Spoiler Warning: I will be spoiling events and creatures up to the exploration of the Degrasi habitat at 500 meters. If you haven’t played the game I advise you to call in sick for the next two days, buy it from steam, play it, and then come back here and read these thoughts. For the rest of you, read on…
Subnautica is, simply put, brilliant. There it is, job done, column written. Err, okay, I guess I’ll explain why. And to tell you why, I will talk about the exploration of the Degrasi Habitat.
After exploring an island and some trippy purple caves, a call comes over the radio, you have a new navigation beacon. It’s far deeper than you have ever gone before. 500 meters. Up until now you have barely gone half that distance. It requires a depth module for your Sea Moth (my personal submarine), as the pressure would destroy it normally. Even the sound of those words, 500 meters, conjures up a bit of dread. It’s deep, it’s dark and you know what happened to the first habitat, at 250 meters. You saw the crushed steel and broken portholes. There must be bigger and darker things down there.
So you load up your Sea Moth with first aid kits, and maybe even a poison torpedo, and you start to descend. The descent in Subnautica is an act in itself, the sun slowly getting fainter and fainter the deeper you go, the ambient soundtrack getting deeper and more string focused, the tension rising with each strange sound effect. And then there are the creatures.
Let me tell you about the first time I met a warper.
I was cruising a dozen meters below the waterline, at night, in my Sea Moth, trying to get back to my habitat after some deep sea expedition for resources. 12 meters is nothing, you can see the water meet the air above you, and (I thought) I was safe from any alien fauna. The scary stuff is in the deep, the deeper you go the scarier the stuff. It made sense in my mind. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
I saw a flash of purple light, and suddenly, I was in the water, far away from my Sea Moth, and I didn’t know where it or I was. I was totally disoriented, at night, and I didn’t know what had happened. Let me tell you, I freaked the fuck out. Inside the Sea Moth, you feel protected, its metal skin protecting you from the scary and unpredictable ocean. But now something had ripped me out of it, put me somewhere else, at night, and I didn’t know where it, the Sea Moth, or even myself was. Then I saw it. And I had to pause the game.
I really did. It is hard to use words to describe the emotions that were going through me. Disorientation and terror come to mind. But terror to the point where I had to pause the game and I couldn’t unpause it for like five minutes. That level of terror. Not just because of what I saw, the purple, curved hook motherfucker that psychically dragged me out of my sub, but because of what that meant, because of what the designers had done.
You see, the cleverest part of Subnautica is that, it knows. It knows you are terrified of the deep ocean. Most sensible people are. You should be afraid of deep water. I know I am. It’s a primal fear, born out of a feeling of This is Not Our Place. It is an alien world to us, and one with many many dangers to a large hairless monkey adapted to the savannah.
So the clever part is that, the designers know you feel safe in your sub. They know that the best way to leverage that fear, that terror, is not to show you some scary creature with big jaws (although they do that too) but instead to mechanically design a monster that takes away your feeling of safety, that disorients you, that forces you out of your comfort zone. That is brilliant design, because it starts with human psychology and builds the game design around it.
I saw a talk once by the lead designer of the modern Hitman games. He talked about always leaving a bit of the narrative and gameplay space for the player, so that they could “close the loop” themselves. Designing with this player shaped hole in mind is important to game design, because the player will bring with them their own preconceived notions, biases, fears, hopes and fantasies anyway, so why not design with those biases, fears, hopes and fantasies in mind? Accentuate the game with the player and their mindset in mind. Subnautica closes the loop brilliantly, usually by terrorizing the shit out of you.
After I unpaused the game, I fought the warper (really, I did). I took my knife out, and slashed a bit at it, and eventually it warped away. But my heart didn’t stop pounding for another ten minutes, and it was hard even at 10 meters from the surface to feel safe again. I took to going along preset paths that I knew were clear of warpers, like a goddamn brilliant coward.
All this is to say that the first zone you go into as you descend past 250 meters is the “Blood Zone” where the warpers live. Fuckers.
