Electron Dance
22Aug/188

The Glory of the Infinite Sea

This is the first part of the Subnautica Season. This essay contains spoilers for the early hours of Subnautica and describes the limitations of the game’s environment.

John Lilly

The guy who says he can talk to dolphins

Said he was in an aquarium

And there was this big whale

Swimming around and around in his tank

And the whale kept asking him questions

Telepathically

And one of the questions the whale kept asking was

"Do all oceans have walls?"

“John Lilly”, Laurie Anderson

In the beginning, there was the escape pod.

And lo, it was good. It was so good, I wanted to live inside the pod forever. However, my rations consisted of two weetabix. For dessert, a slice of starvation.

There was no choice but to leave the womb so I popped open the overhead hatch - and beheld the great glory of the infinite sea.



The First Wall

Survival games have a frisson of desperation running through them although once a player has learnt the ropes - where to get food and water, how to recover from injury - that desperation can recede. This desperation is essential to drive the player forward, but is it enjoyable? I do not have an answer to that question. I love the feeling of conquering the many lethal things meant to kill me but that sounds suspiciously like embracing destination over journey. But the mountain peak is nothing without the mountain and there is no law insisting the rewards of the peak are cotingent on enjoying the climb.

Subnautica’s starting zone has its dangers - the aggressive stalkers being the most ubiquitous - but is relatively safe. During the daytime, it’s clear and bright. It is a touch more creepy at night particularly with the raucous laughter-like calls from passing shoals of gasopods filling the sea. And those gasopods are easily spooked into spewing acid all over you so this is no Gorillas in the Mist. Still, night is full of that classic videogame staple, luminous flora and fauna, and puts to shame those garish No Man’s Sky caves. No one ever shared pictures of NMS caves, just saying.

Danger persists in Subnautica becauase you have no weapons. Oh sure, you make a li'l baby knife soon enough, but a knife fight with a stalker is not fun because it risks injury. The knife is your last resort. Your goal is to scare the stalker off if you can’t throw them off your tail. Stalkers are a little like the sentinels of No Man’s Sky but nowhere near as irritating. You disturbed a rock! I’m gonna lase off your face. Stalkers become less of a threat later and not because you have better weapons but just because you’re moving around too fast for them to even bother with pursuit.

I think we should take a moment to observe what a lovely, rare thing that is, right there. Subnautica offers threats but no weapons to kill them. While killing some of the bigger creatures is possible, it is not easy and comes with no reward. No achievements, no shiny loot, no XP and absolutely no cool death scene: they just stop moving. Well done, embrace the emptiness of your achievement, you turned a moving thing into a not-moving-any-more thing. I am reminded of the brilliant Miasmata, full of weapons that never got used throughout the entire game. Chekhov’s guns they were not.

I was attracted to the nearby shipwreck of the Aurora, a naked treasure just begging to be claimed. Come visit, its burning hulk sang, but you get irradiated if you approach. Of course. There always has to be a thing to overcome.

The sea bed, however, is a fickle friend. Travel a bit too far from the pod and it will just leave you stranded over what seems like an abyss. Down there, sand sharks sneak around the blood grass, terrorizing the local populace, announcing themselves with a flash of teeth and a muffled growl.

And to follow the sea bed on her descent is to abandon your other friend, the surface and her limitless supply of oxygen. You won’t survive. Stay in the shallows. I could have survived here forever. There was food. There was water. There was oxygen. I had also made a small base.

But it was not enough.

Mountains summon climbers to their peaks. An abyss is just an inverted mountain. It summons divers to their depths. Or their deaths.

The Second Wall

I don’t know what you call baby steps when it comes to swimming - doggy paddle isn't quite right - but, yeah, you do some of those. You work your way down, bit by bit, take charge of your fear. You might be getting deeper, but you're no closer to submerging the feeling of vulnerability: if anything comes for you, you're toast.

You can’t go too far down because the oxygen problem is real. Spend too long in the depths and you will not make it back to the surface alive. Keep your distance from the sand sharks, it’s fine, it’s fine, don’t worry. I’m in control. Baby steps. BABY STEPS.

But… depth is only a problem if I descend, right? I can go anywhere I want provided I stay near the surface... right? Uh, let me inject an expensive dose of nope into the discussion.

