Have you ever seen the morning sun rise while at sea? The way the light reaches out and dances across the choppy surface with nary a speck of land to interrupt. That limitless horizon can simultaneously be a sign of amazing opportunities and unrelenting terror. This is a feeling that humanity has had to confront every time we dared explore the unknown since our first primordial steps out of the caves. You could find a new land full of incredible wonders to explore, terrifying monsters, or, like when at sea, nothing…just more horizon stretching out in every direction. This is how every day feels here on the alien planet, which the International Astronomical Union has uncouthly named Planet 4546B, (I call it WaterWorld!) It’s an aquatic exo planet covered almost entirely in a single unbroken ocean. This thought flickers through my consideration as I stand in the tempered glass cockpit on the bridge of my new Cyclops class submarine,(currently steaming along at 14.4 knots and a depth of 200 meters for you nautical buffs.) There’s nothing to look at but the odd small fish smacking off my hull, and the infinite dark blue abyss ahead. “Captain,” Matilda, my AI assistant chimes in, “Detecting multiple leviathan class lifeforms in the region. Are you certain whatever you’re doing is worth it?” Without even acknowledging the comments of my ever worrisome AI attache, I plunge further forward. I’m here with a purpose after all. There’s some sunken pieces of wrecked machinery in a nearby reef that should grant me the knowledge to start upgrading my Cyclops, which I’ve dubbed the S.S. Scott Summers. A glance at the clock reminds me it’s time to do some maintenance checks around ye olde sub to ensure all systems will continue running smoothly. Alright power cell levels are solid, no hull damage, plenty of water in the fridge, massive ominous serpentine shadow outside, salt storage levels are adequate. Hmmm, the livewell is running low on fish and I’m going to need to restock soon— wait a tick. An unexpected mental image, a vaguely teal-snake-shaped warning of grievous bodily harm, in my routine jars me out my status quo as visions of giant fangs activates my survival instincts. Right, ok let me double check the live well, no issues there. That’s when a massive roar, like an agitated T-Rex locked inside a high school gymnasium, rips through my train of thought and snaps me out of my casual stupor. At this point two distinct, yet unequivocal, conclusions come to my mind. The first is that, yes, in a high enough quantity, the auditory influence of massive gnashing teeth can be discerned quite clearly in the cry of a predatory animal. The second conclusion is more of a mental commitment that in all future endeavors I shall attempt to prioritize the threat of gigantic sea monsters over that of running low on snacks. I dart back to the bridge of the S.S.S.S. to take stock in what I’m going to be dealing with and am confronted with….absolutely nothing. I hop back onto the helm controls and flip on my external camera system just in time to catch a fly by of 170 feet of pure primordial murder. The Reaper Leviathan is a massive alpha predator that looks like the offspring of a Megalodon and a giant eel, with just the right amount of extra pointy sharp bits tacked on the front for good measure. It’s big enough to swallow a human whole and more aggressive than a feminist at Jezebel. Matilda’s official entry on the beast is, “Leviathan class predators are vast organisms at the top of their respective food chains. This species is a streamline hunter, with developed sight and echolocation capability. The deep roar emitted by the reaper at regular intervals is effectively sonar – if you hear it, the reaper can hear you.” The good news is big scary Mr. Monster-Man can’t do a thing to hurt me inside my Cyclops. Its rows upon rows of sinister teeth can’t penetrate my titanium hardened hull. The bad news is that in order to explore the nearby wreckage, I need to exit my sub and enter on foot, er fin. Ok, no biggie, I’ll just relocate my vessel a little ways off and see if I can wait for it to get bored and swim off. Conveniently there’s a chasm in sight that I can dive down to hide. I can still hear the Reaper Leviathan’s cringeworthy roar as I pass 500 meters. I keep submerging until the ship’s computer informs me that we’re moments away from crossing beyond my maximum diving depth, and that we will shortly be crushed to death. I level off to avoid turning my sub into crumpled foil on the ocean floor. This is the moment things go very very wrong. The ship’s collision indicator flashes crimson cautions of an impact on my stern only seconds before I begin to list heavily in that direction. I’m still diving, in an admittedly rather untraditional ass-first method, as warning sirens begin ringing out all over my console. I’ve got no control! Despite my earnest attempts to put proverbial pedal to the metal, my sub is still plunging. My hull begins springing a few leaks and I make a mental note to patch those up when this current crisis is over; but still have no idea why I’m sinking. Out of options, I hop on my camera system and immediately understand what’s going on. Near the rear maneuvering jets on the S.S.S.S. is the same Reaper Leviathan I was diving to avoid. The massive pincers on his head have affixed themselves onto my ship and this bastard is actually dragging me down into the inky void beneath us. Cracks begin to form in the glass of my cockpit, and I’m laughing the sad whimper of a man that knows he is truly fucked. I thought I had this world figured out, that nothing could harm me here in my little metal box beneath the waves. The ship is sinking faster now as water surges in through the ever increasing number of fissures in my hull. The walls are seconds from collapsing in on me and I’m still laughing.
