Subnautica: Breaking the (Surface) Tension

I messed up yet again with the approach to writing these things. The last article on Atelier Ayesha ended up being a full on review and discussion, as well as a look at the series overall. I approached writing this article about Subnautica as much the same approach. Unfortunately, I wanted to write the article to cover just one aspect of the game and the two times in which it broke in a more casual approach, but instead I got sucked into trying to write a full thing.

As such, it started to get bogged down and I lost interest. I was struggling to write the damn thing because I was struggling to get through the filler to the meat of what I wanted to talk about. So enough of that: I’m scratching that off, cutting a bunch of this article off, and getting right back into the topic I wanted to tackle. Let’s start from there!

Pretty much every game I’ve played so far in 2019 has come about as a result of what I’ve come to think of as The Eternal Search. I outlined what that entails a few posts ago, but I’m going to relink it here for posterity. A number of games with heavy aspects of resource gathering, management, crafting and survival were sampled as a result ever since, and Subnautica is among those.

I won’t go any further into the overarching stuff than what’s in the post, so I encourage you to give it a read if you haven’t yet to see what I mean. Don’t worry, this post will still be here when you’re done. I’ll wait.

All caught up? Awesome. Let’s dive right in then.

I must not fear- oh god what is that augh!

Subnautica is an indie survival game that focuses largely on resource gathering and crafting in order to survive and navigate an alien ocean planet. Unlike so many of its ilk, there is no focus on multiplayer whatsoever, being a purely single player game with a fairly cohesive narrative and a strong sense of progression. Couple that with the fascinating details and intricate underwater ecosystem they’ve produced, and you have a game that is at once unique and intriguing to me.

I played a few hours of it briefly last year when it released out of early access, but finally got around to restarting and pushing through it entirely early this year. It was my game of choice for the better part of a fortnight and I finished it with a bit under 50 hours on the clock. Overall, it was a pretty solid game and I really enjoyed my time with it, but that enjoyment started to diminish rather heavily for the final stretch of it. After pondering on it, I wanted to talk about what I think broke it and how it could be adjusted.

Part of the biggest allure of Subnautica is exploring a completely alien planet. You spend the vast majority of the game underwater, navigating your way through hazards while constantly keeping an eye on your oxygen gauge (particularly in the early days before upgrades make it easier to forget). Through the use of brilliantly coloured visuals and some really impressive sound design, it’s very good at immersing you in that experience.

Right up until something roars at you and your screen cracks as you take a chunk of damage from a Stalker bite.

More than anything else in the game — the allure of the world, the intrigue of the story, the exploration and acquisition of new material — what kept me hooked in the game was tension and fear. Many of the details and chores might have become rote fairly quickly, or even become quite easy… yet I was often hesitant to do them, particularly when that would have me diving deep into a place I hadn’t fully come to grips with yet.

I could probably have cut down a lot of my play time if I didn’t insist on being extra careful, getting decent stocks of resources and upgrades before proceeding to a new biome or a deeper area. I was very hesitant even once I made the more advanced vehicles like the giant Cyclops sub or the Prawn suit, simply because the undertaking to acquire them was so immense and costly that I didn’t want to lose them due to overconfidence. The Seamoth was zippier and could survive a direct hit from all but the most terrible of creatures, so I relied on it long after I could’ve cast it aside.

Over time, the things that terrify you stop doing so as you learn what they’re capable of. It’s understandable that crafting upgrades, better tools, tougher suits and so on would make predators less of a danger, but ironically they actually lessened my enjoyment of the game as a result.

At first, you hear a Stalker roar and recoil or swim for it, but you quickly learn that a single knife hit will scare them off and they’re too slow to do much to you. Same with Sand Sharks. The Crashfish might scream and explode in your face, but it doesn’t really do all that much and you only need a little bit of Cave Sulphur to progress and then not worry about them. As you grow stronger, your tension dissolves and the rote chores become more apparent, though the constant need to dive down into a new area full of new terrors mitigates this for much of the game.

Because then you have Leviathans.

You Should Probably Fear the Reaper

There are four large leviathan type creatures in Subnautica. The Reefback is a big whale-like creature that is completely harmless, and the most it’ll do is make distant whale noises that can be a bit surprising or terrifying if you aren’t expecting them. Still, once you’re used to them, they just add to the excellent sound design of the game. It’s the only benign creature of that size, though.

Early on, you’ll encounter the Reaper Leviathans, and this is where the tale gets interesting. They’ll spawn in reasonably decent numbers around a point in the early-to-mid game progression, and they’re very aggressive and territorial. Their roars are loud, horrifying, and often serve as a precursor to an attack that follows moments after because they’re really fucking stealthy outside of that noise.

