Subnautica: Exploring the Depths of the Survival Narrative

by Jared Zuker

“Attention. Hull failure imminent. All personnel abandon ship.” Heavy breathing as we climb into the escape pod. “Launch in 3…2…1”. The pod falls apart as a panel hits us in the head and renders us unconscious. Everything is black. We open our eyes to see fire and need to put it out and leave the escape pod. Our ship is in the distance, but we are completely and totally alone. We look out into the infinite ocean and as survival seems a daunting prospect, we know that is the only option. 

This is the introduction to the world of Subnautica, in which the player must survive while exploring a hostile alien world. The story, I believe, can be broken down into three acts, each determined by the resources the play has at their disposal. The first act is all about Survival. The second is about exploration, and the third is about solving the mysteries and finally culminating in leaving the planet. 

In act one, as I noted before, gameplay revolves around survival; the player does not venture too far from their escape pod and their primary goal is to search for food and water. In this segment, the player becomes familiar with the mechanics of crafting, power, tools, oxygen, and basic resources. Oxygen is perhaps the most important resource as it is the one to look out for most often. The player can upgrade their O2 tank to stay underwater for longer periods of time than the original 45 seconds. This Oxygen limit is the main factor in inhibiting further exploration both farther away from the starting point (the ‘Safe Shallows’) as well as deeper underwater. 

As the player ventures a bit farther out for each trip, they uncover a scanner, the main tool of the game, and with the tool they learn about the flora and fauna around them as well as discover blueprints for new tools and upgrades. We shift into act two: exploration when the player uncovers the blueprints for the Seamoth, a basic submarine, and builds the vehicle. The quick Seamoth allows the player to effectively have infinite oxygen as long as the vehicle is not destroyed or they are not separated from it. The player is now inhibited by the seamoth’s crush limit (that is upgradeable) as to prevent the player from reaching the end game too quickly. (Though pressure does not affect the player outside of a vehicle in any other way than making O2 less efficient). 

In Act II, (or possibly Act I if the player hits certain markers first), three major events take place. The first is when the player performs a self-scan with the scan tool and is told at first that all results are nominal, but later that the player has contracted an alien bacterial infection. The second and third require the repair tool as when the player creates the tool, they fix the radio, resulting in locations of other escape pods to be transmitted to the player over the next few hours. At one point the player is contacted by the spaceship sunbeam which eventually tries to rescue them, but is destroyed by an alien laser. This then leads the player to explore the laser and discovers the remnants of an intelligent race, including a ray gun, a doomsday device, and the building being a quarantine enforcer for the alien bacteria the player contracted.These ‘precursors’ play a major role in the story of subnautica as well as the philosophy it presents but we will touch on that later.

The third event is the detonation of the crashed ship’s (The Aurora’s) nuclear engine, resulting in pollution in the form of radioactive leakage. The player is then encouraged to fix the leakage and stop the pollution in the environment. 

All these events allow for the continued exploration and uncovering of mystery in Subnautica, as the player, now equipped to travel across the surface quickly and use a wide array of tools, can travel these distances without starving, suffocating, or dehydrating. 

In the last event, that of the quantum detonation of the Aurora’s drive core, for most players, is one of the first times they hear the Reaper Leviathan’s roar. These giant terrifying beasts are lurking in the cloudy crash zone and elsewhere waiting to tear the player apart. 

Throughout the course of exploration, the player will learn to craft upgrades and new tools, as well as rooms and utilities for buildable habitats that allow the player to create a new base of operations, and possibly several. With every base, the player must use the resources they gather into making the hostile environment a bit more manageable. Though the fear of the giant Leviathans and other creatures never goes away as we venture deeper into the unknown. 

As I said before, this world is extremely hostile. Not only are you infected with a potentially terminal illness, but a large number of the creatures you encounter will attack you for being in their territory or simply because you are below them on the food chain. Reapers will hunt you down, ghosts will chase you for entering their area, crab snakes will lash out at you for getting too close to their nests in jellyshrooms, crab squids and ampeels will zap you, bone and sand sharks will hunt you, and stalkers will bite you for traveling in the creepvine. All of these creatures act independently of you and carry out their hunting, escaping, and defending regardless of your presence. Even if you were to create an extremely expansive base using loads of resources. The creatures will not be deterred by them and resources will return over time. As we see with similar habitats from a former exploration team, these bases, too will be reclaimed and will not inhibit the environment, but become a part of it. 

