Electron Dance
20Nov/1930

The Great Descent

This is the final part of the Subnautica Season. Spoilers ahoy! This follows The Glory of the Infinite Sea, on Subnautica enabling accidental discovery, Beautiful, on the real beauty of Subnautica's design, and Cold Metal, of my disappointment with base building.

What are we doing here? Why would anyone put themselves through this?

Silence engulfed the dead city block but the silence was not absolute. Sometimes I would hear the soft, yet threatening shuffle of rotten feet. Or the click-click of a giant spider’s legs tapping across cobblestones. Or the gibber-speak of a malevolent apparition.

The Haunted Cathedral level from the original Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998) overwhelmed the player with dread and a terrible feeling of having passed through a veil that separates the reasonable, normal world from one into which no human should stray. This was not the first time Thief had conjured this atmosphere as Down in the Bonehoard had a similar ambience, but it had nothing on The Haunted Cathedral.

Of course, this is a recognisable trope, gaming’s take on Orpheus’ descent into hell to bring back Eurydice. The player must journey into a type of Hell to retrieve something of importance. Dark Souls has plenty of it but I am here to discuss Subnautica’s Orphean descent, in which the very depth of the ocean itself is terror.

I warn you, though, reader. Descend further into this bottomless trench of words and you will hear the screams of spoilers and the thunk of ALT+F4.

The “quarantine enforcement platform” alien facility, the battery which shot down the Aurora and blasted the Sundown into smithereens, had foretold the existence of other alien facilities out there. The instructions on how to find them were, erm, rather hazy. My PDA deciphered the alien script as: “Over there, somewhere.” I had been anticipating a radio message that would help to fill in the blanks but I wondered if this was false hope. There hadn’t been a new radio message for a while. Had Subnautica abandoned me to my own devices?

I had been sweeping the ocean at random, peering into underwater crevices, mainly hunting technology blueprints. But some of the places out there are fuck-off dangerous, patrolled by hostile shivers of bone sharks and the occasional “oh my god I’ve stained my trousers” reapers. Subnautica, we must remember, is about working with the environment and avoiding predators, not teaching nature a lesson with laser pistols.

I had been too conservative and safe in my expeditions and was getting itchy flippers, desperate to find something new. During a freak moment where I threw caution under the bus, I descended into a dark underwater fissure, not caring if this became a one-way dive. I hugged one of the rocky walls but soon the gloom parted and I happened upon a ledge forested with shocking white trees.

This was definitely brand new. Deposits of sought-after blood oil was nestled in the boughs of these trees and the ledge also sported patches of deep shrooms. Both the oil and shrooms were necessary for further Subnautica progress and I immediately dropped the beacon I had been stowing for such a rainy day. It didn’t seem possible to plant blood oil trees back at base camp, so I harvested as much blood oil as the Hammerport, my Seamoth craft, could hold.

Other ledges beckoned below, so I continued the descent, shifting from ledge to ledge. But there was no sign of a bottom to this trench and I kept going down. And down. And down. I found a chunk of space wreck to explore but my real goal was beyond it, in the dark below. And then I noticed warpers.

Hmm, this is getting a little dangerous, I thought. But I persisted. This was now feeling far less of a trench - the walls were closing in and bathophobia was morphing into claustrophobia.

The journey down seemed to moving sideways as much as downwards, and I was now travelling with a roof over my head. What if I couldn’t find my way out of here? A beacon far above my head was useless - a pathfinder, if I had been carrying one, would have been far more useful as it could have traced the route I had been taking. And then… I was somewhere altogether new.

I had stumbled upon a region known to veteran Subnauticans as “The Lost River”, a vast cave system housing the skeletons of ancient leviathans. It takes its name from the heavy layer of green slime that coats its floor, a “river” that will burn the player if exposed to it.

The Lost River is a sensational find for any player and it is briefly spoiled up in the Subnautica trailer, although I didn’t recall seeing it until I discovered it for myself. I did not know, at this point, that the cave has multiple approaches and I had identified perhaps the most tricky entrance, with its winding, claustrophobic descent. I’d advise you to make a note of this paragraph, as it will have some bearing on later events.

I was fortunate to have brought snacks with me to stave off hunger. The Lost River offers precious little to eat except skimpy spinefish, whose saltiness barely satisfies your hunger while making you acutely thirsty, and the hydrating gel sacks which are uncommon.

I’d like to say I was thorough but I found it difficult to get a serious handle on the undersea geography. With the area swarming with little bastards called river prowlers and the occasional ghost leviathan, my mind was too distracted to focus on mapmaking. But it was difficult to miss one of the tunnels which housed an enormous, underwater tree with luminous pink leaves, a ghost leviathan egg cupped in its boughs. Ghostrays circled the tree. It was spectacular.

But it was a lure. Behind the tree was something more important. A pit. A pit I couldn’t see the bottom of.

An even deeper unknown awaited my transgression.