First and foremost, welcome back for the second installment of my ongoing series, discussing one of my favorite undefined video game genres, survival-crafting-exploration-open world-adventure! We gotta figure out something a bit snappier, mine-clones maybe? On second thought that sounds to much like Hitler describing his body doubles and isn’t necessarily the connotation I want. Anyhow, let’s dig into the incredibly fun undersea adventure that is Subnautica.
The game opens with you boarding an escape pod and ejecting from a massive space ship as klaxons and explosions ring out around you. You blackout during reentry and wake up to a literal world of problems. Without even a second to gather your thoughts, you regain consciousness in an enclosed furnace as your pod fills with flames. Dealing with this marks just the first of many challenges that you’ll have to confront on this water covered alien world.
The aquatic setting of Subnautica is much more than just a twist on the Minecraft formula. The developers utilized it for a plethora of diverse design choices. Having ocean water press in around you at nearly every moment, while inside a gigantic open world, creates this interesting dichotomy of feeling unleashed to explore while still being claustrophobically hemmed in. This feeling changes and grows with you as you progress out of the starting area, the aptly named Safe Shallows, and into deeper, more bizarre locales. It feels like the central conflict in this game isn’t so much the player versus the hostile world, as it is the player’s self preservation versus the player’s curiosity.
Planet 4546B, (hereto forward referred to as WaterWorld,) is an extraordinarily rewarding place to explore. Unlike most games in this genre that utilize random procedurally generated worlds, this planet was handcrafted to ensure it’s quality and richness. Inside nearly every reef and cave is some new creature to encounter or material to scavenge. Don’t let yourself be fooled by WaterWorld’s beauty. The ocean is littered with much more than just ill tempered fish. The monsters here are some of the most savage and aggressive enemies I’ve ever faced in a video game. These predators are heavily varied in their approach and appearance, but relentless in their pursuit. They are living examples of the world’s dual nature, each being equal parts amazing and terrifying. I talk about the balance of wonder and fear a lot in Subnautica, but that’s only because it’s a combination so few games manage to accomplish well.
Obviously this wouldn’t be a S.C.E.O.W.A. (see above) if there wasn’t some crafting to be had. Boy howdy is there ever. Subnautica has a deep crafting system that acts to spur you into further exploration of the environment. You see, when the spaceship you escaped from the intro crashed down onto WaterWorld it broke off large pieces and sprinkled wreckage across the planet. These wrecks will have destroyed equipment within them that can be scanned to acquire new blueprints for items, undersea base components, and a variety of vehicles. A lot of the blueprints and materials you will want are in ever more remote and hostile locales, forcing you to hazard the depths if you want to have the freshest of rides to impress your friends with.
On the subject of friends, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Subnautica is a purely single player experience with no plans for coop in the foreseeable future. I’m not completely destroyed by this declaration though. The solitude you experience in Subnautica goes a long way towards adding to the atmosphere. Everything is down to your own grit if you plan on surviving. I think it was around the time I was setting up my first underwater plant beds near my base that I began to feel like Matt Damon in The Martian trying to eke out enough food to make it through another day.
I’d love to dig further into the astounding discoveries I’ve made while playing Subnautica, but I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of the joy of finding these things out on their own. There were moments in this game, as I stumbled upon a particularly unique set piece or creature, where I found myself gaping like a slack jawed yokel seeing fancy city life for the first time. This game is still in Early Access right now so you’re basically playing the beta, but don’t despair. There is a ton of content to play through already, and the devs have an excellent track record of addressing bugs and patching in new stuff to enjoy.
So what do you think? When day dreaming about alien planets, do you ever consider the realities of living completely underwater? Are there any survival games you’ve played with as detailed and unique an environment as Subnautica? If the in-game music included sick raps courtesy of a hip-hop Jacques Cousteau, what would it rhyme with “Here the ocean is teeming with life?” Let me know below and see you next time when I’ll be talking about another S.C.E.O.W.A. (pronounced like Sequoia maybe?) set in the always popular post apocalypse setting, 7 Days to Die.