“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.