Electron Dance
28Sep/1812

Beautiful

This is the second part of the Subnautica Season. The first part, The Glory of the Infinite Sea, was about Subnautica enabling accidental discovery.

Spoiler warning! This essay contains spoilers for important discoveries and events in the middle of the game.

I had started to receive radio transmissions.

Subnautica’s radio smears on a little extra story but its primary role is a gentle goad to get players out and about, directing them to other Aurora escape pods which made planetfall. Some transmissions come bundled with a location that can be tracked on the HUD but when I received one with a vague “oh it’s over here roughly” I wasn’t sure, in the wide open sea, whether I would find it. This was Subnautica resisting the siren call of a GTA-style open world; let’s see how the player copes without throbbing, bobbing arrows.

I took a stab. The instructions were expressed relative to the shattered hull of the Aurora and I swam out to what felt roughly the right spot... but I found nothing. I kept swimming away from the Aurora in a straight line, thinking perhaps I wasn't far enough out.

This was before I even had a seaglide which makes travel a lot more snappy and I was swimming without any form of support... but the sea bed began to recede. The deep dark unknown sent a tingle down my spine, like it always did. I gritted my teeth. I knew in my heart that I must have missed the escape pod but I kept going out of some madness. How big was the sea? How far could I go? When would danger visit me? Another part of my brain, however, was screaming at me: Stop! These seas are not meant for you yet! Turn back!

And then something happened which changed everything.

A giant rock - no, a mountain? - emerged from the mists before me. I wasn’t sure where I’d have located it on the “large” scale but I placed it somewhere in the vicinity of “huge”. A sea mountain? Thrilling! Subnautica, I had assumed, was all about the depths of the sea. What the hell was this doing up here?

I ducked under the waves briefly and saw… something really nasty-looking darting around in the gloom.

can you see it

look again

Petrified, I had two choices. Press on or go back. The Aurora was still in view but I was now far from home, my new baby base that was still in fabricated nappies. Be brave, I thought. You gotta climb this mountain because it’s there, after all.

Heart pounding, I waded gently towards the definitely confirmed “huge” rock and directly over the abyssal horror, whose roar was now reaching me. I reached the base of the mountain and discovered an unfortunate fact: the rock was not climbable. I kept slipping into the sea and I really really really REALLY didn’t want to be stuck in the water here. I hugged the mountain like it was my best friend, inching around its base and spotted…

A beach. A beach?!

My memory of the trailer was too hazy to remember friendly terra firma surfacing in Subnautica, so this was a genuine surprise. Going into a game cold is the best thing. Let nobody take that away from you. Those people who say spoilers are nothing? Fuck those people. This was what I got out of gaming bed for. Show me more.

On dry sand, safe from that deep sea horror, there was a crab-like creature with four legs. It did not seem to like me, but I scared it off with my knife. Then there was a tropical-looking tree which, hang on, yes, I could eat. Great news, because I had brought nothing with me, expecting it to be a short trip to an escape pod and back again. Oh, did I mention the giant fuck-off alien building?

Now, yes, I did remember seeing an alien structure in the trailer, but had assumed it was to be found underwater like everything else in the game. I hardly expected it to be squatting on land, staring down at me. Yet I was anxious, pondering if this building might just be for Subnautica show, a hint of delights yet to come. I scuttled all over its surface looking for entry points but found nothing... until I gave up to explore the rest of the island on the other side of the alien complex and turned around: oh, there you are!

I spied an entrance archway blocked with a forcefield… but a purple tablet I found conveniently lying around was the key. In I went.

While the structure was sparse when it came to comfortable furnishings, I was surprised how large it was. See, Subnautica doesn’t skimp on size. You want impressive alien megastructures? Fill your sea boots. I eventually came across the anti-gravity lift I recalled from the trailer and realised the alien facility was actually an iceberg, with only its tip visible above the waves.

In the bowels of the facility, I dug up some concrete evidence to support my pet theory that the Aurora’s accident had been no accident. Information gleaned from the facility’s database suggested (a) this facility was a gun and (b) something something quarantine. I couldn’t turn the gun off because I was infected. Wait, what? I feel fine...

I don’t know how much time I lost to the island at this point. A good hour? I had departed from the gather resources/build cycle for pure exploration. There were hints that more was to be found out there in the sea and I discovered something that tantalizingly resembled a portal of some sort, although it was inactive and I could not turn it on. Other parts of the complex were sprawled out on the other side of the island under water, but seemed impenetrable. I didn’t have the puff to be certain there were no additional entrances plus there was a purple ninja blinking in and out of existence around here with two scythes instead of hands… and, frankly, I was not up for that.

