On the surface (heh), Subnautica has a lot in common with many sandbox and survival games. And it offered me much of what I was expecting from the title and premise: you crash in the ocean of an alien world, you explore the wreckage to find technology, you build up using newer and better resources, and then you dive deeper into more dangerous places.
It’s a solid, reliable cycle that’s worked very well before, and does so just the same here. It’s engaging and enticing, in a beautiful, alien world where danger lurks quite literally just below the surface. The pastel colors of the sky and ocean reflect the reefs and friendly fauna of shallow sea life. And it’s enormously pleasant just to look at in the opening hours of the game.
(I’ll just go ahead and add this here, since I’ll be talking major details about the game.)
Still, there’s something more to that danger. And it’s not something I was entirely expecting. Largely because the presence of it, and the game’s approach to how I survive, is rather different from any other game I could name. More than that, it even had me consciously thinking about how I consider new dangers in a game. How I’m taught to approach the hostility of the environment around me, and what I’ve been trained to expect.
The most hazardous threats in the early hours are relatively mild. Exploding fish that chase you out of caves, and a few sharks here or there. It’s not abundant. But it does teach you to be cautious.
In these hours, as I was unlocking more technology from the crashed ship, I found I kept expecting to reveal something with which to solidly defend myself. After all, those exploding fish have outright killed me more than once. And I’d like a better form of defense than simply trying to swim away as fast as I possibly can.
The game does offer up a simple survival knife. It’s small, largely non-threatening, and does the most bare minimum of damage. Its description in the inventory even suggests to the player that this is not a substantial weapon that one can expect to use against larger threats. It’s used far more for resource gathering than for actual damage done against imposing foes.
So where were the actual weapons, I found myself wondering. After all, it doesn’t take long before you wander to the aft section of the crashed Aurora and potentially have your very first encounter with one of a multitude of leviathans. Different variations of sea monster that reliably patrol these waters. And they are not friendly. Long and sleek, with an echoing cry that can be heard well across the void, they zero in on you once you cross a certain threshold, and kill without impunity.
Okay, I found myself wondering. So how do I defend myself then? Where are the weapons I can use to actually kill one of these things so I can explore proper without having to worry about such hostile predators always waiting at the peripherals?
The funny thing is, I poked around online and even saw outright statements from other players indicating that developer Unknownworlds did not mean for this to be a game of massacre and slaying. I read that, and on some level I registered it, but I don’t think I yet fully understood it.
And it is true to say there’s more in the way of weaponry that’s eventually unlocked. There’s a rifle, but instead of doing damage, it creates a stasis bubble around a targeted area. This suggests not killing, but holding the threat in place for a brief period of time so you can make your getaway.
Both the submarine Cyclops and the underwater-traversal Prawn suit come with different forms of torpedoes. Yet the aim isn’t spectacular, and even when hitting on target for large predators, they tend not to do much damage. The Cyclops itself almost seems to emphasize this mentality, offering distraction in the form of beacons that you can fire to send an attacking predator off in another direction while you can make your escape. Oftentimes a far more effective method of approach when being assaulted by a leviathan.
And if you really wanted to kill one of the leviathans, well, I suppose it’s possible. But it would be enormously difficult, a massive waste of time, and would far more likely get you killed in the process.
I don’t know exactly what point I really started to understand what the game was trying to teach me. Maybe it was the first time I ever successfully snuck past one of those uber-terrifying ghost leviathans. Yes, it was in the vicinity, and it did like to track me in my Prawn Suit – but once I smacked it a few times in the face it left me alone. Or if I cling to the walls and stay out of its line of view, I can pass through just fine.
This isn’t a game about killing. This is a game truly about survival. It’s odd how hard that was for me to wrap my head around. And never before have I been so consciously aware of the way other games have trained me to expect more violent and aggressive means of dealing with these not-unsubstantial threats.
Once I realized this, the game really took on a new life. It enhances the sense of discovery and exploration significantly. Learning how to bypass these threats is a satisfying challenge to overcome. Knowing that you can endure an attack, run away, and still heal yourself. And it adds an underlying danger that otherwise wouldn’t be present. The joy of exploration comes in knowing – as would often be the case –not that you’ve cleared the area of threats; but that rather they remain, and you have to be prepared at any given moment to adapt. That they’re impossible to eliminate.
Indeed, one of my favorite factors was realizing that leviathans and sea dragons can’t track or attack the Cyclops when it’s powered down. So oftentimes my best strategy was one of truth stealth. Sit and wait, sometimes for 5, 10, even 15 or 20 minutes at a time. I could watch on my cameras as these monstrous predators slither up and bump against the edge of my ship, trying desperately to find where I’ve disappeared to. Even though it meant literally sitting around and effectively doing nothing at all, they made for some of the most tense and thrilling moments of the entire game.
Of course, there is a central narrative. One that’s gradually discovered by the player with each new alien structure. Yet as I approached the last of these remnants, knowing I was going in for the grand finale, something strange happened. I still found some part of myself expecting there to be a significant boss fight. A massive showdown with a large, hostile threat that would likely send me reeling back to my submarine with multiple failed attempts at bringing it down.
Never mind that there are no other such fights in the game. Never mind that it would go entirely against the ethos of the game. I’m so trained to expect grand finales to come in the form of giant boss fights, I was completely off-base in what that part of my brain was expecting.
And what I found in that last base was so much cooler than I ever could’ve imagined. (I’m going to leave this one unspoiled.)
So now I’ve finished the game and eagerly await its expansion to port over to the PS4, I find myself thinking about this ethos. The game’s director Charlie Cleveland even spoke specifically about not wanting to put more violence into the world. And I absolutely love it for undermining my expectations in this way. Violence in gaming can serve a purpose; and plenty of my favorites wouldn’t be the same without the richly-devised systems of combat. But this is also an attitude I’d be interested to see adopted more
Not everything has to be about physical prowess and bloody triumph. Sometimes success and survival in a game can come simply by finding another way.