For some reason, I can never remember that Subnautica is one of the best experiences I’ve had with a video game. I only first heard about it as an interesting VR experience, so I downloaded a pre-release version to try out on a headset. It was so clearly still in early development that I wasn’t very impressed.
But it hooked me just enough that I started playing the non-VR version of it, and it was completely captivating. It was engrossing, clever, funny, terrifying, and somehow epic in scope but still the perfect “indie game” length.
I was reminded of it during a recent conversation on Mastodon, where I was insisting that my preference is for sandbox games to remain sandboxes, and narrative games to stay focused on the main storyline. I’ve been adamant about that — and then I remembered that Subnautica exists, merging multiple types of game without doing a disservice to any of them, all seemingly effortlessly.
Subnautica presents itself as a survival game. You start out as the sole occupant of an escape pod jettisoned from an enormous spaceship that crash landed onto an alien planet. You’re alone and adrift in the middle of a vast ocean, and your first task is to find food and shelter, just to survive long enough to start finding a way to be rescued off the planet.
Over time, your priorities shift. Not just as you gradually work your way up the hierarchy of needs, but as the focus of the game changes from survival, to exploration, to base-building, and then to story-telling. Not only is the difficulty curve so well-balanced as to be nearly invisible, but the presentation shifts as you go along. Once your basic needs are met, you can be focused on uncovering more of the story about what happened.
There’s a wry sense of humor throughout, as you learn more about the soulless mega-corporation that you worked for, and the lengths it’ll go to to exploit the natural resources of a newly-discovered planet. But it never overwhelms everything to become too self-consciously jokey. And the game not only has long stretches of tension — driven by needing to reach an objective while your resources are dwindling — but a few of the most effective jump-scares in any horror game.
The game’s presentation and pacing are so well-done that it’d be perfectly understandable if the base-building component were left as an afterthought. But it’s not; it’s a lot of fun and allows for a good bit of creativity while never feeling like a completely separate activity from the main game. Many of the additions you’ll make to your home base are purpose-driven: they’ll let you explore longer and reach distances farther away, efficiently store the tons of stuff you collect during exploration, and have more efficient food and energy production so that you’ll be generally more self-sufficient. There’s tons of room for customization just in terms of aesthetics, but that all feels like a reward for your hard work, not just an unnecessary tangent.
I haven’t yet played much of the sequel, Subnautica: Sub Zero, but what little I have seen suggests that they play up the story and character aspects even more. Instead of the anonymous every-person of the first game, you’re a more well-defined character with personal relationships at the game’s start. I don’t know how well that will work in practice, but the concept is a solid one: the storytelling in Subnautica wasn’t just more substantial than I’d expected from a seemingly open-ended survival game; it was masterfully done, period.
I still say that video games in general should focus, instead of trying to be all things to all audiences: side quests and mini-games are anachronisms left over from a time when games needed to be padded out to reach some vague threshhold of being “worth the cost,” and nobody’s got time for that these days. But I’m still very happy that Subnautica is out there, proving me wrong, showing that it is possible to be both open-ended and narrative-based, and to do both extremely well.