Subnautica is secretly a brilliant horror game

Subnautica [official site] seems like a nautical holiday wrapped inside a survival game. Swim around a gentle ocean and meet lots of colourful fish, chill out in an underwater forest, sunbathe on top of a little escape pod – it all sounds very relaxing. Don’t be fooled. Subnautica is, in fact, absolutely terrifying.

I can’t quite remember when I realised that the sea was actually a vast world of horrors. Whenever it was, this realisation was undoubtedly confirmed when I was snorkeling off the coast of Australia in my early teens. I broke the surface of the water to be greeted by blood. So much blood. Not mine, thankfully. It belonged to a man who had bumped into some coral, which proceeded to rip open his leg.

Coral! Nobody expects this of all things to tear chunks out of them, but that’s what you get when you decide to visit the utterly alien sea. In Subnautica, this is even more pronounced because it’s a literal alien sea, an entirely new world, that you’re exploring. You’re not meant to be there and you’re definitely not welcome.

I didn’t begin my extremely distressing adventure feeling unwelcome, however. That’s the first trap that Unknown Worlds Entertainment sets. Subnautica, at first, feels a little familiar. If you squint, it could be Earth, and it seems largely friendly. After the initial shock of the crash landing, it’s all calm waters and vibrant, picturesque reefs. Sure, there’s your typical survival concerns – looking for food, creating drinking water, hunting down the resources you’ll need to feed your flashy 3D printer – but it’s far from stressful.

This is the bit in Jaws where pretty swimmers splash around and have a lark, unaware of the terrors they are about to face. Eventually, the quest to not just survive but thrive pushes you further into the ocean. Into the darkness. Subnautica’s first hint of horror doesn’t appear in those dark places, though. Even the seemingly welcoming shallows hide dangers that get right to the core of some of our most basic fears.

It began when I was chasing a spry little fish, my lunch, but it kept getting away from me. It darted into a cave, and despite the fact that I didn’t have a great deal of oxygen left, I decided to follow, egged on by the dwindling meter that represented my increasingly empty belly. The cave was, in fact, a labyrinthine series of tunnels, spiraling down and down, getting smaller and smaller. I lost the fish almost immediately, but got turned around so quickly that I had no idea where the entrance was. I started to panic.

I’m only a little claustrophobic, but like any reasonable person I’m pretty terrified by the prospect of drowning, dying gasping for breath and clawing at my throat. As I frantically searched for a way out, I could feel the film of sweat between my palm and the mouse growing as I gripped it like a lifeline. I didn’t escape, couldn’t escape, but death came and it felt like a relief, depositing me back in my escape pod no worse for wear. Well, not physically.

I learned a valuable lesson: don’t go underwater spelunking when you’ve got barely any oxygen left. Probably a bit obvious. Other threats are less so. The largest creatures in the starting area are docile beasties that vaguely resemble manatees. One of the reasons manatees are endangered is because they are entirely lacking defences. They don’t have natural predators, aside from the occasional human, so they haven’t really developed any ways to stop us from, often accidentally, killing them. Subnautica’s manatee analogues are a reminder that this is not Earth, and that appearances can be fatally deceptive.

I swam up to one of these lumbering behemoths, and it didn’t seem particularly bothered by my presence, lulling me into a false sense of security. But when I got close enough to touch it, I quickly realised my mistake. A noxious green gas erupted out of its bizarre tail, followed by spore-like orbs. When has green gas or alien spores ever lead to anything good happening? Choking and poisoned, I tried to flee, but I barely made it a metre before dying once again. You can’t trust anything in these waters; everything is a trap. And remember: this is the nice part of the ocean planet.

Tapping into our fear of the unknown is, undoubtedly, the game’s most malevolent and effective trick. Not being able to tell whether a creature is dangerous or not is a persistent concern. Poison-spewing manatees and drowning had left me a bit timid, but it wasn’t until I ventured into the aforementioned forest, full of kelp-like creepvine, that I started to feel truly out of my depth and properly scared.

At the edge of the shallows is this imposing drop, no less intimidating just because you can float. The scale of the expanse in front of me – dark and ominous – made me desperately want to turn back, but I persevered. I had resources to gather. I felt so vulnerable, though, bobbing far from both the water’s surface and the seabed, with nothing to hold onto apart from the fleeting hope that I’d make it out alive. Worse, I was barely able to see more than the shadows of the fish menacingly circling me. I could tell they were big, however, and their movements were undeniably predatory.