After you get around the warpers and their warp bubbles and get even further down, you encounter a cave system. Going through, you go up, down and around this cave network, and eventually you find the Lost River. There is a huge skeleton of a prehistoric animal inside a cavern, and around it is…something else, you haven’t yet seen before. It looks like a translucent squid thing, and you aren’t sure at first whether it’s an herbivore or carnivore, threat or friend. So you stealthily go around the thing, scanning the skeleton for clues about its past. As you go back, you keep your light shined on the thing, so you know where it is as you try to scan it.
That’s when it emits what looks like a shock wave, and your sub goes dark, and text pops up on your screen “SWIM TO THE SURFACE NOW.” And the disorientation, the terror grips your heart again, because you are 600 meters down and you know there is no way you will get to the surface in time before you run out of oxygen.
The ironic thing here? You don’t actually have to go to the surface. Your ship is momentarily incapacitated, meaning you will probably have to leave and maneuver on foot for a minute, until the EMP blast wears off and you can scoot away in your sub, but the sub still replenishes your oxygen. You don’t have to panic and run off. In fact, if you keep your head, you can replenish your oxygen in the sub, run out and distract the Crabsquid(I always called them glass squids, but, hey, I didn’t make the game) and then run back to your Sea Moth and make your escape. In the cavern, that’s exactly what I did. However, the Degrasi habitat was another story.
Past that cavern and up through a series of smaller caverns the cave suddenly opens up into a large, cathedral-like space. Here is where the ill-fated Degrasi survivors met their end. As I came up to the habitat, the Crabsquid patrolling fried my Sea Moth. I was actually ok with this, I got out and just went into the habitat. I started scanning everything I could find, knowing that there was a ton of blueprints and modules laying around the habitat. The crab squid patrolled outside, unable to find a way in. As my air got low, I would slip outside and refill in my Sea Moth before going back into the habitat to explore more.
I did this two more times before I noticed upon coming back yet again, that the crabsquid was destroying my Sea Moth! This time I did freak out and panic. I stepped inside the Sea Moth and tried to take off, going back out the way I came. The crabsquid set off an EMP wave and knocked my Sea Moth out of commission. I was about to attack him when I was warped fifty yards away. A warper had joined the fight. Frazzled now, I took my knife out and started slashing at the warper, trying to clear enough space around my ship so I could get into it and get out of the cavern and back outside. I made the warper retreat and got back in my ship but now I was disoriented, I didn’t know where I had come from and hadn’t set down a breadcrumb trail. I looked around in a panic, trying to figure out where the exit was. Suddenly I saw purple. The warper had pulled me out again. I then saw red and grabbed my knife but he slashed me twice and then I just saw black. I had died, my ship 500 meters beneath the surface.
My ship is still there. I built another Sea Moth (the Sea Leopard, as it were) but I never returned to claim my old ship. It’s still there among the warpers and crabsquids.
To me, the brilliance of Subnautica is how it understands human psychology, and the psychology of terror. The designers know how humans think, and they design around the player, designing mechanically interesting creatures that shock the players out of their comfort zones and reinforce the theme and setting of the game. There are many brilliant things about Subnautica- the tense and release cycle that governs exploring to collect resources and then returning to build your base and vehicles. The refined survival-crafting system lifted from Rust, Ark and The Forest and given purpose and depth here. Even the story, remarkable in that it even has one, and that it actually is pretty decent, is remarkable for the genre.
But to me the central feature and brilliant addition Subnautica makes is that it understands what it is. It is about exploration, and the fine balance of curiosity and terror that humans have for the open ocean. By understanding that fact, it is able to offer features that accentuate both the curiosity (the scanner mechanic) and the terror (warpers, reapers, etc). By starting with the base understanding of human psychology and working out from there, Subnautica elevates its base gameplay. It invites players to close the loop, and in doing so, provides compelling and engaging gameplay that plays off some of our deepest fears. Brilliant.