Indie Game of the Week 133: Subnautica

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You've crashed on an alien ocean planet, there's little chance of rescue, and you're in dire need of a reliable source of water and nourishment. Also, this planet is crawling with Space Ebola and now you have it. That's the stress-free and chill environment that Subnautica quickly introduces you to in its particular spin on the survival genre, augmented with a loose epistolary-style story that you piece together from exploration and radio signals and a game-wide drive to solve your own myriad problems with your own ingenuity. Like many games of a certain scope, Subnautica starts you off small and limited - it's simply a matter of figuring out how to live one day to the next initially - before you work your way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs and reach the point where you can finally plan a means to escape this moist nightmare world.

I haven't played a lot of survival games in the past. I've certainly played games with survival elements: Fallout: New Vegas introduced a mode where you had to keep your hunger and thirst meters placated, which gave you something other to do than getting killed by mutant wasps, and The Sims series could turn into a bitter fight for survival if your little dorks ever became too stupid or tired or horny to feed themselves. However, the few true survival games I've attempted in the past I bounced off of almost immediately: Don't Starve was one vivid example of how quickly the futility and repetitiveness of these games sapped any desire to continue after the first time your makeshift yurt was plowed into by a raging boar. I figured Subnautica would be an exception to this because, to paraphrase the Mr. Belvedere intro, the game is more than mere survival. There's intrigue as you uncover alien artifacts and learn more about the crash and the planet and why you can't leave, there's learning new tech through exploring wreckage, there's building cool shit to help facilitate faster and safer traversal of dangerous areas, there's a mild Endless Ocean aspect as you channel your best Cousteau impression and catalogue the brightly-colored biodiversity of the native flora and fauna, and - best of all - I can build my own Sealab and relax between those times where I have to go outside where all the sharks are because I've once again ran out of clean drinking water. As soon as I find the blueprint for a urine recycler you'd better believe I'm never leaving this pod again. Quaffing vials of my own micturition is a darn sight more palatable than bumping into another Reaper Leviathan in the dark.

Damn, my entire Pog collection was on there.
Damn, my entire Pog collection was on there.

So yeah, Subnautica is very cleverly designed in such a way where going too far in any one direction will create all sorts of issues, and the plan is to keep to the shallows until you're able to overcome said issues and can brave the depths. That might first mean building rebreathers and advanced oxygen tanks that'll make dipping beneath 100m feasible, but much deeper than that you're looking at submersibles to stop you popping like a grape from the water pressure. With the creation of submersibles comes ways to upgrade them to become even more versatile. Likewise, your homebase can be kitted out with scanners and various high-tech means of mitigating or eliminating frequent needs like food and water, and later power, as well as expanding your tool belt for faster aquatic motion, flashlights, laser cutters to get into the more stubborn spaceship debris, scanning devices, and just a big old knife to cut piranhas with and take plant samples. As your command of technology increases so does your reach, and through careful examination of certain distant key locations you can start to piece together the big picture and figure out a way off this rock.

Unfortunately, the parts where I discover something new or uncover some missing plot details tend to be broken up with hours of tedious busywork as I keep replacing gear that breaks or runs out of charge, keep my own gauges up, and meticulously comb the seabed for anything that looks useful. The way that new tech works is that you have to scan remnants of what fell off your ship, and there's often no way of knowing where these fragments can be found. A scanner room for your base can be handy here, but its effective range of half a kilometer is surprisingly limited and it's not easy finding the components to expand that range or, indeed, build the scanner room in the first place. To make The Next Big Discovery often means having to build The Next Big Tech Thing first, and that means scrounging together a wide combination of minerals, biomatter, and scrap - none of which are certain to be lying anywhere in the vicinity. That then means you're left just picking a direction and drifting over there while gazing around for anything of note that isn't trying to kill you, and then eventually backtracking to HQ because you run out of water or your submersible's about to implode because you keep accidentally bumping it into reefs. I really like Subnautica's whole aesthetic, its establishing of a grand mystery to solve at the player's own pace, its lack of almost any hand-holding besides a few radio signal coordinates and the very basic survival tips you'll badly need at the start, and particularly its almost spacewhipper-esque manner of requiring you to build specific gear to help you explore further and deeper, but the minute-to-minute gameplay loop of constantly meeting your survival needs and accruing the many resources required is as dull as dishwater. I tolerate grinding and farming in most games because they're always working towards something; in survival games like Subnautica it's usually just to maintain the status quo for long enough that you can briefly go do something exciting before every gauge and power level needs to be topped off again. It's a whole lot of "three steps forward, two steps back" and it's turning an otherwise intriguing aquatic adventure game into a chore.

I suppose I'll never really understand the appeal of these survival games, just like how I'll never understand the appeal of Monster Hunter when 70% of its runtime appears to involve tedious routines like sharpening tools, cooking food, and wiping up monster excreta to use as bait (not that the fights themselves, where you do chip damage for 40 minutes straight while the boss repeatedly tries to peace out, are much better). It's strange; I can play an overstuffed RPG like Rainbow Moon (reviewed a few IGotWs ago here) for over 100 hours without complaint, but ten hours of Subnautica might as well have felt like ten weeks. And now some weird alien jerk keeps teleporting in to see how infected I am, and I know he's going to take a swing at me any day now. For all the cool stuff there is to see and do in Subnautica, you'll have a dozen menial tasks to keep you distracted from it all at any given moment. Maintenance and chores are the worst parts of being an adult; I really don't need to have them replicated in a game.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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