Obscuring vision is a prominent tactic in Subnautica’s creepy playbook. It’s most obvious when the sun sets, transforming the ocean into a pitch-black nightmare where all the worst monsters come out to play. More subtle is the use of the scuba mask, which reduces vision just enough so that you never quite feel like you’re seeing the whole picture. It’s a brilliant, nasty trick that isn’t used enough in horror games, but always makes me think of the exceptional Metro series, with its life-saving, claustrophobic gas mask.

The sight of a sea monster – particularly the horrific, gargantuan leviathans – is only slightly less terrifying than the sound they make. It’s like hearing a demonic horn that signals your impending death. As awful as that sound is, it can occasionally be a boon, letting you know something deadly is coming for you, maybe giving you enough time to swim away as fast as you can. If you’re very lucky.

In the early part of the game, before you get your handy vehicles and dangerous weapons, fleeing is usually your only recourse. You’re not the hunter; you’re prey. It’s evocative of the nerve-wracking feeling you get when you’re being hounded by the xenomorph in Alien Isolation. You know you’re outmatched. Unfortunately, this is yet another reminder that you don’t belong. The things chasing you are much better swimmers. Faster and very, very hungry.

These aren’t the scripted, manipulative jump scares or sanity-threatening psychological frights that you find in more overt horror. Subnautica doesn’t bill itself as a horror game at all, in fact. But this manages to make it feel even more threatening. This is nature that’s trying to kill you – primal and elemental and tangible. There are no inner demons to slay; no alien invaders to slaughter. You are the alien invader, swimming around an entire world where you don’t belong. I’m sweating again, just thinking about it.

It’s not safe to go back into the water again. It’s never safe.

From this site

29 Comments

  1. Shushununu says:

    I concur… Subnautica is brilliant. I haven’t had that combo of fear/anxiety/fun/discovery in a game for quite awhile. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on things with better toys, I run into something that reminds me that I am an intruder.

    I’ve put it on hold to avoid burn-out until early access is done, but I can’t wait to jump back in and discover what’s lurking beyond the next corner/shelf/zone.

    • LexW1 says:

      This is definitely spot-on. Subnautica is pretty much terrifying on various levels – existential, immediate horror, long-term fear, and many more pretty much from second #1 of the game. Which is impressive given how cheery it looks much of the time. You’re just constantly in sight of death in one way or another.

    • jythanatos says:

      I come back to this game every few months and start a new game. Even though I know all of the creatures, and understand how to avoid them or get away from them, I cannot help be terrified when swimming around. Even in the later part of the game, every time I leave the Sub I feel slightly anxious and find myself running back to the “Safety” of the sub before oxygen becomes a problem. The game really terrifies me at times, and I love it!

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    Nauallis says:

    Did you delete a paragraph between the second-to-last and final paragraphs? I felt like the whole article was building up to something and then it just… ended. Thanks for the thoughts though! Provides an enlightening juxtaposition to Pip’s articles on Subnautica.

  3. Mudashan says:

    Oceans definitely get a primal-like fear out of me than the supposed bingo list of scary places (such Resident Evil 7’s loonie house in the boonies) sometimes do. (Hollywood directors have known for the longest time.)

    Which is why the Shark from the original Crysis game is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever encountered in a videogame. They promised aliens and beautiful palm trees swaying above an azure ocean.

    Instead the game spawns in its peripheries the most ungodly Hell spawn straight out Jaws that’ll show you how much of a gallivanting dunce you are for not just sticking to saving the world from aliens.

  4. HSuke says:

    When I think of underwater horror, the first thing that pops in mind is the brilliant sci-fi thriller, Soma. How does this compare to Soma?

    • Fraser Brown says:

      They are hardly alike at all. Subnautica is the horror of nature and a world that’s completely alien and often very aggressive. Soma is a psychological horror mindfuck. I find the former a lot less stressful but if you’re wanting a more traditional horror game like Soma, you probably won’t find it in Subnautica.

    • DudeshootMankill says:

      SOMA was incredibly good.

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    nattydee says:

    I really wanted to like Subnautica, but I found the tedium of its inventory management such a turnoff I don’t think I ever ventured more than 100m from the start of the game.

    Seriously, I see a ton of things here to like – a ton of varied, sumptuous environments, an array of alien creatures to document and observe, mysteries left and right… but I have absolutely no interest in spending 50% of my time ferrying crap back and forth from my base, juggling half a dozen containers (that all seem far too small).

    If there were an infinite inventory mod I’d go back to this in a heartbeat, if only to experience its atmosphere and pick through its secrets.

    • causticnl says:

      inventory managment becomes less of a issue midgame where you can get your vehicle, then you can put stuff into that.

  6. Minglefingler says:

    I bought this ages ago and was very impressed with what little I played, I’ve been wanting to give it a proper go for a long time but I’m trying to hold off until it’s done. I can feel my resolve steadily faltering though.