*      *      *

A fully upgraded Seamoth cannot survive beyond the crush depth of 900m. This new hole went deeper than that. Much deeper.

Having acquired so many rare resources on this journey, it was perhaps madness to abandon the Hammerport and make the final swim alone. Anything could be down there. But I needed to know what lay at the bottom of the pit.

The hole led downwards and merged into a long horizontal channel, possibly an ancient lava tube, the floor of which was scarred with pockets of active lava the further I travelled along. Keeping a close eye on my oxygen level, I reached the end of the channel, where it opened up into an enormous cavern; the water here was red, tinged with the glow of active lava which dominated the floor. I called this the Hell Chamber.

I had little time to enjoy the view because I wouldn’t have the oxygen to make it back to the Seamoth otherwise. But also my spidey-sense was tingling enough for terror to set in. This place was danger. It wasn’t just lava that worried me but the realisation that the game’s developers made the cave large enough for something monstrous to live in. I didn’t hear anything untoward but I knew, even if I had enough oxygen, death would be assured.

Further explorations of the Lost River revealed two other alien facilities. One which was sealed and needed an orange tablet which I did not have; another which was smashed and flooded which thwarted my attempts to locate an ingress for ten minutes. The latter facility was full of revelations about the plague on the planet and attempts to find a cure by dissecting any lifeform the aliens came across. They dissected everything and anything.

It became clear that the cure for the plague would be found in another alien facility inside the Hell Chamber. And my spidey-sense fears were confirmed. It was likely that other hostile leviathans were on the loose down there.

After this first dive, I returned to the Lost River multiple times to seek other treasures I might have missed. I always entered the zone the same way, through a claustrophobic descent despite leaving the Lost River through a different exit each time. I never really made the effort to drop beacons at them because, reader, those exits always seemed to have a ghost leviathan hovering nearby.

I hoped the trick to entering the Hell Chamber would be revealed at some point, but the radio was stubbornly silent and nothing obvious was forthcoming. I stepped up efforts to create a Cyclops sub, assuming it was needed to breach the Chamber. I am not ashamed to admit I started searching walkthroughs in an effort to find Cyclops parts. Although you can make scanning rooms that can seek out fragments, it does not mean you will find the fragments you are looking for. I grew bored waiting for all of the Cyclops parts just to turn up through random luck.

My personal Subnautica to-do list was not empty, but it was getting shorter with each session I spent in the alien sea and eventually I couldn’t put off creating a Cyclops submarine. I christened my new mobile base the Deepshore. And then I was troubled, because it did not look like the Deepshore was going to solve the Hell Chamber problem.

You see, the Cyclops would not be able to make it down there. I could upgrade its default depth resistance from 500m to 900m, but that’s just Seamoth depth. If I wanted to upgrade it further, I needed a special crystalline material called kyanite. I had never seen kyanite in Subnautica.

I was left pondering whether to use the Prawn. The Prawn is an underwater exosuit that, with one kyanite-free depth upgrade, could survive to 1300m. But the Prawn is a weird thing as it cannot swim. You can hike along the seabed in it and, with the right upgrade, it can shoot out a cable which turns the Prawn into a clumsy, undersea webslinger. But if Spiderprawn fell into a deep hole, would it be able to climb back out?

So I thunk up a plan of docking the Prawn inside the Deepshore’s mobile vehicle bay, taking the Cyclops into the Lost River, then switching to the Prawn when I reached the pit. But could I bring myself to navigate my hard-earned Cyclops down those narrow passages straight into the jaws of a ghost leviathan? And would the Prawn really be able to hop across a lava sea?

No better suggestions came to me nor kyanite deposits. I steeled myself. Descending into the Lost River with the Cyclops and Prawn sounded like a nauseating dish of grief and danger. I had enjoyed the exploration so far but this mental hurdle took the wind out of my sails.

Subnautica went on pause. It was at risk of getting graveyarded.

*      *      *

For six months, I was unable to summon the strength to dive back into the waters of Subnautica, despite being unhappy at finishing my story there. After Subnautica’s generosity, I wanted to know what lay beyond the Hell Chamber at the very end of the game.

I had to commit to something like a New Year’s Resolution to get over this hurdle. Do more exercise, donate money to charity and finish Subnautica. When I opened up Subnautica again, I did something different. I clambered into the Prawn and went for a walk - I wanted to feel comfortable using the Prawn. Unintentionally, I embarked on a massive adventure across the Subnautica ocean floor.

I had more mobility than I had expected and my Spiderprawn could be fast across open ground with a well-timed jump and webslinging combo. I ended up travelling right up to the edge of the map and a ghost leviathan harassed me while I teetered on the brink. If I’d lost my footing, it would have been a sad end to Spiderprawn’s Big Day Out.

But I gained enough familiarity with the Prawn to be confident for a mission below the Lost River. Operation Hell Chamber was a GO.

