Premature Evaluation: Subnautica

Snorkel is not only fun to say, but it’s a relatively new word, too, appearing in its Anglicised form as recently as 1949. It comes from “schnorchel”, the German navy slang for a U-boat’s airshaft, though “schnorchel” actually means nose or snout. It’s thought that a lot of our similar-sounding words related to this protuberance, like snort or snore, all share the same onomatopoeic origin, intended to capture the sound of a sharp inhalation. Snork!

Each week Marsh Davies dips a toe into the unknown waters of Early Access and returns with any stories he can find and/or decompression sickness. This week he slaps on a snorkel and dives into alien aquatic survival game Subnautica. Snorkel is a great word. Snork snork!

2014 was the year of the indie survival game. 2015 looks very much like it might be the year of the indie survival game as well. 2016 is the year that the secret cabal of indie survival game developers finally steps from the shadows to unleash its terrible global coup. Within minutes of the first shot, indie game genres fall, devoured by the unstoppable tide of survival mechanics. Early Access devs planning coherent end-games are forced to fight each other to the death in a bleak, under-resourced wilderness with guns improvised from baked-bean tins. In sick mimicry of the cabal’s evil creed, games can now only conclude with the player’s own expiration from starvation or hypothermia. “To play is to die! To play is to die!” the regime’s fanatical adherents shriek from loudhailers as the speedrunners, twin-stick shootists and visual-novelists are forced into the re-education pens. No one misses the Dota players. It’s only the devastating invasion of the Sokobeasts, a hyperintelligent alien race fixated on abstruse block-pushing puzzles, that forces the regime to see its terrible error. Only then does it regret marooning Jon Blow and Stephen Lavelle on a spit of sand in the Pacific with only a snooker cue and a single sausage-roll between them. How the regime had laughed at that. Well, they’re not laughing now. Because they’re dead.

Subnautica should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why? Because it’s all below. S’all below. Saul Bellow. Okay, tough crowd I guess.

Of course, it all seems so innocent now, here in 2015. Especially if you play something as beguiling as Subnautica, a game set on a beautiful oceanic alien world. Emerging from your escape pod, you find yourself bobbing over a vast reef, extending from horizon to horizon, the open sea only punctuated by the flaming husk of the crashed colonial mothership. Then you swim, explore and hunt, gathering resources to build contraptions that let you extend the reach of your survival efforts, charting ever greater depths of a strange and abyssal world, full of exotic – and sometimes hungry – creatures.

It’s actually rather lovely and I wish more survival games were like this: with a button to turn off the survival elements. I’m not being entirely glib. When you silence the shrill, insistent carping for food and water, you can detect a more substantial game beneath. That is not always the case with indie survival games, which often feel like they’ve been designed only for a number to go down and stop. With Subnautica, exploration alone is made thrilling by the submarine world’s sheer oddity. And if, like me, your progress through life has been marked by the avid acquisition of new phobias, it’s probably quite terrifying.

Phycophobia, the internet tells me, is a fear of seaweed. I don't yet have a fear of seaweed, but maybe I will soon. Gotta catch 'em all!

I’m not sure when exactly I became scared of deep water, or, more accurately, the things that might be in it – I happily scuba-dived in the Indian Ocean, rafted down the Nile and have been pitched into the Medway during multiple ill-fated father-son bonding efforts. Admittedly, only the first two contain anything that might try to eat you whole, but the Medway is nonetheless full of less immediately lethal, but much poopier, hazards. I sort of wonder if it was in fact videogames, in the shape of No One Lives Forever’s sharks and Half-Life’s Ichthyosaur that have since trained me to fear the deep. So it is a profound act of will that forces me off the edge of my escape pod and into the waters of Subnautica’s alien world. At least on an alien planet you are unlikely to surface with a used diaper slicked to your head.

What awaits is not the forbidding murk of the Medway’s shit-soup, however, but a surprisingly pleasant world of vibrant and eccentric topographies. Weird looking fish-analogues skitter from coral to coral, as schools of small fry whirl and sway in the open waters. Green kelp-like vines rise from the sandy bed, while huge pinkish funnels lie in piles near the surface. It’s gorgeous. Maybe I like the sea after all. Sinking slowly into a crevasse, I sight a majestic looking thing, with long and undulating equine neck, wafting amid the weeds. I wonder if it wants to be friends.

Suddenly, my moral concerns about overfishing have dwindled.

It does not want to be friends. I have critically misread its anatomy. What I took to be a long noble neck is in fact a long toothy beak. Luckily, it has only eaten part of me, and the remaining 41% of me is able to flap away and have a panic attack in the safety of the escape pod.