Even further out, the abyss gets a lot more goddamn abyssier. You can't see the sea bed from the surface, it falls away and vanishes. Is it even there now? I’m pretending its there but it feels like it isn’t. It’s like a fear of heights but strangely worse. Fall down a chasm and you hit the bottom and die. There’s no guarantee of that here. Maybe I’ll fall forever. Maybe the void itself will consume me. Or maybe something in the void will consume me. Yah, that is the more likely outcome.

During one of my braver moments, I drifted out of the shallows into the deeper waters and challenged myself - how long would I hold my nerve? Come on, BABY STEPS. I swam and the only indication I was moving was the change in the water colour because apart from that the was noth-- wait.

I spotted a silhouette of a fish just swimming around, doing its own thing. No sea bed, no plants, just the silhouette. Then I saw another. And another. Wow, there are quite a lot of… quite a lot of shark-like silhouettes. You know, if they’re actually predators-

And that was the end of my five minutes of bravery. I turned around and swam back to the shallows at once. I wasn’t crossing this threshold, nope nope NOPE. I was terrified one of the silhouettes had seen me, because I couldn’t seem to lose it for the longest time. But lose it I did. And I climbed back into my small base and rocked back and forth like a little baby. Everything is okay. It’s gonna be fine.

So how did I breach this second wall? It was the cave.

During one of my short excursions outside of the shallows, I spotted something like a penetrating wound in the sea bed. I could not quite see the end of the wound, but I could see its cavernous interior was illuminated by giant pink mushrooms; all I could think of was Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I was beguiled by this hidden cave, beyond my current abilities… but I wasn't going to let that stop me.

I assembled a long pipe from the surface down to the mouth of Jules Verne cave, an oxygen lifeline. It took a number of trips back and forth to my tiny base, where I fabricated the pipes. Subnautica's underwater world is difficult to navigate without aid, so I was always hazy as to where the cave was... making some of these trips rather longer journeys than expected.

When I felt that the pipe was long enough, I began the descent down… and was greeted with the unwelcome news that breathing was more difficult at depth and oxygen would be exhausted more quickly. You have got to be kidding me, I thought. I could just about make it provided I reversed course immediately. But there was always a dash of panic when I couldn't spot the lifeline in the gloom.

And I did not quit. I eventually descended with enough materials to make a tiny base with a solar panel. If I couldn’t build it before my oxygen gave out, it would be a one way trip.

I did it, Jules Verne. I did it. I stood in my new baby base and, through the window I had thoughtfully added, looked out over an active lava channel and the strange undersea habitat of some unfriendly-looking things.

Oh yes, there always has to be things.

The Third Wall

In a long piece on discoverable systems I wrote in June, I quoted Eliott Johnson of the A Light in Chorus team saying: “There's a weight of extra intentionality about exploration if you've consciously made the choice to veer off the beaten path. I really enjoy pure exploration games, but when I think back to the moments of exploration that have given me the most delight it's been in games where it wasn't the biggest focus.”

Subnautica is about exploration yet it had not shepherded me towards Jules Verne. It had not welcomed me into the cave and, in fact, did its utmost to dissuade me. Return to whence you came! The tentative and dangerous exploration of the cave was all mine. I slowly came to perceive Subnautica as a world of accidental discovery.

I kept travelling further out despite the terror, although some of the most remote locations are completely beyond your abilities. It is not possible to explore certain depths and areas without the proper tools and protections. Transport is the most important of these, which completely changes your approach to exploration. In a good way? In a bad way? It is difficult to know. Sitting inside a vehicle without oxygen worries practically transforms some dangerous spaces into vacation spots.

Still, the deepest secrets remain closed to you until the very end of the game. And there are areas inhabited by such powerful creatures - in a game that celebrates the meekest defences over weapons - that they are best avoided completely if possible.

And throughout, the crashed Aurora remained my North Star. Despite having beacons, it was always a better judge of distance from home, more comforting than a floating icon hovering in the darkness of the sea.

Yet there remained one final wall.

The Fourth Wall

Go beyond. As far as you can. Leave behind the fields of creepvine, the reaper hunting grounds and the spacewrecks. You will discover the sea bed abruptly collapses to god knows how deep and the colour of the water shifts to royal blue. This is the fourth wall which circumscribes the Subnautica world. Nothing procedurally-generated awaits you out there.