All of this hostility and feelings of being out of place, not in charge, and not high in the pecking order are further explored in the game in various ways. One small example is how the fish, the mesmer hypnotizes the player into swimming towards it, following up with an attack. It does this with an eerie screen effect and seemingly uses the PDA’s voice (which is the player’s only companion throughout the game) to swim closer to it. This creature clearly has far greater control even over how we perceive and move in the game than the player when trapped in its hypnotic gaze. The safety of being in a vehicle is abolished not only when the vehicle is ripped apart by a leviathan, but also when the mysterious and seemingly intelligent creatures Warpers teleport the player out of their vehicle where they are fair prey. 

The game is constantly reminding us that this is not our world, and though we can adapt to survive in this foreign environment. Others that came before could not survive long, and everything on the planet is far more powerful than us. We as the player start out with the ability to take small fish and cook them in a crafting station or turn some fish into water. This is the main method of survival in Act I until farming and water filtration almost make the earlier method obsolete. What is so important in this fact, however, is that it never changes. No matter how we upgrade our gear and vehicles, we are always in the same spot in the food chain. What I mean by this is that we are always vulnerable and never the conqueror of the planet. We grow in our knowledge of how the game functions and so the annoying crash fish that killed us in the beginning of the game is now a sign that we can collect cave sulfur. Likewise, seeing a stalker is not scary anymore, but a means of crafting enameled glass for more advanced upgrades. We do not attack this world, but learn about it. This, I think, is best expressed in how our only weapon is a knife, which is described in the game as being “the only exception” for weapons in  “standard survival blueprints following the massacre on Obraxis Prime.” Other tools that are weapon-like include the prawn suit (a mech-like vehicle that allows for easy mining and travel at great depths), the stasis rifle that stops enemies in their tracks for a period of time, and the propulsion cannon (gravity gun from half-life). Even the torpedoes fired from vehicles only serve as decoys, or some other non-lethal method of leading predators away. However it is only possible to damage creatures with the mech’s drill arm and the knife, and it takes a very, very long time to kill anything. Most importantly, there is no reward for killing a creature other than small fish for food and water. Killing a reaper or ghost takes some hundreds of knife swings and only results in the beast turning on its belly and remaining still, I would imagine to make the player feel guilty. This is very different to games like The Forest and Minecraft in which killing enemies nets loot that makes it easier to survive. 

This is crucial to exploring how the game views its survival narrative. We are an observer of this world. We are a passer-by who is placing ourselves in the food chain for a limited time and as we will get into soon, are actually helping the ecosystem (rather than merely fixing the created issue of radiation leakage from the Aurora). Survival is directly tied to discovery. Both of the alien ecosystems and of the alien machinery left behind. The player interacts with the underwater expanse in a number of ways that all tie in with the core goal of exploration and discovery. Survival is used as a tool in which the gameplay loop works for the purpose of making the exploration more rewarding. It is possible to play the game in a creative mode or without the need to eat and drink–simply building and exploring the beautiful ocean Unknown Worlds created, but the intended experience is survival mode. It takes time and effort to gather blueprints, upgrade your gear, eat, drink, and even learn the layout of the world. Most importantly though, is it takes time to uncover the mysteries of the aliens who once inhabited the planet, what happened to the previous crew who explored the area, and what happened to your fellow crew members from the Aurora. 

All of this leads to the final act of the story, in which the player investigates the bacterial infection as well as the telepathic messages from some more intelligent creature. In this act, the player uses all their tools to venture deep into the maze-like biomes of the lost river and eventually the lava zone. Deeper still the player comes into contact with the benevolent leviathan, the Sea Emperor in which she asks the player to help ensure the survival of the species and in the process create a cure for the bacterial infection plaguing both you and the planet. 

After this is done, it is possible to build a rocket and leave the planet, returning home and improving the planet you once resided upon for a period of time that your character is not soon to forget. 

Even with this ending, was it wrong of us to impose our will on the alien environment? It clearly was not to the level of the original survival story of Robinson Crusoe, but does this story still have the player enact too much of their will on the planet? I would argue that the player’s relationship with the planet was not parasitic as with Crusoe, but symbiotic as the player became part of the environment and learned, provided for, and was provided by the once hostile and terrifying world in which they once resided. Subnautica uses its gameplay to tell a story of survival and growth where the hero does not damage the foreign world, but in a Campbellian way, becomes a master of it, not in conquering, but in accepting their place amongst the ecosystem. 

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