But I go back in. For you, RPS readers, I go back in. And it gets better: though I still nervously flit my view back and forth every few moments, it’s clear that most of the creatures in the immediate vicinity are harmless, and even the ones that aren’t harmless won’t attack unless you do something stupid like try to put your face inside of them. I forage some mushroom-like plants and manage to snatch a fish with a single giant eyeball. It’s called a Peeper and it’s kinda cute. I’m going to eat it. How do you like them sea-apples, aquatic alien ecosystem?

The Fabricator doesn't have a recipe for mayonnaise. What kind of space age society is this?

I return to the escape pod and use the Fabricator to review my construction options. Apparently I can cook it, but I’ll need salt. I plunge back in, but I don’t yet know where to get salt from. You might think you could extract it from the water itself, but it’s actually found in pale, fist-sized blocks scattered across the ocean floor, along with many other handy minerals. It begins to get dark before I discover this fact, however, and, definitely not hyperventilating or anything, I calmly rationalise that I’d prefer to starve to death in my pod than spend another second in the blackening water.

Some other things I did not discover before dying of hunger/cowardice: I could have just eaten the mushroom-corals I’d picked by clicking on them in my inventory. For some reason, I did not immediately assume that alien coral (which is otherwise listed as a construction ingredient for batteries) would be edible, let alone raw. But it is. I could even eat the Peeper raw, too, although its saltiness causes rapid dehydration – as I discover during my second playthough. To decrease its saltiness you need to cook it. With salt. Of course.

Hit Majestic Sea Boob With Tennis Racquet Twice To Craft Black Piano Keys

This is one of the many irritations I feel with survival games – recipes often feel arbitrary, or beyond my ability to reasonably intuit and the means by which I’m meant to locate ingredients is similarly opaque. Subnautica isn’t the worst offender in this regard, but I still die during my second attempt because I can’t be bothered to alt-tab to a wiki to find out how I’m meant to find the ingredients for a desalinator. (You have to kill a specific fish with a knife – not that the game suggests this might produce a different resource than simply grabbing one and disassembling it using your Fabricator.)

For my third dip, I turn off the survival mechanisms. It’s a much, much better game this way – dealing only with the more interesting problems of mobility and exploration. I need to build extra oxygen tanks to allow me to go deeper, and mechanised propulsion systems to help me scout new locations. This is simply a more rewarding feedback loop: I explore further to find things which help me explore further. And exploration is rewarding in itself. I encounter weird creatures: things that look like manatees wearing gasmasks, each heaving a single engorged bollock behind them which periodically guffs out a toxic cloud. Red anemone-like corpuscles open to unleash a school of exploding fish at me. Large creatures scuff around in the sand at lower depths. I don’t get too close.

Jees, light a match will you? Oh, wait. Yeah, forget that.

Tool-tips mention cave-diving, but I can’t yet explore that deep: I need copper to build a submersible, and my attempts to find that come to an abrupt, heart-stopping end amid a forest of coral stacks. I’m about as deep as my airtanks can safely take me, snuffling through a carpet of red weedy fronds. It’s gloomy down here, even during the height of day, but it’s light enough that I spot the shadow as it sweeps across the sand towards me.

PC Gamer’s Primordial Fish Fact Editor, Chris Thursten, tells me later that the evolutionary origin of eyes may have been this exact scenario: light sensitive cells on the back of some primitive sea-glob, which aren’t there to detect light so much as to detect when it is suddenly obscured, possibly by some swimmy mass with many teeth. As the shadow blooms in front of me, I feel the ghostly wet flipper of my coelacanth grandfather on my shoulder. “I know, son,” he whispers, fishily. “I know.”

I had no idea Graham's mum was in this game.

Panicking, I scoot off with my handheld propeller, only daring to look back when I’ve put some sixty metres between us. The thing is huge: a hulking indigo saucer with three large trailing tendrils. It moves slowly, peacefully below, seemingly unaware of my presence. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what else is down there. That terrifies me, but it won’t stop me finding out.

Subnautica is available from Steam for £15. I played Early Development Build 11250 on 02/1/2015 and I’ll probably play it a fair bit more, prostrating myself before the unstoppable jackboot (or in this case, jackflipper) of survival game developers.

20 Comments

  1. amateurviking says:

    Marsh starting 2015 with a bang. Good stuff!

  2. Feet says:

    I love me some etymology with my gaming articles. Good work.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    Holy balls that looks pretty.

  4. Charlie Cleveland says:

    Beautifully written, Marsh. I’m glad you like the “Survival” and “Freedom” modes – we wanted to make sure people could enjoy the game without eating/dying.

