A subMy Top 3 Standout Moments in Subnautica — Why I Love This Exploration Game
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Genre: Exploration Game
Studio: Unknown Worlds Entertainment (San Francisco)
Subnautica is an exploration game where you explore an ocean on an alien planet where everything is trying to kill or eat you.
It’s also the most engaging and breathtaking indie game I’ve come across in a very long time. Subnautica sucked me in very early on, and still captures my imagination.
I went into Subnautica without any real expectations. I first learned about Subnautica from Yahtzee’s Zero Punctuation review in 2018.
I didn’t know much about it except the basic premise: you’re the sole survivor of a crashed spaceship on an ocean planet, and you need to gather resources to survive and escape. It’s a game that encourages you to craft, build, and learn as much as you can about your environment.
At time of writing, I have about 45.8 hours of playtime logged on Steam. And now I know three things about Subnautica:
It fills me with curiosity.
It fills me with awe-inspiring wonder.
And, frequently and often, it fills me with real, visceral, bone-chilling terror.
Let me tell you a little more.
Subnautica Standout Moment #1 — First venturing out
The first thing I did when my Subnautica play-session began was to climb the ladder of my escape pod and look around the horizon.
To the East: the burning wreckage of my ship. Elsewhere: blue water as far as I could see in every direction.
My PDA informs me that to survive I’ll have to explore my surroundings, learn as much about this planet as I could and wait for rescue.
I look down.
I’ve generally never been afraid of the ocean or large bodies of water. But the moment I looked down into the ocean surrounding my lifepod, I thought to myself “oh hell no. I’m on a fucking alien planet and I can’t see what’s in the water below. There could be literally anything under there.”
I looked around my lifepod, looked at the fabricator that materializes objects Star Trek-style, my medical kit dispenser, and my radio. I looked in the data entries on my PDA and familiarized myself with the controls.
I stalled for as long as I could.
Then I started to get hungry.
Then I started to get thirsty.
Then, with a sinking feeling in my chest, I realized that I had no choice but to explore outside my lifepod if I was going to survive.
So I held my breath, counted to five, and took my first plunge.
When the water settled, I looked around.
I saw fish that were 90% eyeball (I later learned these were called Peepers by using my scanner).
I saw coral, and alien fish swimming peacefully around the coral and shallows directly underneath my base.
“Oh hey,” I thought. This isn’t so bad.
Standout Moment #2: Discovering the World
On Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types, I am a solid “explorer.”
Gaming is not a community-oriented experience for me. I don’t play for achievements or completion. I play games to immerse myself in a fantasy world and see as much of it as I can so I can go back to work on Monday morning and pretend that I’m a normal, functioning human being again.
That’s why I’m drawn to exploration games like this.
Subnautica presses the button that activates this part of my brain in the best possible way. By the time I was 30 minutes in I was hooked.
At this point, I approached Subnautica with the mindset “I want to see what’s over there at point A. To do that I need to fabricate gear B. To do that, I need to harvest X amount of resource C.”
Find some copper to make a battery.
Make a battery so I can make a flashlight.
Make a flashlight so I can explore at night.
Go see what’s in the kelp forest and almost piss my pants when I’m picking up scrap metal, turn around and peer right down into the gaping maw of a crocodile monster with a face made of 70% razor-sharp teeth (later my scanner told me these were called Stalkers).
This is exactly how an exploration game is supposed to make you feel. Isolated and alone, but excited and awed at all the possibilities waiting just over the horizon.
Every time I saw a new poison-gas dispensing alien sea manatee or anything larger than a dolphin in the far distance, I skirted around them knowing they were there for one of two reasons: to eat me in one bite or to harvest for goodstuffs.
Slowly though, I started taking more and more risks as I became more and more familiar with the world of Subnautica and read data entries of every alien species I found.
I knew Subnautica was a unique game pretty early on. When I entered the grassy plateu biome, that was the moment where my jaw literally dropped to the floor like a cartoon character.
Above me, majestic Reefbacks swam overhead, filling the empty blue vastness with a mass that thrummed with vibration.
Around me, grassy plateaus that stretched onward, downward, upward and all around me. Fish speckled the distance but otherwise, life was all around me but still and unmoving.
Everything around me was calm serenity. Why was I so afraid before? What bad could possibly happen here?
I looked down on the edge of a canyon that went down, and down, and down.
This was the first of many “Wow” moments that Subnautica has given me. As I took all of this in, I sat in my chair and said to myself with a big, doofy grin on my face in the tone of voice that a 10-year old boy would use when looking at the other-worldly fish in a deep-sea aquarium:
“Wow…this is really cool!”
I’ve said those exact words a lot every time I’ve discovered something new or interesting in Subnautica. And Subnautica has given me a lot of moments like that.
Subnautica Standout Moment #3: My First Encounter With a Reaper Leviathan
One of the first objectives this exploration game gives you is to explore the wreck of the Aurora, the ship that crash-landed on this strange, beautiful ocean world, so you can repair it and download the blueprints on it.
You do this by collecting lead samples and crafting a radiation suit and mask, and a Seaglide to help you navigate through the water faster.
So I did the thing. And out of a lack of anything better to do, I ventured forward.
I crossed the shallows of my lifepod, went above the ridge marking the surroundings of the crashed ship, and kept going.
The first thing I noticed was that the water had changed color. It went from a crystal-clear Caribbean blue to a murky, muddy brown.
“Ok…” I thought. “That’s a little weird.”
I started to get a little uneasy at this point.
I crossed a sand dune.
And I saw a tail.
A large tail.
A tail that reminded me of a snake. Or a salamander.
A tail that gave me vivid flashes of behemoth sea monsters on brown, weathered 18th-century maps, devouring whole the hapless, woebegone explorers who venture to the edge of the world.
That tail made a circle. It turned into a long, writhing, serpentine body.
And that body started swimming towards me.
This shit ain’t worth it. I’m getting the hell out of here.
So I turned my Seaglide around, hit the NOPE button, and swam as fast as I could in the other direction.
I went to what I thought was a safe distance. I had just crossed into the grassy plateau and could see the kelp forest to my left.
So I turned around to check.
And no more than 15 ft. away, I saw the gaping maw of a godbeast with face-hugger tentacles, beady, soulless orbs for eyes, and a toothy grin that said: “I am going to devour you.”
I wouldn’t classify Subnautica as a horror game, but this was one of the most legitimately terrifying moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game.
I audibly screamed at several octaves above my normal speaking voice.
My eyes popped out of my head like a wild-take in a cartoon.
I could feel my skeleton leap out of my skin and jump three feet to the left.
I felt the sensation of my testicles shriveling as they receded into my pelvis and reverted into ovaries.
And all I saw was its tail and a split-second glimpse of its face.
It didn’t even attack me. As soon as I crossed into the reef, it inexplicably turned around and swam away.
My playstyle became much more cautious at this point. I was much more hesitant to approach new creatures, and nervously peeked around every corner whenever I was adjacent to a large, empty body of water. What could be on the other side? I have no way of knowing.
And every time I see the snake-like waves of a Reaper Leviathan in the far distance accompanied by its banshee-like guttural growl, I turn around and escape in the opposite direction.
This is the mark of an exploration game that succeeds in taking a powerful hold on your psychology. Do Recommend.
Subnautica is a truly one-of-a-kind exploration game. For the explorer player-types among you, this is for you. Subnautica encourages your curiosity and makes you rely on your inquisitiveness and spatial awareness to overcome each challenge, and rewards you handsomely for fostering your courage with breathtaking beauty.
I’d recommend this exploration game to anyone with some spare time on their hands. Subnautica is available for $24.99 on the Steam store.