Fear is added to even further because as much as you might be paying attention, you’re underwater: you have to look in every possible direction compared to the more narrow and focused field of view that the average first-person game might enjoy. So when a Reaper roars and a moment later it’s latched on to your Seamoth, staring in at you as it tries to rip your sub apart, and you bail in a panic and try to swim away as fast as it can while your poor low-tier vehicle becomes so much scrap… it sticks with you.

In fact, it still sticks with me. Reapers are still the thing that terrify me most in that game, even having finished it. More on that in a moment though.

The last two leviathans you’ll generally encounter later. There’s the beautiful and terrifying Ghost Leviathan, which is partially translucent and a lot bigger but somewhat less aggressive than the Reaper. And then there’s the Sea Dragon, which… is honestly kind of silly looking, but is nonetheless the biggest and most threatening creature you’ll encounter. Doubly so because you’ll only find it in the final lava biome, so even the environment adds to the threat if you don’t have the right upgrades.

But here’s the thing: as much as I feared these creatures at first, that fear and tension became completely nullified very early into my dealings with them. All it took was them to actually attack… and for my mecha Prawn suit to deflect much of the damage and then counterattack with a swift punch that made them think twice and agree to disagree with my presence. Once I realised that this suit was largely not going to die to these things unless I was cornered and stupid, any further tension around them completely eroded.

Like I said, the upgrades and progression of the game make sense. They drive your narrative forward, and it’s necessary to craft the things that make you stronger and more capable in order to have you descend to new depths and find new materials ad nauseam. But this ends up being a double-edged sword, as once you’re able to deal with the threats comfortably… well, they aren’t threats. It just becomes a routine, and I found myself plodding along through the final stages of the game to the conclusion.

Even with all this said, though? I still am afraid of the Reaper Leviathan. Not the Ghosts or Sea Dragons, but just the Reaper. Why? Well… because I never fully explored what they were capable of.

By the time I had my Prawn suit kitted out and was taking it on expeditions, I was well past the point when I needed to travel into Reaper territory. After a point, I only saw them when I was moving through their boundaries to get to some other objective, and usually I was just doing supply runs in my Seamoth. We kept our respective distances from each other… or mostly I kept my distance. If I heard them roaring, I would make sure to keep a wide berth, even though I knew at this point I had the means of surviving or even driving them off.

The Reaper was a fear I never chose to face directly. And as such, the fear remains. That tension lingers. Once I was able to face the fear of a Ghost or Sea Dragon and come out alive and on top (or at least relatively unscathed), there was no fear. And without that tension, the game became something of a slog.

Maybe if I had faced down a Reaper properly, I would remember the game less fondly than I do. Maybe that’s part of why I actively chose not to: that mystique and uncertainty kept the tension alive. And as long as the tension wasn’t broken, Subnautica was a more interesting experience in much the same way as the best horror media can be.

This is why the difference between a horror game and a survival horror game is usually determined by whether or not you can defend yourself or fight back. Resident Evil is a survival horror because you use what resources you scavenge to fight zombies and eventually escape. Amnesia is a horror game because there is no fighting back, only running and hiding in a desperate bid to progress.

Subnautica is only loosely a horror game, as the main draw is largely in the crafting, exploration and survival aspects. But it’s worth pointing out that, to me at least, the addition of that creeping horror and tension elevated the game well beyond what others might have.

The Literal Kind of Breaking

In my opening statements, I mentioned two kinds of ways in which the game broke the tension it held over me. The first is, then, is overcoming the threats by playing the game and overpowering them.

Unfortunately, the second one is less about playing the game and more about… well, not playing the game. Because the game broke.

Some time ago, I wrote an article that I still consider one of my best about The Last Guardian, and how keeping the immersion unbroken was the key to that game succeeding. The fact that it was unable to do so for the entire duration is why I ultimate put the game down unfinished. In the case of Subnautica, I was able to finish and reach the credits, but I almost did not due to game breaking bugs.

Subnautica is ultimately a product of indie devs who don’t have the time, resources, and expertise to fully iron out their bugs. I can’t fault them for this entirely (especially when the likes of Fallout 76 and Anthem don’t have that excuse — yes, I had to fire those shots), but it does still grate nonetheless.

