Subnautica devs on terror and why there are no guns


Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me” – a Subnautica player.

Underwater survival game Subnautica is finally out and we like it. So we spoke to director Charlie Cleveland about the terror of the deep and safety of the shallows. Earlier this week we heard that they intend to make a paid expansion and an Arctic biome (even if those plans are not finalised). But we talked about much more, so here’s a special podcast of the full interview and some of Cleveland’s thoughts scribbled out, old-school. For example, why does he thinks it’s a ‘terror’ game rather than a ‘horror’ one? And why are there no guns?

For those who mightn’t know, you only get a knife, a propulsion gun and some non-ballistic torpedoes for submarines. The focus is more on avoidance than confrontation. Cleveland has already spoken about why he thinks guns and violence don’t belong with the fish and seaweed in a direct reply to players on Steam. But talking to us, he expanded on some of that thinking.

“When I was brainstorming this idea in my garden in 2013, we had just had the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which at the time was the biggest shooting in the US. Of course, since then we’ve had many more, bigger ones. But I was so angry that our government refuses to make any changes around gun laws…

“I’m thinking: ‘We’re adding more guns to the world. I mean, they’re virtual but are we adding to this culture of violence?’ And at the same time also thinking about trying to make a new kind of game, because you want to challenge yourself and make something new. So for all those reasons it just seemed clear. We have to make a non-violent [game]. You know, we have to make a new game with no guns.”

There are times, however, you might wish you had more than a survival knife. Subnautica is filled with otherworldly beasts, some of whom will attack you on sight, coming at you with sharp teeth and alien eyes. We’ve previously called it a horror game. But did the team mean to make it so frightening?

“Definitely not,” says Cleveland. “I’m not even sure if I’m happy with the amount of horror that’s in there. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t say it’s horror, it’s more terror. But I guess we don’t talk about ‘terror games’ we talk about ‘horror games’.”

It’s a good distinction to make. The game is less about scripted encounters and more about descending a dark underwater chasm while being filled with dread and fear of the unknown.

“Yeah,” he says, “there’s no Steam tag for ‘terror’ for some reason. I just realised that, we should rename it ‘terror’. Like, you’re scared the way you’d be scared of a lion, you know, on the Savannah. You’re fearful for your life but you don’t think of the lions as being evil or malicious or the world being malevolent. It’s a different thing.

“I mean, some people are so scared. There’s something that’s triggering them. There’s so many primal fears in this game, between fear of being alone, fear of running out of air, fear of suffocation, fear of open spaces, fear of claustrophobic environments – there’s, like, a lot of fears. And some people will avoid the game just for that, and other players seem to just relish it, and streamers of course love it. There’s all the Reaper Leviathan jumpscare videos and stuff.

“I’m really glad a lot of that stuff is in there, I really am, but sometimes it overshadows what 75 percent of the game is, which is kind of serene swimming and exploring and crafting.”

You can listen to the full interview above or on Soundcloud, in which Cleveland also talks about ideas that never made it into the final release, such as light-reactive algae and clams, plus more on the reasons they won’t be adding muliplayer co-op or supporting mods.


  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    You know, while it’s occasionally frustrating that you can’t just blast the larger monsters, it does sorta fit with the setting.

    I mean, firstly like this guy says, with the setting of peaceful exploration.

    But also you work for some incredibly neutering megacorp that owns everything. I sorta get the impression they don’t want their people to have access to anything dangerous on basic principle, and most everything they give you directly is garbage that barely does what it’s supposed to. See you having the only working escape pod and even yours knocks you unconscious, catches fire, and is broken by the time the game starts.

    So, you know, it’s fine. Though that said, getting menaced by sharks and bigger sharks and extra-bigger-with-face-tentacles sharks forever does get pretty tiresome.

    • Stropp says:

      I bought it yesterday, and yeah, that’s the first thing I noticed too. That was one dodgy escape pod! Built by Dodgy Brothers Escape Pod Manufacturing Service, no doubt.

      Still, I’m enjoying the game so far. It’s quite beautiful just swimming in the shallows at the moment. It’s almost a shame I have to catch those fish in order to eat and drink.

    • PoulWrist says:

      As a consultant working in a major multinational corporation, I can attest to that being a very real concern :p

    • Chalky says:

      If I remember correctly there’s actually a flavor dialog that explains why no guns are allowed by the corporations.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Yeah, they removed them after “the massacre of [Nonsense planet name]” if I recall.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      The first time I was darting along in the mini sub… looking around an “empty” sink hole/deep tunnel… to find nothing!

      So I turned around. Started back to my small base… and was not sure if the music changed… no, cannot. I must be imagining it.

      For some unknown reason I turned around to look back behind me. To be greeted by a BIG wide red SMILE of giant TEETH! I spun back around, and high tailed it as fast as I could.

      But it was naive of me. That “thing” could swim faster, and it grabbed my little sub pod in it’s teeth.

      “NO” I screamed [and in game]. I immediately jumped out of my sub, and by some unknown chance, was thrown clear of the jaws. I swam, and swam and swam as fast as I could, never looking back…

      I just kept saying “eat the sub, eat that sub… EAT THE SUB” in my head, and hoped I had escaped.

      As the the sea weed fields came into view, and the [then] slightly buggy lighting on my ramshackle underwater base became evident… I knew I was finally safe. If “safe” could be considered at all in this game!

      (So yes, having no “missiles” at that time on my little sub was really tense!)

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Stuff like that is why I cannot play this game in VR. I get way too spooked.

  2. Niko says:

    Speaking of horror, I get nervous in Subnautica often, but one time I tried playing it in VR, and just diving down a kelp forest was too stressful. Maybe it’s thalassophobia.

    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      The kelp forest stopped my VR attempt too. It’s pretty down there, green and lovely, but knowing that those stalkers were all around and that I might turn to see teeth rushing at me had me way too tense.

      I can handle it on a screen. I can’t handle actually being there.

  3. Moltic says:

    A little disappointed to see that even this game seems to have a political message (even if it is a minor one).

    As for there being no guns in the game? That’s fine, I’m a human and humans are well known for their ingenuity. When I see larger, aggressive fauna I simply allow them to meet my “Seamoth of Peace” by ramming it into them as hard as I can :)

    A little trick I picked up from watching European news over the last year :P

    • mq says:

      It’s not a ‘message’, simply his personal response to something horrific occurring in the US. Weird tasteless joke about terrorist attacks btw :/

      • Buuurr says:

        I get what he is saying. It is not a joke though. More dripping with sarcasm. He is saying man will make a weapon out of whatever is handy.

        • mq says:

          Yeah, I understand what he’s saying. Dark as F. It just seems, just maybe, it’s a knee-jerk response to the topic of gun-violence discussed in the article. A “political message (even if it is a minor one)”. Then again i’m knee-jerkin all over the place. ::)