I usually kept the Deepshore docked next to my original base in the Shallows - where it provided zero benefits. I felt like the Deepshore was too precious to risk out there in the field but what was the point of my clockwork leviathan unless I took it out there into the unknown? I needed to channel my inner Picard. Merde.

I rustled up some Bulbo trees just outside the Deepshore’s bridge to keep me fed and watered, boosted the storage with a few handmade lockers and loaded them up with all sorts of yummy resources. Then I set course for the Blood Oil beacon, the only entrance to the Lost River I’d marked.

The journey was quiet but tense. Nothing of note happened aside from having to navigate around a peaceful reefback leviathan.

Eventually, the dreaded moment arrived. The Deepshore reached the fissure. The Great Descent had begun.

*      *      *

I, uh, suspect the twisty and narrow blood oil trench was the worst approach to take. But it was my only real option at this point because it was the only one I had marked with a beacon. Such good life choices.

I dropped the Deepshore down gently, eyeing the sides of the trench through the battery of cameras strapped to the sub. I kept having to adjust the position, a nudge here and a nudge there, to ensure the Deepshore didn’t come a cropper on a rocky outcrops. I reached a plateau but this was not the end of the descent; you effectively have to head “around a corner” at this point. But then I bumped into an ampeel, an aggressive creature I knew was down here but I’d always given it a wide berth in the Seamoth. Oh, boy, it was bothered about a giant sub muscling in on its territory. Alarms sounded as the ampeel nipped at the Cyclops’ butt.

I considered my options and calmly chose panic. I rocketed away, trying to get out of harm’s way, but I wound up in a dead end. I was now wildly disoriented. The Deepshore seemed properly stuck, like that terrifying sensation of crawling into a narrowing tunnel and realising you might not be able to reverse course. And would the ampeel pop up again?

This was getting all too stressful so I took a moment. I shut down the engines, let go of the controls and ate some fruit. I swam outside to survey the area. I probably should have had a nap too.

I eventually dragged the Deepshore out of the dead end and pushed on through the ampeel regardless. The only defence I had was silent running but I doubt that would have smoothed relations with the ampeel if I’d rammed into it.

The thing is, when I was in the Seamoth, I was always worried I would get lost but never, ever did. I just continued to descend and moved horizontally when I needed to. Eventually the Lost River appeared, every time. This journey in the Deepshore was completely unrecognisable, like I’d crash dived into a parallel oceanverse. Out: the inevitability of reaching your destination. In: claustrophobia and disorientation.

I moved the Deepshore through a passage that seemed vertically narrow, which I recalled from my various Seamoth descents, but now I wondered whether the Deepshore could actually make it through. It was some relief when the passage widened and the familiar entrance to the Lost River appeared.

I was still unsure how much room I’d have to maneuver the Deepshore as the Lost River area wasn’t that cavernous. But of course, there was Mr. Crab.

The Lost River was the first time I’d encountered a crabsquid. During that first journey, I was curious as to its temperament. And, yeah, it’s temperament was I’m gonna kick yo ass. Somewhat more astonishing was the crabsquid’s EMP blast which could knock out the Seamoth’s electronics for a short period, leaving me dead in the water. After my first encounter, I made a point to hurry through the early section of the Lost River, so as not to antagonise its crabby resident.

And in a reprise of the ampeel incident, well, I was a bit bloody bigger this time and Mr. Crab was not having any of it. POW! The Deepshore was disabled. Then we powered up again and I was able to creep forward a few metres until another POW! The Deepshore was disabled. This was irritating but, fortunately, Mr. Crab also found the repetition disheartening and we agreed to go our separate ways.

In the Seamoth, I had got used to bumbling through the Lost River and winding up where I needed to be. Sometimes I would take a rather circuitous route to my eventual destination. Once again, things looked a bit different from the inside of a Cyclops and I got lost. This part of the journey was not as nerve wracking as the descent - although slipping past a ghost leviathan could certainly be lumped under the category of tense.

I parked the Cyclops at the top of a cave and took a break for a spot of resource gathering, as the Lost River is full of rare treasures. The main problem with my Spiderprawn, however, was that I’d replaced it’s grabber with the webslinging attachment. While you could drill and vacuum up a thick deposit, small loose rocks were completely beyond my Spiderprawn. I had to get out and grab it by hand - and the green goo in which these rare shinies are found is hellishly toxic.

After this relaxing diversion, I continued my confused sweep of the Lost River, searching for the tree. You know you’re almost there when you spot the ghost rays.

I took the Deepshore over to the tree, turned off the engines and jumped in the Prawn.

I peered over the edge of the pit and leapt.

*      *      *

I’d only braved this hot, lava channel once before and that time I was swimming. This time I was charging down on foot, a tad more tricksy as there were pockets of lava ready to burn your feet. Also the Prawn is an easy target for warpers, who spit wibbly-wobbly balls at you to teleport you right out of the suit. The lava tube harboured a number of warpers and if they caught you “in the air” over a lava pool, it could be trouble if the Prawn gently sunk into lava without a pilot to rescue it.