As you baby step across this particular threshold, you can see the developers panicking that you have taken your freedom too far. This is a place the developer refuses to go because they needed to ship a product not an infinite seascape. Instead of introducing a physical barrier like a mountain, they conjure monsters and curse you with a barren, unending abyss. Venture not into these waters where night holds permanent reign, for there is nothing here but death and void.

Game worlds are riddled with hints of intelligent design but it is here that Subnautica surrenders unconditionally: here the developers break the fourth wall with a fourth wall. It is a game conceit, a border across which transgression is forbidden because the developers hath spoken.

This ocean has walls.

Further reading: Mapping the sea floors of Subnautica, Robert Yang.

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

Sign up for the monthly Electron Dance Newsletter and follow on Twitter!

Filed under: Longform Leave a comment

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Lovely piece. Interesting how far you ventured out while being relatively underequipped. I had to take it slow, but that’s also because I am very scared of open water.

    I love how the game makes you feel tiny and vulnerable, especially the parts you describe so well, where the bottom drops out of sight. The colour of the water changes, and I imagine the temperature dropping..

    I don’t really get why they had to fill the Dead Zone (your fourth wall) with Ghost Leviathans. Why not make it a lifeless void of unending water? I know we’re supposed to see it as an ‘invisible wall’, but it sort of implies that the rest of the planet is filled with a vast swarm of huge creatures that seemingly live on nothing.

  2. Hi Alex!

    I think being scared of the water is one of the victories of Subnautica’s design. It’s not quite the same experience as the fear recedes with technology and awareness but there are still areas that I’m not too happy about exploring. Basically anywhere with a reaper leviathan :)

    I’m not sure why it’s full of ghost leviathans. I think it was discourage exploration to say “look, you might think there’s something out here but there’s not”. It’s a bit dangerous because some of us really love challenges like that – and I know that there *have* been explorations down there and found the limits of the Subnautica world. There’s a special class of people who enjoy researching glitches at the end of the world. I’m one, but all those ghost leviathans put me off, to be honest! Tom Jubert (the writer) did his best to explain why this area is the only area full of life but *shrug*. As I said, it just tips the developer into view perhaps a little bit too much for the an “immersive” survival sim.

  3. I am woefully behind in my Harbour Master reading, and was looking forward to this piece especially because I’ve seen you on Steam playing and have wanted to discuss Subnautica with you. As always you capture something secret and inherent to the game experience that is not often remarked upon in other writing: here, that the world of Subnautica is an inverted landscape, one in which players seek out “barriers” (floors, walls, seamonts) and shy away from “open places” (the terrible void). It’s the opposite of most first-person games in this way.

    Among other things, Subnautica makes me wonder what No Man’s Sky would have been like if the developer had (to paraphrase you) been focused on shipping a PRODUCT instead of an endless and pointless procedural enormity. Big does not equal better, and the bigger the playscape the more meaningless each part of it tends to become. In NMS, every planet, every starbase, every system is essentially the same as every other one. In Subnautica, the game world — which is not procedurally generated, of course, but it’d be cool if it had been so in that confined area — transitions between places that are each pregnant with their own sense of self. The subtle way the water changes color between biomes, not to mention the differences in sea life at various depths, make every moment of exploration much more worthwhile.

    As to why they used Ghost Leviathans to wall off the end of the playfield: I don’t know, but I’d theorize that they wanted to allow players to visit if they chose, but also to make it clear (after a minute or two) that there’s nothing there to find. Leaving it totally empty might create the impression that there’s something to find out there, and the technical implications of an actually-endless seascape could be a problem. If I recall correctly, if you go far enough out (or down) and somehow avoid the Ghost Leviathans (this can be done using courage and the freeze-ray, as the game only spawns four or six, I think), you will eventually be teleported back to 0x0.

    Like you, HM, I used the Aurora as my North Star in the early game. When I popped out of my pod, my natural instinct was to head straight for it, looking for survivors and equipment. Anyone who’s played Subnautica knows how ill-advised this is. In an extra piece of deviousness, your escape pod will drift closer and closer to the Aurora until you fix it. One of the examples of clever, nearly-invisible gating that the developers integrated into their game.

  4. Hello Steerpike! I spotted you playing Subnautica more than once in Steam! I did not know that about the escape pod, that is big news to me. I didn’t spend much time in the pod once I had a base to work from.

