to explore, and nothing containing anywhere near enough resources to save yourself from the catastrophe which opens the game. Underwater, the game map is teeming with life, with something like a dozen different undersea biomes for you to explore and exploit.
And that is the gameplay loop. Exit your lifepod. Explore the water near your lifepod, gathering resources to build tools. Use the tools to build vehicles and bases, so that you can explore further, finding new recipes for more tools and more vehicles and more bases, so that you can explore ever further, gaining ever more rare resources and building ever more powerful upgrades. The game never pushes you forward with clearly stated quest objectives. There isn't a map. Often, your HUD doesn't even give you any landmarks other than the location of your lifepod. What drives you forward, more than anything, is curiosity. To dive ever-deeper. To build things you haven't yet had the resources or blueprints to build. To understand why your ship crashed.
I came to Subnautica by moving backwards. For the last several years, my gaming has been dominated by only a handful of titles. The Elder Scrolls Online
, Halo 5: Guardians
, Red Dead Online
, Payday 2
, ARK: Survival Evolved
, and Sea of Thieves
. Most of this has been gaming with my current domestic partner and various members of her family. The only single-player games I've spent much time on at all in the last five years were No Man's Sky and State of Decay 2
. I spent hundreds of hours in each of these, but ARK got its hooks deeply into me in a way few games do. The mix of survival, crafting, exploration, and utter peril, especially in a cooperative ecosystem, were something I hadn't seen anything like since perhaps the days of LPMUD
s in the mid-1990s. A heady mixture, as they say. No Man's Sky shares some of ARK's mechanics, but even after years of updates, the vastness of that space never stopped feeling to me like an ocean a million miles across but only two or three inches deep.
My gaming community stopped playing ARK, too soon for me. The grind got to them, in a way that never touched me and my ADHD hyperfocus. Losing my community in that game hurt, because ARK isn't a game which is meant to be experienced alone. Much of the content is just out of reach unless you either tweak the difficulty levels, or cheat, or just do nothing else for months on end. There are online multiplayer servers you can join, but playing those sorts of games with strangers ultimately devolves into a gross mixture of griefing and politics. I had to let ARK go. I still hope to come back, but time has really run out. The sequel drops next year, in any case.
I'm not good with loss. With ARK, I went through loss. The game I loved is still out there. I could return, but the conditions of return would spoil the attempt. Imagine revisiting your childhood home, now estranged from the family you lived with while you were there. Imagine it empty, just you and four bare walls in a space where your mother once read to you. Imagine it full of strangers, a family you don't know sitting around a dining room table you don't recognize, in a space that was once your own. The word nostalgia comes to us from Greek, where it describes a kind of pain, a pain which we experience when we remember places to which we cannot truly return. I know that ache, as much for digital worlds as for real ones.
Late one night a few weeks ago, I was doing something I've done before, attempting to relieve the pain of nostaglia: Searching the Xbox store for other games which are like ARK, but are not ARK. I had tried various pixel-art based games, notably Terraria, offering some of the same gameplay loop in a different structure, but those just aren't immersive the way a modern first person title is. Green Hell was too hardcore, and frankly was clearly developed for PCs, rather than for the consoles where I do my gaming. I ran across a fairly new indie game called Breathedge, which looked promising, but I wasn't sure. I looked online for reviews, and found the Kotaku review. In the course of turning me off of Breathedge, the Kotaku review pointed me at Subnautica, which I had never taken seriously because the undersea portions of Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and No Man's Sky were all incredibly underbaked. The reviewer, complaining about how Breathedge wasn't Subnautica, spoke so fondly of that earlier game that he came off like a frustrated single, writing into an advice column to lament that he was never going to find another woman quite like his ex. So, I decided to give Subnautica a try. I'm really happy that I did.
I just started my second playthrough yesterday. Let me describe the first two hours of that second playthrough. I can't spoil anything for you, because there's really nothing to spoil.
