One main mystery makes survival in Subnautica worthwhile
Pretty major spoiler warning for Subnautica ahead.
It’s strange to consider now, but there was a time when Minecraft was something you had to hear about through word of mouth. Long before Microsoft hoovered the game up in a multibillion-dollar deal and even before the game’s relatively popular beta version, Minecraft came to my attention through an innocuous post on Facebook.
A message along the lines of “This thing is wild! You have to try it” was all it took to pique my interest. Indeed it was, and indeed it did. I lost at least a couple of weekends in my college dorm to harvesting glass blocks for windows and puzzling out blueprints in what would eventually become one of the biggest things in pop culture history.
But that was about it. Minecraft, the game that popularized “survival” as its own genre and/or fad, didn’t really hook me. It wasn’t like anything I had seen before, but I could also tell it wasn’t for me, though I couldn’t really pin down why at the time.
That reasoning came much, much later when I played a game called Subnautica. The aquatic survival sim, which launched last month on Windows, Mac, and Xbox One, helped me realize how problematically aimless the entire survival genre has been for years now.
The beauty of life is that it ends
Since Minecraft failed to grab my interest, plenty of other popular survival games have similarly slid right by my gaming world. Terraria, Don’t Starve, Starbound, Ark: Survival Evolved; I own all of them on one platform or another, through one sale or another. I’ve poked at some (Don’t Starve) and promised myself I’d get to others one day (Ark). But I never found myself diving in, obsessing as so many of my peers were.
All of these games share a common core. There’s the creative freedom to just build—or, complementarily, to create something solid in untamed digital nature. I read Hatchet as a kid, so I understand the allure of personifying old-fashioned ingenuity. In a way, Minecraft and its ilk similarly try to justify our place as the rightful rulers of the Earth–the tool-creators that can lord our abilities over “lesser” creatures. There are limits to that kind of self-aggrandizement, but there’s an inherent appeal, too.
That allure is in Subnautica, too. I relish the safety and comfortable patterns of my self-sustaining sea fortress as much as my skill with a Gunlance in Monster Hunter or my all-consuming empire in Stellaris. Bending nature to my whims above all else is plenty satisfying as a fantasy.
But Subnautica has something else. Unlike the other survival games I’ve tried, it has a beginning, middle, and ending. There’s a purpose to the player’s time spent stranded on Planet 4546B. By giving an end to the means, survival doesn’t just feel like satisfaction for its own sake—for my own self-aggrandizement.
To be fair, it takes a number of hours before Subnautica even teases its biggest twist. When it does, though, it’s in one big explosion of alien plasma fire that makes absolutely clear this isn’t just a game about managing hunger, thirst, and oxygen meters. Radio messages from fellow survivors of the player’s crashed spaceship were enough to string me along, and the promise of an inbound rescue party had me curious as to what that would even mean. But it wasn’t until my would-be saviors got shot down by an ancient alien defense system that I knew something besides giant squids shared the space beneath the waves with me.
From there, Subnautica’s other survival genre tropes ramp up in speed. Discovering blueprints to make better equipment—everything from flashlights and scanners, to stasis rifles and even submarines—is in service of unraveling the greater mystery. Every upgraded oxygen tank lets you travel deeper into underwater trenches. Every alien ruin you discover points at who left automated killing machines and more on 4546B. Every semi-random discovery is like conquering a new level in a more linear game.
That solid structure does a few things. For one, it eases my mind about the whole “he-man conquering the unforgiving wilds through sheer gumption” ethos. I didn’t consciously recognize this back in my early, college days with Minecraft, but working toward a concrete goal in Subnautica made me feel less guilty over finding such obsessive joy in feeling superior.
What I was missing in Minecraft and its survivalist ilk over the years was a sense of purpose. Playing with virtual Lego bricks can certainly be rewarding, but generally I don’t look to video games for a new form of self-expression (that’s what my writing is for, for the most part). When I come to video games, I want external validation. Sometimes that’s just watching numbers get higher. Sometimes it’s pushing through someone else’s creative work to a prescribed end. Subnautica pays both those dividends, using gameplay elements that are usually put to much more aimless ends.
I know Minecraft has since added its own story-based adventures and even systems that push it further toward the genre it helped proliferate in the years since I abandoned it. But I still don’t know if those additions get to what I want from the game. The endless Lego set and the games it inspired aren’t something you just hear about by word of mouth on Facebook now. The survival genre has become something that dominates gaming storefronts and discussions. It’s tough for any of these games to grab my attention and still maintain a genuine sense of mystery.
Maybe Subnautica was an unexpected, under-the-radar fluke that got to me via its obscurity. But, if so, it was certainly a happy fluke. It has set a niche standard that other survival games will have a hard time following, and it made me appreciate a genre I had long since abandoned.