Premature Evaluation: Subnautica
Whet your appetite
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.