I’ve long been absorbed by the pleasure of games as safe places. Those oases that allow you to be entirely distracted from the outside, encased in a fantastic world that let you find calm. As someone who lives with the incessant turmoil that is generalised anxiety disorder, such games can offer extraordinary respite. And none has ever done this more for me than Subnautica.
(Before we get too far into this, the discussion of survival sim Subnautica is inevitably rife with spoilers. If you are intrigued and want to experience the full effect of the game, trust this wise old man and buy a copy. This piece will discuss elements of the game that you might not know will feature from the initial moments, although avoids major spoils.)
It is, on the surface (well, under the surface), quite a threatening game. You begin with a terrible crash, for reasons unknown your spaceship falling out of the sky, as you plummet toward a planet in your rickety escape pod. Splashing down into the sea, and surrounded only by ocean as far as you can see in every direction, you have almost nothing. A first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, and an awful lot of water. Terrifying, right?
Except not. Because what Subnautica gets right from the absolute first moment is the sense of safety amongst this danger. Your pod is home, and is one hundred percent safe. No matter what peculiar sea monsters you might eventually discover outside, in here you can find no harm. It’s tiny, but it’s home. You can venture outside, swim amongst the shallow reefs and dive into glowing caves, start to fall in love with this wonderful aquatic space, but the moment you see something snarling and snapping and wanting to eat your bits, frenziedly dart for home, climb inside, and know everything’s OK.
I’ve wanted the game that delivers “everything’s OK” for so long. I’ve come close to finding it a few times, but something’s always been slightly off. Back in 2010, during the initial sparks that led to the current explosion of survival sims, I realised it was the genre that would offer it to me. And was constantly frustrated by how close games would get. Minecraft was the game that afforded me almost what I was after – I wrote at the time,
“What I’ve wanted, and wanted for so long, is a game that focuses on exploration and realistic basic needs. This does not mean no threat – in fact, if it’s to work, if my sofa fort is to mean anything, it requires a degree of threat. But not a world where you can be clobbered to death in most instances. And wow, does Minecraft come close.”
(Incidentally, my main request for Minecraft itself came to pass. “What I want is Minecraft, but with a need to eat, drink and sleep.” Tada!)
For me, this decade-long wish has come true in Subnautica. It offers both just enough threat to make home feel important, but not so much that you don’t feel free to explore to your heart’s content. And, in fact, it goes one step further than I’d even dared hope a game would ever get right – it puts in just the right balance of story too!
The Long Dark is amazing, and has been amazing for years, so I was completely thrilled by the idea of its narrative mode. I was looking forward to it for years, disappointed by each year-long delay it received, but still delighted with the game that existed. “This game,” I would think, “but with some story as motivation! This will be it!” It wasn’t it.
Getting the balance right, working out how to introduce a story to a free and open world, that doesn’t restrict nor confine it, is a delicate art. There needs to be just enough plot to motivate you to keep on surviving, but not so much that it interferes in what you want to be doing at any specific moment. It needs to feel important and impending enough to be worthwhile, but not feel like a looming threat over your calm, relaxed exploration. Gosh, that’s difficult to get right. Subnautica does it by, well, bodging it all extremely well.
Subnautica’s plot is all unknown from the opening, beyond perhaps an intrigue as to why your giant ship, the Aurora, crashed in the first place. You’ll want to go explore the wreckage, because it’s there, and the game cunningly requires that you follow its breadcrumb trail at least a little way before you can do that. Just enough to get you down the crafting path that opens up the game’s very best features. You’ll need a radiation suit, for instance, because it’s all nuclear inside. And since you crashed with a bottle of water and a couple of snacks, that seems a way off.
(This is where the game’s solution to the daft crafting of survival games also reveals itself. Unlike splendid games like The Forest, where you just have to swallow a big awkward lump of disbelief as you somehow craft elaborate buildings from five sticks and a blade of grass, Subnautica just acknowledges the nonsense by giving you a nonsensical crafting machine. The Fabricator, on board your escape pod, can break down materials you find (biological, mineral, the metallic remains of crashed ships, and so on) to their elemental level, then rebuild them into new items. New items are made accessible by scanning fragmented remains of others from wrecks, thus blueprints gained. It’s a magical machine that justifies the silliness splendidly.)
The plot itself – and this is the key – doesn’t impose itself upon you, but rather is discovered by the game’s most important element: exploration. If you never swim off in a certain direction, you’ll never discover vast swathes of the storyline, and that’s fine. Discover it, and you’ll find more motivation to continue, hints for new places to explore, further goals to put onto your to-do list, completed at your convenience. It occasionally pretends a moment is impending, but you can quickly get a read on this, realise it’ll trigger when you trigger it, or that you could just entirely miss the moment.
Despite this, there’s actually rather a lot of intriguing story in there. Enough that for the dozens and dozens of hours I’ve played, deliberately only occasionally dipping further into the progressing narrative, I’ve always felt the sense that there’s stuff to do, a reason to be here, while never put off just milling about before hurtling my way back to my ever-expanding home base in the face of sudden peril.
And gosh, it nails it. It even gets food and water right! I can’t believe I’m finally writing this, but a survival game has recognised that people do not eat 50,000 calories a day, nor indeed do they drink quite literally like a fish. (I actually made a mistake, and restarted the game with hunger/thirst switched off for an experiment, and then accidentally got completely absorbed in that save game and have gone too far to turn back. I’m rather disappointed, because at the point I’m at now I’d have even more satisfaction at sating such needs in such an efficient manner in my amazing home. (The console command to turn it back on isn’t working for me.)) Do not fear it, leave it on.
All of which adds up to the most perfect experience of a gaming safe place. I love venturing out on enormous expeditions, hundreds and hundreds of metres under the sea, into elaborate cave networks filled with both treasure and terror, knowing all the while that when I need to I can make the frenzied journey back. I’ll dive into my base, empty my bursting pockets into my walls of lockers, perhaps craft something brand new, then potter about doing some busywork, check if some creature eggs have hatched, maybe have a sleep on my quilted bed.
After an especially difficult week of some very serious family emergencies, Subnautica has been a respite, a wonderful cave to snuggle into, my ideal gaming safe space.