But it was time to return to the real Subnautica. I had resources to hunt and stuff to fabricate. I planned to survey the rest of the island at speed and risk the long swim back to baby base with all the shiny new treasure I had hoovered up. I found a path that led up into the island’s mountain and hoped it might deliver a grand panoramic view, although the tessellated appearance of the sea at distance was not particularly delectable.

Let’s get this island done, I thought. But the path branched and became more of a maze, turning this last bit of exploration into a bit of a chore. And then I found another one of those inactive portals... but this time with a receptacle for a power source. I had already acquired the power source from the alien facility, something Subnautica referred to as an “ion cube”. I plugged it in and was pleased to see the portal burst into life. I assumed it would probably zap me into the gun facility, so stepped through and...

And…

Sigh.

Look, I’m not sure I can find the words to express the emotions that followed.

I had kept my expectations low and I wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. On the other side of the portal, I did not recognise the surroundings. A cave. It could have been anywhere. Was I still on the island? I exited the cave and realised a shocking truth.

I was on another island. On the other side of the ocean.

Are you.... are you shitting me, Subnautica?

Another island?!? Straight away?!?

I had never played a game like this before. Subnautica was showering me with treasure. All I could do was doff my cap and say, “Ambassador, with these wonderful islands, you are really spoiling us”. The second island was caked in narrative clues, new eatables, abandoned bases and blueprints. Awash with flora, the island haemorrhaged colour. I spent much more time here than the first island, scavenging and combing through every square inch. Of course, I knew this wouldn’t last; no game could keep up this level of content production.

And the “not an accident” theory was no longer a theory. Someone else had lived on the second island, revealing a ship called the Degasi had crashed here too. Yeah, okay, I think we can officially blame the alien gun for the death of the Aurora.

Eventually, eventually I headed back for the long, lonely swim back to base. I would be crossing a virgin stretch of sea with no idea if any new hungry horrors were haunting those dark waters. I just wanted to get back in one piece with all the brilliant new stuff I had accumulated, like a chunk of Bulbo tree I hoped to use to replace my seafood diet.

Aside from the shimmering vision of an unknown leviathan booming WHAT ARE YOU the return swim was relatively uneventful.

Adventure behind me, I continued to build out my base, occasionally tracking down a new escape pod. There had also been a few transmissions from a ship called the Sunbeam, which had got wind of the Aurora’s crash and was diverting to rescue any survivors. I hadn’t thought too much of it, thinking Subnautica would not “rescue” me before I had unearthed most of this alien sea’s secrets. But then:

"Aurora, we're approaching the planet now, and we have a landing site for you that's... well, it's better than the alternatives.

We've sent you the coordinates.

It'll take us a couple of days to align our orbit, we should be able to establish direct contact with you during that time, then we're coming in to get you.

Cross your fingers the weather holds, and don't leave us waiting. Sunbeam out."

The landing site was identified on the HUD. I didn’t know exactly where it was but I had a good idea about what was going to happen. I had a limited amount of time to make the rendezvous and swam across the open sea towards the HUD marker.

I got closer: I saw the first island.

Closer still: the site was the beach beside the alien gun.

I knew what was going to happen and couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t yell at the Sunbeam, turn back. I could only be an audience for a story that was already written into the design of the game.

At first, it was just a small light in the sky but it grew inexorably larger. As the Sunbeam came into view, the alien structure transformed into something that looked a lot more gun-like.

Nothing I could do but watch. As twilight descended, the alien gun fired and shredded the Sunbeam, showering an alien ocean with metal confetti. At such close range, none of its crew survived.

Subnautica is not a quiet game, usually pumping ambient music into your ears to accompany your ocean experience. But when the Sunbeam died, there was no music, just the haunting emptiness of the island and the sea, as the weapon – mission accomplished – transformed back into an innocuous building.

It is a testament to Subnautica’s design on all levels that although I’d found Gun Island myself and the fate of the Sunbeam was obvious, its destruction was still completely chilling.

I suggested in my previous Subnautica essay that the development team had embedded accidental discovery into Subnautica’s design. And here was all the proof I needed: whether I had discovered the island before the Sunbeam’s cold-blooded murder or after would not matter, the scene worked either way.

And that is beautiful.

Next: Cold Metal

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Comments (12) Trackbacks (0)
  1. WOOT is right!