I also noticed these strange bugs clinging to the Prawn’s glass shell which annoyed the hell out of me. Get lost, bugs, can’t you see I’m busy here? These little tykes were called Lava Larva and, while I didn’t like them attaching to my Prawn, they didn’t seem to be causing any problems.

After a careful trudge across the base of the channel, I reached maw of the Hell Chamber. It was time to discover what was in--

Just metres in front of me, a number of cyan crystals were poking out of the ground. The elusive kyanite, at last. This meant I wasn’t going to explore the Hell Chamber with the Prawn; I would grab the kyanite, beef up the Deepshore’s depth protection and storm the Hell Chamber with the Cyclops.

There was much longer interlude at this point that you might have expected. Climbing back up to the Deepshore was not easy and warpers hit me more than once as I was making my way up. Once at the Deepshore, I spent time upgrading both the Prawn and Cyclops up to their maximum depth protection. Finally, it was time to take the Deepshore into the cave itself. Finally, we were going to find the alien containment facility and the cure to the plague. Finally, I would finish Subnautica.

And yet it didn’t work like that at all.

I nudged the Deepshore carefully into the hot red lava cavern, taking note of not just unfamiliar lizard-like creatures hopping around but also a distant roar. As expected, there was something else in here with me. Something big, probably and--

Oh. Ohhhh no. Ohhhh my heart.

An enormous monstrosity drifted into view, breathing fire. It hadn’t noticed me yet. I immediately switched to silent running and eased past it, with a few decoys on standby. I moved to the back of the huge cave and found… nothing. What? What was I supposed to find? What did I miss?

Reluctantly, I turned around. I was surprised to find my energy dropping fast but I was determined to find something in the Hell Chamber.

And there it was, another pit to descend, one which the leviathan was patrolling around. Lava streamed down the sides. I took a punt and descended. At the bottom, a passage which opened out to much larger cavern with a lava lake, monitored by yet another leviathan. But there was an alien facility on the other side of the lake! I wasn’t going to take the Deepshore over, it felt too dangerous; I shut the engines down and jumped into Spiderprawn.

I clung desperately to the edges of the lava lake. I was frequently attacked by lava lizards but more worrying were the warpers - this was a crazy dangerous place to get warped. I didn’t want the Prawn to end up as barbecued Prawn cocktail. But I was excited. This was why I had made this exhausting journey.

I made it to the facility just as the lake leviathan came in to attack. The good news? I was safe. The bad news? The facility was locked by an enormous bloody forcefield requiring a bloody blue tablet. I’d have made a joke about wishing I could “take the blue pill” but I was mortified that I’d travelled so far just to examine a locked door. Where was this fabled blue tablet? How could there be yet another place to find? Seriously?

In complete shock, I turned back and made a clumsy return journey to the Deepshore. It was a disaster. The Prawn fell too close to lava after some warper infractions and was destroyed.

Even better, when I reached the Deepshore it was lifeless, its power cells drained, even though I had turned the engines off. I’d reached my goal and been locked out. And now I was surrounded by lava and leviathans. Even if I’d had the Prawn, it was never going to make it back up the walls of the lava pit - but it did have its own power cells which could have been swapped into the Deepshore. As it was, I was entirely trapped.

Perhaps I could have made a base down there and attempted to tame the abyss. I might have had the materials but it’s all rather moot: the idea of making a base in a “hostile location” had never occurred to me, because I have never felt safe in bases.

The only way out was to swim with empty power cells in hand but I’d never survive it. If it wasn’t the heat that toasted me, it would be the leviathan who ate me. If it wasn’t the leviathan who ate me, it’d be the lack of oxygen that would asphyxiate me.

There was only one thing to do.

*      *      *

ALT+F4.

I hated to do it, but having to spend time making another Prawn, some extra power cells and making the journey all the way back down there, somehow safely across the lava cavern to the pit - it was out of the question.

I reloaded the game and the Deepshore was parked safely at the mouth of the Hell cavern, as if nothing had happened. As if I hadn’t died screaming in a yellow, metal coffin. Suspended over a lava lake. At the bottom of the ocean.

The mystery power drain was a concern and I made the call to kit the Deepshore out with a thermal reactor to counter it. Plus, if I parked anywhere, I’d rip out the power cells to keep them pristine. Eventually, I got round to Google searching about these mysterious power drains - turns out, despite feeling pretty pleased with myself for reading every piece of text Subnautica put under my nose, I had not studied the PDA entry for the Lava Larva closely. Yes, those tiny guys were responsible for killing my submarine. Despite knowing how to deal with the power drain, I still yanked out the power cells while I was away from the Deepshore in the Hell Chamber.

I was deep in thought over the blue tablet problem, though. There must be something else in the Hell Chamber and I was galvanised to explore it more thoroughly despite being infested with Giant Monsters. I used the sonar more liberally to improve visual clarity, although the sonar was thirsty for energy. And there it was, a tiny little entrance, easy to miss, in the side of a large black rock formation reaching out of the lava sea.