    I think NMS could work as it is if they’d just made the systems more coherent and less grindy. Extra work has been done in Next but (as I went through in the newsletter) they’ve actually made things worse. Subnautica has benefitted from being a tight experience where NMS sprawls, mechanically speaking.

    The fourth wall might be, indeed, due to trying to keep the player back from reaching system constraints. Maybe super acidic water could have worked better :/

    It actually doesn’t bother me that much and there are actually more interesting “flaws” in the game (how no one survives in other escape pods, for example, we could talk about that).

    I’m trying to write the next piece in the series right now! If we’re lucky, maybe out later this week. It’s joined at the hip with this one.

  5. I’m excited to read it! Subnautica was quite a revelation for me, and overall a game I really enjoyed.

    Certain aspects of the game are interpretable as flaws or design decisions, based on perspective. I often saw them as both, depending on my frame of mind at the time. The complete absence of other survivors from a spaceship that large, for example, is a a little hard to swallow. Also striking is the complete absence of non-survivors. The Aurora could (maybe should) have been an abattoir. Realistically there’d be corpses strewn from stem to stern. But in the end I got the sense that the developers didn’t want to put dead bodies into the game, and while it reduced the realism factor, I’m happy to overlook it because it means my brother can play Subnautica with his six year old daughter and not worry about too much horror. The wildlife is scary enough at times, when things erupt out of the murk.

    What would a more “adult” Subnautica have been like? You can imagine how striking (and differently flavored) the game would have been if you’d come out of your escape pod and faced a sea full of corpses, pallid and floating, in an otherwise beautiful tropical ocean vista. Survivors here and there. And the bodies and survivors alike slowly vanishing over days, USS Indianapolis style, as the Stalkers made their presence known. Subnautica could have been really horrific. It’s sort of interesting to think about.

    I’ve been playing a lot of NMS Next and agree wholeheartedly, overall they made the game worse in every single respect. That grindiness is grindier, the interface and controls are still an unmitigated disaster, and it’s simply not that much fun to play. Strangely I keep playing it, though I have a feeling that will wear off.

    For what it’s worth, I reached the very very very very end of Subnautica, only to discover that I’d failed to locate a critical object and didn’t have a clue where to start looking for it. So I decided to start over and correct some of my other mistakes. Even knowing better how to prioritize early tasks, it’s a very fun experience.

  6. So, cards on the table, Steerpike, half of my Subnautica play is done with my children watching. In fact, I explicitly chose it because they love watching world exploring games and I knew it would be a big hit. It was! I’m grateful for the choices Unknown Worlds have made in that direction.

    The fact that none of the pods had a surviving occupant bothered me initially when it seemed like accidents killed them all. But when the game implied all of these incidents might not have been accidents.. I thought that was clever. Although I kept waiting for “an attack” that never came. That narrative incident would be true to the game but violate the safe space of the opening area – you tell me which one is the worst design crime?

    We’re very close to finishing. It’s been quite a ride.

  7. Agreed. There’s nothing really lost by leaving out the butcher’s bill in the game, and while the opposite could have been a visceral experience as well, it would have limited the audience without any real benefit.

    It’s to the game’s credit that you’re never completely sure what’s going on, and I was never completely sure whether important moments had triggered on a timer or based on some action I took. There’s a very strong implication that something else is going on, but you’re never quite given all the details, which I love, because it builds the sense of mystery while you still enjoy the beautiful world. Finding empty pods that had clearly been blown open or damaged by things that I’d never seen living in the shallows all added to the riddle that is the planet. This coupled with the fact that other people DID survive planetfall — the radio makes this clear — led me to believe that maybe there was a villainous saboteur who might come after me. I was certain of it at one point when my early base flooded. But no, it turned out I’d just angled the solar panel wrong.

  8. I assumed the “base strength” was an indicator that at some point it would come under attack! And it was clear some of the other survivors were set upon deliberately from the radio chatter… plus it very much sounded like we were on the list too…

    Of course, nothing happened.

    But you’re right that the game is careful to paint the scene gently holding back from big flashy neon signs. Writer Tom Jubert has done a great job. I even read some of the scanning descriptions which is not something I do usually in these games. Although my children were on point wondering how all these creatures were named already if no one had visited before.

    Gosh I should get this game finished!


Leave a comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.

No trackbacks yet.