    This is one of the true wonders of Subnautica, the effortless way in which the game gently prods you forward, meting out discoveries that validate or change your theories, quietly and unobtrusively gating progress until you’re ready, yet still festooned with surprises and unexpected twists. Even better, it’s so well-designed that it can roll with player punches (for example, it never occurred to me that the grav-lift WAS a grav-lift, and I was afraid to approach it. I wound up getting into the Gun Facility’s basement through a different entrance, much later).

    The Sunbeam’s fate is a powerful moment. Of course there’s no way you’re getting off this planet, not so soon, so as you point out it’s pretty easy to guess what’s going to happen. But the basic selflessness of that crew and the unjust reward received for their attempt to help set the tone for many hours of later play. Despite the fact that I was helpless to prevent Sunbeam’s destruction, somehow I felt complicit in it, as though in surviving the Aurora’s crash I had personally doomed the Sunbeam’s crew.

    I will also add, HM, that it took serious courage to swim down deep enough to get that underwater shot of the alien facility. At that angle you’re balanced on the edge of the abyss, and you know what lurks below.

  2. Hey Steerpike! I think I took that underwater shot much later in the game, when I was feeling somewhat more invulnerable :)

    I think I shared your feelings of “complicity” in the Sunbeam’s destruction because, naturally, I’m the only survivor! I can only imagine how it would have felt to see the Sunbeam blasted out of the sky cold, without any idea the big building beside you is actually a giant cannon. I hear it is possible to save the Sunbeam – I think by disabling the gun before listening to the radio messages which is a bit weird but, hey ho.

    But, yeah, the destruction of the Sunbeam was a brilliant, tragic moment.

  3. Arriving at that island, or, specifically, going through the portal to the second island was when I fell in love with Subnautica. It was just so unexpected and wholesome after so much underwater resource hunting and gathering. Like you, I got there with a view to leaving soon-ish and ended up exploring for what felt like days. It was so exciting to get all these new plants to cultivate, logs to pore over and, y’know, dry land to walk around on. It didn’t feel quite so alien and was genuinely comforting. Piecing together the Degasi story was fun and I really didn’t want to miss any of their journals!

    But yeah, I love how the game is open but so exquisitely structured. It is beautiful.

    I’m back on Subnautica now and I had my second real close encounter with a reaper the other night (after the first spine-tingling ‘Oh fuck me!’ encounter, I had given them a very wide berth). I was exploring in my seamoth the edges of the plateau that Subnautica is set on hoping to trace my way to the south of the Aurora. I tried descending the sheer drop into the ‘ecological dead zone’ and lost my nerve — the sound effects down there are chilling and I swear I saw stuff in the gloom ahead and heard it behind me.

    But I was lost because I’d been down there for so long. I had some inkling as to where I was so decided to head for the surface to check my bearing against the Aurora. God, I was deep down without realising it and it was night too so the darkness was suffocating all the way to the top. (The sonar pulse is like breathing in.)

    So I was on the far side of the Aurora, excellent. Disappointingly it was a vast and uninteresting expanse of deep seabed with scattered scrap and minerals peppered everywhere. It was like an underwater desert. I kept going and saw, far ahead, the sonar shape of a reaper. I turned around and caught a glimpse of another in the opposite direction. Rather than head back, I thought I’d pull round the Aurora’s bow where there were no big beasties and head back home. As I got back into familiar ‘safe’ waters, another reaper appeared and… it was right in my face. There weren’t any here last time! I panicked and fired off my electrical field. It did nothing. Shit! I kept back peddling and *CLASP*, I was locked into its mandible-jaw-claw things. I’m not sure in the mad scramble whether I was forced out of the seamoth or I ejected myself, but no sooner was I outside it I was seagliding away. I heard some sort of bleep and noticed there was no seamoth waymarker on my HUD. Fuckety fuck fuck. She was gone.

    How long had it been since I saved and how much had I accomplished in that time? 45 minutes. One data log. I reloaded. After such a long hiatus the last thing I needed was to spend another session crafting another seamoth, all its upgrades and items in storage. Bleurgh.

    It’s great to be back though.

  4. Hi Gregg! I also lost a Seamoth to a Reaper like this – at the aft section of the Aurora incidentally! I was trying to show my children the Reaper from afar but it saw me and we all had a damn good scare. I didn’t even have any protection of any sort at the time! I just reloaded. That’s become par for the course in the second half of the game, although that becomes more tricky for a deep decent descent as you’re not sure you can make it back so you don’t want to save…

    The dead zone is relatively boring. There is a strange thrill of going deeper and deeper and trying to hold your nerve but, apart from that, you get the idea that it really is dead. Nothing out here except a bunch of loser leviathans.