I parked the Deepshore over the entrance and headed in with the Prawn, despite the fire-breathing abomination swimming around. I was too scared to save the game anywhere, in case it was possible for the silent Deepshore to be attacked and torn to pieces while I was on excavation duty.

The giant cube facility inside the rock was impressive but actually pretty small - again I felt acute danger as it was positioned over a lava lake with warpers on guard duty. One false move and I’d lose Spiderprawn again. But I broke into the cube without much ado and it turned out to be the Alien Thermal Plant that powered everything around here. And within it I found my heart’s desire, the blue tablet.

The Great Descent was almost over. With tablet in hand, I headed back to the locked facility.

I was excited and, of course, Subnautica continued to be generous with its riches. This final facility took time to thoroughly explore. It wasn’t as labyrinthine as the gun platform, as it had a simple hub style layout: a central chamber with exits leading to various rooms.

The most mindbending surprise was the discovery of four portals which, once activated, led to locations all over the Subnautica map. Each portal’s endpoint was well-hidden and, if you hadn’t been exploring intensively in the area, you probably would not have twigged that an alien arch was just a few metres away. I hadn’t found any of them. It is this kind of discovery that is exhilarating.

Of course, these portals had a specific purpose. A Sea Emperor leviathan was trapped inside the alien complex - for experimentation purposes - and she wanted me to retrieve five ingredients for a baby hatching recipe. The portals took you to four of them.

Thus, The Great Descent was at an end. I was sent on a somewhat boring fetch quest and was then cured of the plague. Next, I switched off the alien gun and got to work on my escape vehicle, the Neptune rocket.

Subnautica was done.

Well, not quite. I knew I had missed another Degasi undersea base somewhere and ended up wiki-cheating to its location. I just wanted to see it before leaving the planet. Turns out I had been near it before and likely just missed it due to the murkiness on the monitor I was streaming onto during the early explorations (long story).

I rushed the building of the Neptune because I was now almost entirely disengaged from the game - the buildup to and execution of The Great Descent had taken a toll. I needed so many materials for the Neptune and ended up doing a lot of scavenging around the Lost River and farther afield. I probably should have built more scanning rooms to locate materials with speed but I just… I just wanted to go.

Yet, in the final gasping minutes of Subnautica, once again the developers came out punching. The Neptune was a rocket which would be used for literally one game over moment and yet had a gantry with a lift, several internal levels and could be customised. It even contained lockers for you take things with you on your escape which is functionally pointless from a game standpoint - there is no more game after you leave - but a lovely flourish, more love from developer to player. I was not expecting all this wonderful treasure in the game’s last moment but, as I’ve said before, Subnautica is a game that understands beauty. It even allowed you to choose some items, a message and a screenshot which might be sent to other players’ worlds.

My entire family watched as I built a giant pink rocket called the Starshot and strapped myself in.

I tapped the launch button and, after a short countdown, the Starshot's engines roared.

The Great Ascent had begun.

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Comments (30) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Ahhh this took me vividly back to my own experiencing of the final parts of the game… great article, well worth the wait.

    Interesting that you felt the need to take a cyclops down there, I personally never bothered. I just used my seamoth to take some materials down to the lost river tree cavern, where I built a base at the 900m mark, and then used my prawn for exploring from then on – that blue cavern just screamed ‘safe base location’. I also remember consciously noticing that, while I felt hamstringed in the prawn on the surface of the water, it was much more agile in the depths, due to roofs that you could use to grapple onto and spidey swing through the caverns. I couldn’t help but marvel at the way the devs had designed the prawn and the last few biomes to be perfectly matched.

  2. Hey Nate!

    I do look back on this adventure and think about how I probably made it a lot harder on myself because I was rushing. No Lost River base. No marking of alternate entrances. Few scanning rooms.

    However, I never considered just Spiderprawning it through the Hell Chamber. Was it tricky at all? Did you manage to climb back up the lava pit? That always seemed like it would be an impossible mission. Very intrigued! Especially as I know there are many Prawn haters out there.

  3. This was a great read

  4. I was very excited to read this, and, yes, a great read!

    Much like you, Joel, I didn’t build any bases or scanners down there. I explored the Lost River a lot before making that final plunge. I spent a long time down there exploring each chamber before pressing on so thankfully I was able to get into the final facility with blue tab in hand. I loved the Emperor Leviathan moment though. I did not expect such spectacle and quiet beauty down there. The fetch quest drained me and I too wanted to get off that rock as soon as possible. I’d been very resourceful and careful, making sure to pack as much stuff as I could on my descent so when I came up with a wealth of materials, I was able to get cracking with the Neptune almost straight away thankfully. The final line after the credits made me laugh a lot.

    It’s interesting to note I also had a break from Subnautica for a few months, but that was down to me losing the thread of where I should be going next. I was really struggling to find all the Cyclops blueprints as well. When Unknown Worlds pulled the plug on the radio communications I spent hours and hours trying to pick up the thread and that took its toll on me. I returned of course, and it didn’t take so long to get back into the groove.

