You may not have heard of it, but Subnautica is a game that has been making waves for some time now. First appearing as an early access game on Steam three years ago, the oceanic crafting/survival game has lurked beneath the surface of the gaming world ever since. In that time, Developer Unknown Worlds has made a wealth of iterative changes, fine-tuning and expanding the project with the input of its passionate and ever-growing fanbase. Now, this tense underwater adventure is finally ready to come up for air — and it’s been worth the wait. It turns out, this purposeful, feedback-fueled creative process has resulted in one of the most interesting and gripping games of this generation. In other words — Subnautica is freaking amazing.
In Subnautica you play as a survivor of the spaceship Aurora, which has crashed onto an almost entirely oceanic planet. Starting in your floating escape pod, you must first figure out how to get the necessities to survive by exploring the colorful and gorgeous coral reefs around you. You’ll figure out how to not starve to death, look for other escape pods and survivors, devise an escape plan — and discover how deep this planet really is.
Story driven, but loosely structured, Subnautica lets you explore at your own pace. You can seek out the radio broadcasts from other lifepods, and follow clues you find scattered across the ocean floor. Or maybe spend some days crafting gear and habitats to turn your ocean world into a more hospitable, but hopefully temporary, home.
Getting Your Feet Wet
Subnautica could be described as underwater Minecraft or an oceanic version of The Long Dark, but the game manages to transcend both the crafting and survival genres. Its success is in large part to its intensity; because the story is downright cruel. Without spoiling anything, you literally watch your hopes of rescue blow up in your face numerous times. Yet it doesn’t feel like you’re being jerked around. Each time your plans fail, the game points you in a new direction… which is usually deeper into the murky depths of the ocean.
It’s as you’re diving deeper that it really highlights how Subnautica perfectly captures the constant and building sense of dread that many survival games never achieve. Unknown Worlds expertly uses sound and lighting to create a world that is at times gorgeous and full of wonder and at other times almost unbearably terrifying.
Subnautica switches between the two moods without warning. One moment you’re surrounded by a pod of bioluminescent Reefback Whales, and it’s one of the most serene and incredible things imaginable… then you swim a few meters away and a massive, dagger-toothed, water serpent Leviathan drags you screaming to your untimely watery death. Mercifully though, your (many) deaths send you right back to your pod — minus a couple items that sit tauntingly where your corpse would be.
The story takes similar tonal shifts which, partly due to the non-linear nature of the narrative, can feel jarring. The AI computer that updates you from time to time has a droll humor to it that adds levity to the situation, and some of the PDAs you find have amusing audio recordings. But most of them are oppressively grim.
This thematic pendulum doesn’t detract much, but it’s a bit of emotional whiplash to be expected to laugh at a silly audio message after you just learned of a family’s slow, horrible demise at the bottom of the ocean.
Many “survival genre” games completely eschew a story, staying completely open-ended. For most of Subnautica‘s contemporaries, seeing how long you survive is the game. At first the narrative felt like it would make the game too finite. Thankfully, Subnautica keeps its replayability in a number of ways. For starters, this game is very, very long. It takes dozens of hours to even get close to attempting to escape, let alone making it.
Even with that end goal, players have the ability to ignore the main quests, and the side stories and other elements of the game are so numerous that there is always something new to find. World building and side plots are trickled out in tantalizing morsels and pull you in every direction.
Swim, Craft, Survive
Subnautica stays engaging by constantly evolving and growing as you play. By finding blueprints and scanning objects found through the world, you’ll unlock new items to craft. Eventually you earn the ability to make a fully customizable underwater habitat, and even construct upgraded vehicles that allow you to explore areas where the pressure is higher… in more ways than one.
You’ll not only get to explore the increasingly murky depths of the ocean, but also eventually go toe to toe with some of the monsters that intially seemed so terrifying. It’s a subtle shift, but as the game goes on, you learn to stop being afraid of the ocean, gaining new confidence as you craft your way closer and closer to getting off the planet.
Few games manage character and story progression in a way that feels so natural and fluid that you don’t really notice until you think back on it. Not that there aren’t bigger (and BADDER) dangers to find, but Subnautica empowers you to take on these challenges, making every unlikely victory feel wonderfully well earned.
If you’re not into the whole “constant dread of being eaten by a shark” mood, Subnautica offers a freeplay mode that lets you build and craft to your heart’s content without worry of dying. It also offers an even harder mode where you only get one life and no oxygen meter, in case you want to be absolutely paralyzed with fear of what’s lurking in the depths below. This mode is incredibly difficult, but it also feels like the true game, on par with other brutally tough survival games like Don’t Starve.
Is ‘Subnautica’ Good?
No matter which way you prefer to play, Subnautica is an incredibly engaging experience. It’s one of those games that you can play for 10 minute chunks, or lose any entire day to without noticing.
It’s fitting then, that a subterranean adventure would so perfectly capture the concept of narrative flow. Against all odds, Unknown Worlds has managed to transform one of gaming’s most despised chores — the underwater level — into what will surely be one of 2018’s biggest success stories.
With the promise that the world will continue to grow (did we hear arctic biome, guys?!), there’s an exciting notion that much like how the game has evolved over its years of early access, Subnautica will continue changing, and eventually become something new. If you’re after a unique and atmospheric challenge, you won’t regret diving into Subnautica.