  5. “Going into a game cold is the best thing. Let nobody take that away from you. Those people who say spoilers are nothing? Fuck those people.”

    Says the guy who fucking TWEETED a picture of the final, most amazing thing you get to build in the game.

    But am I mad? No, because I just finished the game and am delighted that one of my favorite games ever had one of the best endings ever. I can’t believe how hard they stuck the landing. That final decision is just [French kiss]. Maybe I’ll go rant about it in the comments of your final post about the game.

  6. I just assumed I was so late to finish the game that people didn’t care about my spoilers! Still, I sinned, and I have sought redemption.

    I am still reeling from how much “pointless” detail was crammed into the Neptune. That was just amazing.

  7. Hey, no problem, I just finished the game and was able to see almost all the surprises without getting spoiled.

    (SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR END OF SUBNAUTICA: DON’T RUIN YOUR SURPRISE)

    I was delighted by the entire endgame. I love that the Neptune had a bunch of storage lockers. I was pretty sure it was the end of the game so I was mostly just role-playing at that point, but I still grabbed a bunch of stuff I thought I might want to take with me.

    And then, the time capsule. What a beautiful and elegant final moment where the game asks you (without being quite this explicit) to think back and choose a screenshot, an item or two, and a few words to sum things up. To remember what it was like to be alone and desperate and ignorant and imagine what you would have loved to find in a time capsule. I was playing with my kids and we all unanimously thought of the heat knife because it had been such a game-changer when we found it in a time capsule ourselves.

    It’s like that thing they do at the end of movies where the credits will allude to all the cool high points of the movie to try to remind you (or convince you) that you enjoyed the movie. It’s an effective device and I usually love that kind of thing after a movie I’ve enjoyed. Subnautica stays true to form by offering a similar celebratory summary except within the fiction of the world and chosen entirely by the player. The little psychic message and fade to white was fine, but the moment my time capsule dropped and I thought about what was in it and who might find it was one of the highest notes a game has ever gone out on.

    And before all that, the final alien lab was profligately wondrous — nifty devices and bits of story, portals to everywhere, infinite ion cubes, the final leviathan being friendly in a beautiful safe space, and those adorable embryos — I felt very rewarded. The final task to remember and grab some plant specimens was a great excuse to revisit a few places and the portals made it not a burden. I made a bunch of ion power cells for the Odysseus and enjoyed a comfortable trip to the surface with plenty of power for my shield generator.

    And then finally, I didn’t have any nickel to finish the rocket ship and had trouble finding any. I felt the game designers at my elbow asking, “Hey did you ever try making a very-deep sea habitat? A scanner room would solve this problem pretty easily.”

    “Why no. I built a nice base by my landing site and never really made satellite bases because the submarine was such a great mobile one. I really only need one room and a thermal generator and I guess it would be fun to do a last bit of building before I finish the game.” And it was.

    All in all, I can’t think of another game besides Portal with an ending I enjoyed this much. And frankly it’s a lot easier to have a great ending to a short-story than to a novel-length work like Subnautica.

  8. Urthman, I wish I hadn’t felt as exhausted by end of Subnautica as I did. There was a little bit of “well, thank goodness that’s all over”. I was happy that the critical ingredients for the cure were available through each of the portals streaming out from the final alien establishment – all those hidden portals that I never ever found before!

    But I did appreciate the ending and the thought that went into it. It was wonderful. Such a generous game.

    (The fourth piece I planned to do on Subnautica doesn’t really talk about the ending of the game, but what I considered the most difficult task of the game. I still hope to get back to it before I forget everything.)

  9. Was that partly feeling professional pressure to finish the game and get on to something else? I feel like a lot of times when my experience differs from someone writing about a game it’s because I didn’t have to binge watch it.

    But main point is that I like when games have a way to generate some sort of “See what you did?” narrative at the end that is more than just “Did you kill anyone?” and that Subnautica’s way of letting the player choose it themselves within the context of the game worked really, really well.

  10. Oh I just got kind of stuck on one bit and I’d also felt like it got what I wanted out of the game already. I left the game fallow for awhile and eventually decided “right, I’m going to do this”. There were still lovely surprises but I knew I was near the end and I wasn’t sure if I was bothered pushing through that final mile.


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