    • Daymare says:

      I find quite a lot of replay value in finding out what changed, what new things were added, and generally just building up my little personal life under the sea, a bit different each time. I also exclusively play on Hardcore, which makes it much more terrifying, I presume.

      I do make big pauses (multiple months) between big patch cycles though, so there’s always new things to discover.

      On the other hand, the best parts — for me — are exploration and discovery, so the first *long* playthrough could be the one you derive most joy from, since it’s all fresh. So if you want to see it ALL in one big go, eyes bright with wonder, then maybe better wait till it’s done, which I think is ’round this summer.

      • Minglefingler says:

        Cheers for that, if it’s only a wait until summer then I can probably hold off. Also, I do want the “eyes wide with wonder” thing, it’s sadly become increasingly rare as I’ve got older so any chance to experience it is extremely welcome!

  7. jerrodbug says:

    Now go throw on your VR goggles and play it….

    THAT will scare the crap out of you. (and probably make you a little sick at first, but you’ll get over that!)

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    Lars Westergren says:

    They should introduce something like a giant bobbit worm (if it doesn’t already exist in deeper sections I haven’t reached yet). Something that makes the seabed just as dangerous as the open waters.

    Ok they have the sandsharks or whatever they are called already, but they are invisible I think until they attack, and follow you quite far. A bobbit worm would be more alien, and only a danger if you got really close.

    • spectone says:

      The closest thing is the crabsnake which lives deep below in the jelly shroom caves. I do however think they could add something more bobbit like but they are trying hard to finish the game and not add new enemies.

  9. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I played it 2016 in march and like the visuals but the inventory and storage system seemed awful too me. Especially getting the stuff from the container in the starter base to craft something. Does anyone know if they improved on that?

  10. Gothnak says:

    I pitched a game very much like this at my previous company. I did say however, that if it was made exactly as i suggested, i wouldn’t want to work on it, because underwater creatures are terrifying.

  11. GlassDeviant says:

    Seriously, you see Subnautica as a horror game? What then do you use to describe Dead Space, Outlast, Resident Evil and Alien: Isolation? Subnautica is a survival game, not a horror or even survival horror game. Maybe you shouldn’t have watched Jaws when you were 4.

    • noodlecake says:

      Probably because it is scarier and more horrifying than a lot of the games you listed, perhaps, especially Dead Space!

      I stopped playing Subnautica because I’m a wuss when it comes to scary games. Resident Evil 2, 3, 4 and 5, and Deadspace 2 and 3 never left me feeling remotely scared despite technically being horror games.

      Alien Isolation is pretty scary though, I’ll give you that. I haven’t played Outlast.

    • naryl says:

      I see Subnautica as a horror game because “scripted horrors” don’t work on me. At all. Not a single one of the games you mentioned.

  12. Kitsudragon says:

    I’d like to like this game. I really would. But some of the built-in conceits are a little hard to take.

    The biggest? Let’s start with the idea of you being stuck on a deserted island somewhere. Some nice reefs, a lot of fish… And these really ugly sharks swanning around. Not to mention these really antisocial manatees.

    So you decide to swim ashore, or at least up to a little more ground, and make yourself a knife. Easy peasy. Now you can make a harpoon, and defend yourself. Except… You can’t. Every time you reach for the basic knowledge to build a harpoon, that knowledge just sort of slides away. All you have is that little knife. Which you know from oh-so many Resident Evil games, is really just there to taunt you.

    Subnautica is built on the same idea, but it’s even harder to justify since you’re walking around with the ultimate 3D printer crossed with a portable matter converter, which can manufacture pretty much anything you tell it to. You’d think a simple spear, or maybe a couple of underwater deterrents would be in order.

    Nope. The device flatly refuses to manufacture *anything* you could use to defend yourself other than a “keep away” device which only disorients them for a few seconds, before they come at you again, faster and angrier than last time. Free guess how *that* ends.

    Subnautica is, as far as I can tell, based on the premise that aliens have ordered out for fast food, and although the delivery ship crashed, there’s at least *one* good piece of take-out on the hoof just waiting for an enterprising sea monster to come along and eat it. Best of all? The succulent snack is utterly *forbidden* to defend itself, short of running away.

    I’m not saying the game should include AK-47’s, or minefields. But something more realistic than a pocketknife and the ability to warm the water in fear every time something takes a jab at you would be appreciated. Because of the utterly implausible approach to personal defense the game takes, I just can’t find it in me to recommend it, to anyone.

  13. kentonio says:

    My favourite survival game to date, absolutely wonderful. I keep meaning to try it in VR, but..

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