    I still loved it, I’m just glad it wasn’t much longer!

  5. Also, the sound design is exceptional: https://youtu.be/EpEQWefFa2w

  6. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for the reply!

    > Was it tricky at all? Did you manage to climb back up the lava pit? That always seemed like it would be an impossible mission. Very intrigued! Especially as I know there are many Prawn haters out there.

    Actually no, I never managed or needed to climb back out of the lava pit, and after a bit of a learning curve it wasn’t too difficult to spider swing everywhere. I went down the lava pit assuming it would be a one way mission and that I was about to finish the game, and luckily never needed to climb out after I found the teleporters in the final alien base. I was a prawn hater for most of my playthrough too! It wasn’t until I was forced to use it to get underneath the brine, and then later the 900m mark, that I came to love it. Once I got used to the prawn’s unique mobility I felt indestructible, it was a great escalation of power in the final stage of the game.

  7. Gregg, I think we can all agree the sound design was excellent. It’s nice to know others out there got tied up in knots over the same things I did. I *think* I remember developer Megan Fox (Glass Bottom) tweeting that she was interested in the final part of the game because it forced you into territory infested with monsters. I guess there is a sense that Subnautica’s end does depart somewhat from its earlier experiences.

    Nate, that’s amazing. Even more amazing considering if you hadn’t collected the blue tablet you might have had to try to climb the pit!!

  8. I didn’t even *think* about dropping down there in my prawn suit. No chance. I was pretty good with the grapple hook but my gut instinct was ‘That abyssal trench is for the Cyclops, come back later in it.’ I repeat: I was careful!

    Oh I meant to say, I think the narrow chasm you entered the Lost River through was my main entrance too (and the only one I really knew). I was seeing the space in my head as you described it, including that precariously balanced wreckage and the teleporting creatures and ampeels. It gets deep dark blue down there until a green murk creeps in as you get closer to the Lost River. I think that chasm and descent was my post-break breakthrough.

  9. Spider-Manning with the Prawn suit works pretty great if you use two grappling hooks instead of just one. Gotta get out and swap arms to drill or shoot torpedoes, but well worth it.

  10. Ooo, I never thought of that! That sounds fun.

  11. I think what made the biggest difference in my experience was that I had built my Cyclops sub The Odysseus long before I got to the lava chamber so I had it fitted out really well as a mobile base and was used to navigating with it in tricky places. I drove using the external cameras a lot — which has the nice trade-off that you can’t see the radar warning you of dangerous creatures. (So well balanced this game, so many interesting decisions to make!)

    But then those energy leeches were horrifying, forcing me to go out and scrape them off frequently. But then I got the force shield which zaps them off and then the thermal reactor which makes you regenerate energy so fast they aren’t much bother. I hated those things, but they made that part of the game really exciting for a while.

    But I took the Odysseus all the way down to the very final facility, hugging the walls to creep past the Leviathan and eventually using my force-field to keep safe. Mostly only really needed the Prawn suit to mine resources and to get into the cube power station.

  12. That sounds like me too Anonymous, but I don’t think I got the thermal reactor. Maybe I did. Either way, yeah, I was prepared before going down there and hugged the walls too to avoid the leviathan class predators drifting around. I loved all the cameras on the cyclops and the feeling of size inside it. I hear silent running is great for avoiding the big fish but I never had the brass to rely on it, preferring to just get out of there full throttle!

  13. Thanks for finishing up this series, it was a great read. I was wondering if you had played Outer Wilds – it seems like you might enjoy it.

    Subnautica ended for me after the loss of my Seamoth (and valuable cargo) to a Reaper. At that point I’d visited the islands and scoured the wreck of the Aurora, and had a vague idea that the game wanted me to visit the depths …somewhere, but the thing that really killed it for me was having the blueprints for a bunch of equipment I was bound to need, but no indication of where to look for materials I had never seen. Despite having enjoyed the (gently directed) exploration I had done thus far, the task ahead felt tiring, and so I never quite got around to opening the game and rebuilding the equipment I had lost.

  14. Congratulations on finally completing this, Joel! A fitting end to your Subnautica series as it captures the thrill and terror of exploration that make the game so compelling… as well as the occasional exhaustion of hunting for specific blueprints and gathering resources to build That One Thing You Need.

    Since we’re all getting personal up in this comments thread: I took my Cyclops (bright green and purple for stealth purposes) into the Lost River from, I think, a big wide entrance that slowly descended, from somewhere in the Blood Thingy area, near where one of the other escape pods crashed. Getting past the Ghost Leviathan… went poorly, as I recall. I actually ended up with the Cyclops flipped (probably due to a geometry/collision bug, but as an experience it was fitting), on fire and flooding. I had to kill the game as I was literally stuck.

