Sometimes a game comes along that’s so good it ruins an entire genre for you. That’s what happened to me when I first played Subnautica in 2018. Before Subnautica, survival games were all about braving the elements in Speedtree-powered forests, chopping down trees to make campfires and lean-tos, hunting animals with flint-tipped spears. The game might have a quirky art-style like Don’t Starve, or a horror emphasis like The Forest, but they were all based upon the same basic principles establish by Minecraft. Hit trees for wood. Hunt animals for food. Day good. Night death.
It was a simpler time. A more innocent time. Then along came Unknown Worlds and blew my expectations of what a survival game could be out of the water. Those expectations then fell back into the water and never re-emerged, sinking irretrievably into the abyss of Subnautica‘s unparalleled survival simulation.
Subnautica whisks its survival story away from deciduous forests to planet 4546-B, an uncharted, presumed uninhabited world covered almost entirely by ocean. It’s onto this planet that your space-cruiser, the Aurora, crash-lands after suffering colossal, unexplained damage. Your character escapes the fireball via a life-pod, awakening after the descent in some shallow waters near the Aurora’s crash site.
Mechanically, Subnautica features all the elements you would expect in a survival game. You need to eat food and drink water to stay alive, and harvest resources to craft useful items and build structures. However, Subnautica‘s alien world has a completely different ruleset to Earth-bound survival games. There is no wood to chop, no deer to hunt, and no land to walk on as far as the eye can see.
Consequently, you can’t rely on assumed knowledge from other survival games to progress, and so both your expectations and your experiences are completely refreshed. Your foundational resource is not wood, but titanium, found by breaking outcrops of rock hidden in the twisting coral reef where the game starts. Your basic equipment is not axes and pickaxes, but O2 tanks that let you spend longer underwater, and item scanners that help you learn more about this world. Your food source at least is broadly obvious, in the many fish that dart through the game’s crystalline waters. But even here, you don’t know which fish are edible, how nutritious they are, or how likely they are to murder you when you first approach them.
In this way, Subnautica offers an experience of pure discovery from the very beginning, spending the rest of its time rewarding you for your curiosity and willingness to learn. Rather than relying on procedural generation, for example, Subnautica‘s alien planet is meticulously crafted, designed to pull the player in specific directions. The game’s story, meanwhile, gradually unravels via your lifepod’s radio, with recorded SOS messages from other lifepods pulling you toward key game locations.
Subnautica makes brilliant use of its aquatic setting. Progression happens vertically as much as it does horizontally, with new biomes revealing themselves as you delve deeper into the ocean. These biomes are so much more imaginative than the plains and forests you’ll see in other survival games. Hidden beneath the crimson carpet of the Grassy Plateau (itself a remarkable sight) is the Jellyshroom Cave, a vast subterranean cavern filled with glowing pink fungi. Descend further, and you’ll eventually come across the Lost River, a labyrinth of ancient tunnels threaded through by a ghostly green torrent of corrosive brine.
These biomes play home to some incredible locations that, when explored, unveil the history of the planet. When you first breach the surface of Subnautica‘s ocean, the first thing you see is the smouldering wreck of the Aurora, looming over the horizon like a metal mountain. In many other games the Aurora would simply be a dramatic bit of skybox. But Subnautica lets you not just simply travel to it, but explore its twisted, burning interior for resources and new story threads. As you push further and deeper into Subnautica‘s world, you’ll discover decaying old bases left by previous explorers of the planet, and other structures built by hands that may or may not have been human.
Subnautica‘s splendid sights are coupled with rich, highly tactile mechanics. Whether you’re grabbing fish to eat or building your base, you’re constantly touching and interacting with the world. Nothing demonstrates this better than Subnautica‘s vehicles. After a few hours exploring the seabed and scanning wreckage, you’ll unlock the ability to construct the Seamoth, a nippy, one-man submersible that massively expands your exploration abilities. It feels like an incredible upgrade, until you build the Cyclops, a much larger submarine that doubles as a mobile base, letting you customise the interior with various base modules. It’s so big, in fact, that you can park the Seamoth inside it, ferrying it around Thunderbird 2 style, and deploying it when you find a location that’s too small or inconvenient for the cyclops to travel through.
Structurally and mechanically, Subnautica is a brilliantly crafted game, but none of this captures the essence of what makes Subnautica great. Like all survival games, Subnautica chases a particular sensation, that peculiar serenity which comes from being at one with a potentially hostile wilderness. Subnautica evokes this sensation constantly. You feel it when swimming alongside one of the game’s Reefback Leviathans, living coral colonies that drift slowly through the water. You’ll feel it amid the lush green foliage of the kelp forests, or down in the eerie silence of the Lost River. Indeed, Subnautica is often a profoundly peaceful game, though this is shot through with occasional spikes of terror. There are some very big fish lurking in the game’s oceanic gloom, the kind that will try to swallow a submarine whole.
Like all great games, Subnautica elevates the genre that spawned it. It’s difficult to go back to cutting down trees in a forest after Unknown’s Worlds’ spellbinding underwater adventure. The way it challenges you with not just staying alive, but learning how an entirely new ecosystem works, is transformative, and something that I wish more survival games would attempt. Which is not to say there isn’t room for more conventional survival scenarios, only that there is room within the genre to be more creative and ambitious.
It’s worth noting that Subnautica‘s sequel – Below Zero, is also excellent, cleverly remixing the wonder of its bigger brother with its Arctic-inspired setting. But for me, the original will always be the game that expanded my idea of what a survival game can be, as well as being one of the best virtual adventures to splash down in the last decade.