The game started. I jumped out of my lifepod, and immediately started swimming around gathering the first resources I knew I was going to need. Creepvine cluster seeds that I could use to make rubber. Spaceship wreckage I could fabricate into titanium. Copper, gathered from limestone outcroppings. Fish, to fabricate into food and water. Gold and silver and lead, all from sandstone outcroppings, because I was going to need all of those things a little later on. Acid mushrooms, a precursor for batteries, because good tools all need batteries. Quartz to make glass.
With these supplies gathered, I made my first tools and gear. A survival knife, a repair tool, a scanner, and the habitat construction tool. A high capacity oxygen tank, a pair of flippers, and a rebreather. I repaired the damaged systems in my lifepod, and its radio started giving me beacons for other crashed lifepods. Next I swam around, scanning the wreckage for blueprints. These blueprints gave me enough to build my first one-man submarine, which will permit me to spend more than 60-90 seconds at a time underwater. A few minutes before I started writing this article, the nuclear reactor on the crashed ship exploded, which I know from my previous playthrough means I can explore inside it. I built a radiation suit, and some more advanced tools. That's it. Two hours, and I have a mini-sub I haven't yet entered, and everything I need to get going in earnest.
Soon I will set out toward a lifepod beacon which will in turn lead me toward dry land, a lone island near the far end of the map from my lifepod and from the wrecked spaceship. There I will gather blueprints and crop samples, which I will use to establish a base in deeper water close to the center of the game map. I will use that base to construct upgrades to dive deeper, to stay out for longer, and to progress through the game's loosely told story.
There's a sequel, which has very good reviews. I could have gone straight to that. But I'm not done here, yet. Maybe the world has more to show me than I saw the first time. But that's not why. I just really like the way all this feels. It's a whole mood.
The head of Unknown Worlds Entertainment has a short interview segment up on YouTube (https://youtu.be/OZjaON8Qb1g) explaining how he came to make this game. Basically, just as he and his studio were concluding major development on a more conventional shooter, Minecraft was reaching the peaks of its popularity, and the Sandy Hook shooting happened. Subnautica was conceived in those feelings. "Let's do something which isn't hard. Let's do something which isn't violent. Let's do something which doesn't lead the player around by the nose." And it's gloriously single-player.
This isn't a game marked by ambition. Just by feeling. You can legitimately get through it in a few days of gameplay, even without looking online for hints about how to do things. There isn't a lot to confuse you or frustrate you. You can rush, or you can take your time. Unless you turn on the permadeath setting, there isn't much the game can do to hurt you, let alone hurt you so badly you won't recover. You decide when to save, which means that even if you lose hours of crafting because you explored too deep into the abyss and some sea creature came and broke your sub, you can just reload and only lose the time it took to sail over to that part of the map.
After years of co-op multiplayer, in high difficulty shooters against antagonistic players, and in MMOs, and in survival franchises which lean toward horror and toward the punishing setbacks of titles like Dark Souls, I needed something like Subnautica. More than I realized. It's ironic, I think. Contending with overly high difficulty in games has a lot in common with feeling like I'm not able to breathe. I didn't understand that until I played a chill, meditative, conversational kind of game where I constantly have to monitor my oxygen capacity so that I don't drown and lose everything.
I can't tell you who should play this game. Some people, like my domestic partner, would find it simultaneously opaque and boring. Others are already getting what this has to offer from a pixel/voxel space, something like Minecraft, or like Stardew Valley. Still others will find it lonely.
But I can tell you what I'm like, as a gamer. I like challenge in games, but not all the time. I like knowing what I'm supposed to do next, but not all the time. I like playing alongside other people, but not all the time. Too much of any of that, I start feeling like I'm suffocating.
Subnautica doesn't feel like that. I can pause it. There are no alternate endings to worry about spoiling. There's no risk of losing, only of stalling out. There's plenty to see, but there isn't so much grind here that the game will ever exhaust me. There are no griefers. There is no politics. When I get up from playing this game, I feel relaxed and satisfied.
The next one is still out there, waiting for me. I'll be ready for it soon, I'm sure. But for now, I'm happy to just stay here, exploring this ocean crater for the second time in a summer month, feeling like I can really breathe. This time, I'm going to build a base with more windows.