    Still, killing the lights, flipping to silent running, manning the sonar, checking the external cameras… I remember playing a few sub sims back in the 1990s when they still made sub sims, and none of them were anywhere near as evocative as piloting that honking great Cyclops through danger.

    Next time, I think, I actually parked the Cyclops outside the Blood River and walked the damn Prawn the rest of the way. I took a lot of supplies with me, of course. But when I discovered the warp gates I was pretty darned happy with my decision. Okay, strolling the Prawn back to base from a Warp Gate took a while, but everything was so much safer compared to the lava biome that it felt like a gentle day excursion.

    Have you checked out Below Zero at all? I pre-ordered as I enjoyed Subnautica so much and wanted to help make more. I don’t think it can ever recapture the same spark but I’m sure it will be entertaining. The opening section I played in the alpha towards the beginning of the year was a little odd, though, starting you off in a large base and then walking you through fifteen or twenty minutes of linear storytelling to get you to where Subnautica itself begins.

  15. Phew, sorry, crazy few days. Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

    Urthman

    Like Gregg, I didn’t think of using two grappling hooks! I was upset my ability to scoop up small rocks was ruined by having the grappling hook but I guess that was wake-up call to think of carrying around a bunch of attachments…? Which I never woke up to.

    My last hours with Subnautica were definitely marred with attempts not to “fix” problems but get through with the minimum fuss. Once I had silent running, I didn’t think of equipping my sub with anything else. I did have a decoys which I think I used once, but most of the time silent running saw me through.

    I found the cameras useful but also filled me with dead. I was constantly switching back and forth, wondering if I could see something in the gloom. And then there was always the potential for a jumpscare…

    haddoncd

    Hello! Everyone keeps telling me about Outer Wilds. I played the original prototype back in the day and was intrigued – I think it was Proteus’ Ed Key who gave me a personal nod to it. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna love the full version, I just haven’t made space for it on my schedule. I’ve been playing a bunch of Big Games this year which have hogged a lot of time (INFRA, Eastshade, Stephen’s Sausage Roll…) so not exactly sure when I’ll hit it up.

    Regarding how Subnautica story, I originally swallowed disasters when I was swimming. I lost some resources, but no big deal. Once I was lined up for losing a vehicle, uh… no. That’s when I started ALT+F4ing before the game saved the death to disk. I felt bad about that because I enjoyed embracing that early danger. I didn’t mind the “checkpointing” – that if I died, I just went back to my base and all the resources I’d recovered were lost. But I couldn’t deal with the “craft permadeath”. Yeek.

    Shaun

    Damn right, Shaun. Running around in the Subnautica sub does have that Das Boot tension. I can’t really comment on the other sub sims – the only one I played was Sid Meier’s Silent Service in 1987 (which I enjoyed).

    I like hearing both that I’m not the only person who got a little exhausted by some of the searching for blueprints and resources, but also that some found ways to keep the game alive, all the way to the end.

    I haven’t checked out Below Zero. Decided to keep my distance until it was more “done”. Slightly annoyed that the world was already awash with Subnautica videos and a massive wiki when it was “released”. The down side of early access! I guess we’re heading for the same cycle with Below Zero.

    Heard Tom Jubert had left the project. I didn’t pick up any vibes that there were bad reasons for it (he parted ways with Frictional over creative clashes) but I do wonder where that leaves our Subnautica followup.

  16. Holding back on Below Zero sounds wise. After a brief half hour with it earlier in the year, I’m doing the same.

    You really must play Outer Wilds. I think you would get a kick out of it, both the experience – adventure! mystery! discovery! gentle humour! – and various design decisions. Actually, I just want you to play it so I can see what you think of it. ;)

  17. I bought Outer Wilds just yesterday but not sure when I’m going to kick it off.

  18. I also bought Outer Wilds recently! HM, we should compare notes. I’ll need your wisdom.

    It’s funny about Subnautica, how each player’s experience differs slightly. I got the Cyclops LONG before I got a Prawn Suit, largely because I failed to realize that one of the scannable Prawn chassis was inside the Aurora wreck. Getting the Cyclops down into Hell Lake isn’t easy, and once I was there I resolved to stay until I figured out what was what. Since I’d kitted out my Cyclops as a mobile base–it even had a melon patch–I could technically live out of it, though even with the geothermal charger system, the Cyclops drains power faster than cell rechargers can fill. So I brought a bunch of extras along.

    So I wandered, and wandered, and wandered. I never found the hidden entrance to the Blue Tablet facility, which was all I really needed to reach the endgame. Instead, I found an alien computer that announced I’d be turning into a fish within the week, on account of the alien plague.

    Not wanting to be a fish and fearful that I’d accidentally triggered some sort of ichthyological doom-countdown, I ALT+F4’d and never got around to returning… which I must do some day. Maybe I’ll start over, since my memory has faded and it would all seem fairly new.

