The RPS advent calendar has begun! Pull up your trousers and open door number one…
Brendan: Subnautica is a game of wondrous dread. It surfaced from the slimey seas of early access in January, so it qualifies as a 2018 game, and if any of you want to argue about that, I will feed you to the deep. I like this fishy survive ‘em up because it puts humanity in its place. You’re stranded on an ocean planet, one of untold humans who have conquered the stars, but forgotten the sea.
Most survival games are about overcoming nature, dominating it, bending it to your human will. You affect the environment. In Subnautica, it feels the other way around. You’re not top of the food chain in this water world, not even close. And you quickly learn that the best way to live here is to accept that nature is king. To thrive, you have to work within it, not against it. The best way to get teeth from those Stalkers isn’t to kill them, but to play fetch with them using scrap metal. The most useful thing you can do when a terrifying new seabeast emerges from the shadows isn’t to blast it to bits, but whip out a scanner and learn what the hell it is. It’s still about exploiting natural resources, sure, but it does this in its own gentle, thoughtful way. It helps that it doesn’t offer any worthwhile weapons, and maybe it’s a sad condemnation of humanity that in order to learn humility within the natural world we must be entirely disarmed, but the result is the same: a survival game that’s about knowing nature, not beating it.
Matt: My interest in survival games tends to perish pretty quickly. There’s satisfaction in overcoming a world that doesn’t want you in it, but I was loath to start trudging on another treadmill of mundane tasks. Then Subnautica came along, and plunged that treadmill into an alien ocean.
It’s a place of terror and wonder. More the former at first, when you can’t be sure if every iridescent fish is going to be your dinner or if you’re going to be its. Gradually, though, you get comfy. You carve out a base amongst the coral. You craft some flippers. A handheld jet. A submarine.
As the world yields to your knowledge and machines, new areas open up. Dangerous areas, where oversized shadows let out oversized wails. Dread deepens with every step into the dark, a drone that batters against need and curiosity. Those caves are rich in minerals and mystery, your existence sustained by both.
Fear gives way to understanding. You set up an outpost in the depths, a metallic invasion supplied with oxygen from dead fish. You build a scanner room, turning painstaking searches into simple collections. Your work is well rewarded.
‘Rewarding’ sums up so much of Subnautica. Every project has its bounty, every zone has its surprises. There’s a unique, primal horror to being in an environment you’re not equipped for, with creatures that very much are. Subnautica’s brilliance lies in subliming that fragility into mastery.
That ocean will never be your planet, but it can become your home.
John: I’m so pleased I was dumb enough to ignore Pip’s plaintive pleas that we all play Subnautica during its early access. Because I got to experience my favourite ever survival game only after it was complete.
I’d certainly have had such a splendid time, over a much longer time, if I’d played its earlier iterations when a person with far more sense than me was imploring me to do so. But I’d also not have had the completeness of it, the beginning, middle and end of a genre that so often only offers the middle.
Despite putting in as many hours as I could, despite not mainlining its storyline at all, I found Subnautica to be a narrative experience in a way survival games almost never are. Not just because it has the whole plot to discover (and discover it you must, don’t let anyone tell you about it), but because it let me tell myself so many more personal stories as I went. Struggles to survive calamities, that first time I discovered a new spectacular species, building my home and making it feel safe, venturing into the deepest caves to find the strangest secrets…
Subnautica is as deep as its own oceans, with so much to find, so many ways to happily potter, and always with just enough sense of threat that the safe parts feel wonderfully safe. If you don’t care for survival games, don’t write off Subnautica with them – it’s something uniquely special, where the mechanics of the genre feel vital for the greater purposes of exploration and understanding.