    I’ll make sure to fix the “less dehydration by adding salt” problem. That one slipped through (along with loads of other issues I’m sure) in our mad dash to Early Access.

    • P.Funk says:

      Any plans in general to ensure that one can use a rudimentary measure of logic to solve the puzzle of survival without needing to check a wiki?

      My first ever play through of Minecraft survival saw me trying to figure out craft recipes. My first use of the wiki felt like a defeat before I eventually sold out completely. Many survival games seem intent on assuming the wiki is used before one even finishes their first project.

      • ironhorse says:

        The needed ingredients for crafting every item is actually listed just below the item you’d click on.
        Here’s a shot of it link to i.imgur.com

        The real trick comes from locating said ingredients as it requires exploration.
        And the even tougher trick is remembering where to find them again in the future, as it’s depedent on your ability to navigate back to it using tools the game is giving you. (there is no map, for instance)

        Track the progress of the developers here:
        link to trello.com

  5. klops says:

    What is Medway and why it is full of shit and this game is pretty and I will never play it because I would die of fear because of it.

    • Distec says:

      Echoing this. Don’t get me wrong, I use wikis all the time for lots of games. But its a practice that seems to be taken for granted for a lot of games that heavily feature crafting. I was okay with Minecraft doing it due to the novelty of the game and because I assumed its rough state precluded any more “hand holding”. But my patience for this is starting to wear a little thin. I find myself getting a little annoyed now when I have to alt-tab to my browser to figure out which obscure ingredients I need to make a dinner table or some shit.

    • foop says:

      The Medway is a river in England. It flows through Kent, flowing into the Thames estuary at Sheerness in north Kent. It’s full of shit partly because we used not to have very good sewage treatment facilities. And partly because it flows through past Gillingham, and Chatham which are awful, awful shitholes.

  6. captain nemo says:

    I really liked FarSky (not FarCry), so I’ll try this when it is a bit more developed.

    Does anyone think the water looks a bit *too* clear ?

    • drinniol says:

      It depends on whether you’re used to clear remote tropical waters or the murky shit that’s by nearly every major city on the planet.

  7. Distec says:

    This game looks like something I really want to play, but I won’t due to sharing the same crippling fear of deep water as the author (if not moreso). And I too will blame Half-Life’s Ichthy, NOLF’s sharks, that one damn level from Tomb Raider 2, and… well, I guess the eels from Super Mario 64.

    I’d like to think my adult fear of going too deep in the ocean was born from years of accumulated knowledge; I now know that there’s “weird shit” in the waters I have no desire to brush up against. But the real explanation is likely cowardice.

    • Jakkar says:

      Did you never play Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire on N64? That’s a game to make you fear the deep… I can’t even swim, and I blame the Dianoga.

      • Distec says:

        That as well! Never finished it due to precisely those reasons.

    • Jackablade says:

      It’s the possibility of getting stuck without air and generally cramped confines that gets my anxiety up more than the aquatic denizens. I had to take a few breaks to relax when working my way through some of the more water heavy areas of Black Mesa Source.

  8. Jakkar says:

    Well done, you inspired me to throw more money at Unknown Worlds. I suppose I owe them – as I won Natural Selection 2 in a contest, years before it was even released.

    While far too cheerful, bright and friendly looking, this still looks like a wonderful thing to explore…

  9. Col says:

    Nice article. One minor complaint: there seems to be an odd trend among British games journalists using American words for things – “poop” and “diaper” in this article, for instance. Why do this? The British equivalents of “poo” and “nappy” are vastly superior!

    • Marsh Davies says:

      An interesting point! I think a lot about the internationalism (or otherwise) of words – because I am a loser, probably. I’m excited someone else does too! In this case, I consciously choose both words. I actually say “poopier” rather than “poop” in the article, though – and only because it looks and sounds clearer than the vowel-heavy “pooier”.

      As for “nappy” though, I made that choice thinking specifically about whether it would be understood by readers outside of the UK. I think UK English has a certain parochial cache to it and I like a lot of its colloquialism and weird idiom. But I’ve *never* liked the word nappy, which sounds like something a dumb baby would say, and also has mixed connotations abroad where it is more commonly associated with the particular attributes of densely curled hair.

      To make up for my erosion of impenetrable British argot, I promise to include at least one really obscure reference to medieval English literature in my next article.

  10. snesbeck says:

    No Octopus Reef support?

    • PseudoKnight says:

      They have an Oculus Rift at the office, but I think they’re waiting for some of the major problems to be worked out before they work too much on it. They’ve expressed excitement about it, but it’s tempered by the widespread nausea and perhaps awkward control schemes for traditional FP movement. It’d be cool in the subs though, once the consumer version is released.