There’s a lot of performance issues in the game, ranging from poor frame rate and stuttering to objects simply not loading… or else taking a delay on loading and not being present until they do. I once got my Seamoth jammed underneath one of my bases because the pillars connecting it to the ground hadn’t spawned in, and I was moving fast enough to not think about it; suddenly, they load in and my sub is trapped in a prison cage that hadn’t been there moments earlier, and I spent a couple of minutes wiggling the damn thing through the gaps.

On a similar note, it’s quite frequent to just see details pop into being a few seconds after you spot them because the game just can’t load them fast enough when you enter a new biome. It’s less of an issue when you’re just swimming or in a slower moving vehicle, but the fast moving Seamoth tends to cause this a lot more. It’s not exclusive to that though, as I’ve dealt serious damage to my Cyclops by getting it wedged in chunks of coral that hadn’t been there moments earlier.

All of this I was able to deal with up to a point, because it wasn’t game breaking. It might jar me a little, but it never pulled me completely from the experience… right up until one time, it did.

In the final volcanic biome, I suddenly experienced a bug where the game decided that I was no longer underwater. Gravity suddenly worked normally and I was trapped on a collection of rocks that I could not swim away from… while over a kilometre beneath the surface of the ocean adjacent to a river of flowing magma. This didn’t just affect my character, but also my Prawn suit, which now acted like it weighed a million tons and couldn’t really jump or grapple itself away. The fish that were still swimming past me normally seemed to find this hilarious, but I did not.

At this point, I was in the final biome of the game. I was within sight of one of the final alien base locations. The conclusion of everything was right within my grasp, but suddenly I was yanked from the experience completely. The issues persisted after saving and loading, closing the game, all the usual stuff. I had to troubleshoot extensively in order to find a solution, none of which were easily attainable.

In order to fix the issue… I had to find a full list of debug console commands and play around with a few of them to get everything back to the way it was. In short, the issue was not fixable, so I had to command kill my character to reset it (which, I might add, is the only time I died in the entire game; if I had been playing on hardcore, the game would have ended then and there!). Then I had to teleport myself to the Prawn suit… only to find that it remained bugged and still acted as if it was on land even while I was swimming in and out of the damn thing.

Teleporting it elsewhere didn’t reset it, and so ultimately I made a decision: I used another console command to spawn in a new Prawn suit, a third in order to get the upgrade it needed to survive that depth of pressure without being crushed, and then chose to rapidly move the rest of the supplies and upgrades from the bugged Prawn to the new one before the pressure depth blew it up.

Well, it didn’t blow up, even with the upgrade removed. Why would it? It still thought it was on land at a depth of 0m. So once I transferred everything to the cloned Prawn, I simply left it there, eternally bugged in the river of lava far below the surface. If I were to load up my save now, it’d still be there… and because all vehicles have a beacon that shows you how far away it is, it’s basically now the most expensive beacon one can make in the game.

Because I was so close to the end, I chose not to just consider it a write-off and make a new Prawn suit. Despite my resources, it would have been a significant affair to collect them all from my various stockpiles and then make a new Prawn, make all the upgrades, and get it back to where I was. By this point, I had already determined that the suit was under no threat from Sea Dragons or Ghost Leviathans, and the tension had already dissolved fully by this point in my adventure. This experience with bugs and having to rummage through the code and a series of debug commands took that broken tension and then shattered it into a million tiny pieces.

By the time I reached the conclusion of Subnautica, it was more exhausted and frustrated relief rather than any real success. And that’s a real shame, because I honestly did like the story and the way it all wrapped up. It was a nice little adventure that I would handily recommend to most, even those terrified of deep water and oceans.

Hell, I would especially recommend it to those people. After all: the tension and fear of the game elevated beyond the simple mechanics and gameplay loop that I was playing. As long as that persisted, Subnautica was one hell of a ride. The fact that it broke in these two ways for me was a serious downer and worth talking about, but not enough to completely discredit the dozens of hours of tense enjoyment I got prior to that point.

So yes. Overall, these were the points of Subnautica that I found most interesting and felt like talking about. Had it not been for this, I would have very little to say except glowing praise for this game, and it’s still one of the bastions of Early Access games done right that I point to in that discussion. But just like The Last Guardian and my feelings for that years ago, so much of it is crucial to being lost in the world and the feelings it is trying to evoke in you.

Without that, well, it’s just another indie developed crafting and survival game, right? And one that completely lacks the usual draw of multiplayer that tends to power it. But Subnautica is so much more than that. Despite the breaks in tension, it’s still a hell of a game that I wanted to talk about and was glad that I dove into. I just hope I can get that same kind of feeling back when I eventually play the expansion/sequel that’s currently in development.

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