    Like you, HM, I have few actual complaints about Subnautica; even the fishy malaise that ultimately led me to drift away from the game, like a bottle containing an unread message heading forever back out sea, didn’t really count as a “negative.” It just was what it was. I’m certainly looking forward to the expansion!

    In the meantime, I have Outer Wilds and several back episodes of Side by Side to binge. It’s time to play catch-up!

  19. I know that Original Tropical Flavor Subnautica started as more of a free-form survival sandbox, but they ended up doing such an incredible job combining narrative and particular plot events with free-form exploration, balancing the survival mechanics, and creating opportunities for emergent drama (like shipwrecks with confusing layout that at some point you’re probably going to get turned around, forget which way is up, and come close to drowning), that I think it would have been a terrible shame to have started playing Subnautica before all of that was polished and complete.

    (Although I imagine much of the deepest endgame stuff was added last, so early players probably had some cool “there’s something new and dangerous in the depths” or “with this new mod, you can go deeper, if you dare” moments too.)

    With that in mind, I can’t imagine wanting to start playing around with Cool Arctic Blast Below Zero Flavor Subnautica before they’ve finished all that stuff.

  20. Outer Wilds has been one of my most anticipated games for a long time and it sounds like it turned out worth the wait, so I’m really looking forward to that one too.

    (Just make sure you give people a heads-up before tweeting too many screenshots :-)

    I think Joel and others who read this blog might also really, really like one of my favorite games of the year: Supraland. It combines puzzles that remind me of Portal and The Talos Principle (not in difficulty, but how they involve finding ways to get places and rewarding outside-the-box thinking) and the exploration and clever gadgets that can be used multiple ways—including opening “doors” and paths you didn’t even realize were blocked—(and the charm) of a Zelda game. And combat that reminds me of … Minecraft (okay, that’s the weak part).

    It is extremely clever, well-designed, and polished, with very satisfying movement mechanics. And surprisingly well-balanced rewards for finding secrets (as in, then never stop being worth something when you find them). And the writing is pretty good.

    And it was made almost entirely by one person.

  21. Supraland keeps popping up on my travels. It’s on my wishlist. Thanks for the recommend!

  22. Like Subnautica, Supraland doesn’t have a map or mini-map (doesn’t need one because you frequently get high vantage points and there are lots of huge landmarks that can be seen from all over the place).

    (It’s also really good about not getting in the player’s way. There’s no inventory screen, no upgrade tree. If you want to buy something from a shopkeeper, it will be laying out on the table with a price tag and you can just grab it and go. You don’t have to talk or go through a menu. The little characters have a line of dialogue in a speech balloon the first time you see them. If you didn’t catch it, you can click on them to read it again, without getting stuck in a dialogue menu.) (Sorry, feel free to delete this if I’m getting too off-topic.)

  23. “Sorry, feel free to delete this if I’m getting too off-topic.”

    lol

  24. Official Electron Dance comment policy–don’t worry Urthman, you’re cool.

  25. Steerpike

    It really is good to hear that I wasn’t the only one who lost their way with Subnautica. I mean, I loved that game a TON, but so much at the end felt like work. Games involving crafting often involve a lot of grind, one way or another, and Subnautica had avoided so much of it until the end. Finding resources is one thing, but having to hunt down blueprints without a wiki just wasn’t good times. I couldn’t find an entrance to the Aurora for the longest time, so I was Prawn-less until quite late. And even then, I missed one of the Prawn tech specs on the original sweep and realised I had to go back in.

    Aside: I love how the Aurora’s interior is really big; what I didn’t like is that it felt a bit like the bases – all a bit vague and boring. That’s not what made Subnautica exciting.

    Man, maybe I can get started on Outer Wilds as a Christmas present to myself…

    Urthman

    Oh, yes, the shipwrecks with the confusing layout. I certainly had some dangerous moments in some of the larger hulks! But, yes, a lot of Subnautica is just so perfect, I’m too selfish to offer myself as one of the many testers who are making Subnautica Below Zero perfect for everyone else.

    I don’t think I’ve heard of Supraland before now. Just clicked on it and the trailer is cute but it really doesn’t sell what I’m hearing in the comments here. So, thank you, I’ll note it down for future reference…

  26. I’ve blasted off a few times into the Outer Wilds. Not enough to really get going, but enough to see why Gregg and Xtal over at Tap-Repeatedly were so delighted by it. It is tantalizing and mysterious and very good-natured; there’s an odd parallel, even, between it and Subnautica insofar as you spend some time just wandering around looking for things in both games. Neither is exactly aimless, but neither are you sticking to any sort of specific roadmap. You go where the wind/tide/gravity/first-gen rocket booster takes you, and you see what you see there. It works in Outer Wilds because you sense there’s a vast mystery made of many pieces that can be uncovered in any order.

    In Subnautica it works for a while, but like you I eventually became frustrated looking for that one last piece of something I desperately needed: a Moon Pool fragment became my Everest early on in the game. Later, I enjoyed the base building to an extent, but the amount of titanium needed to build a new one in the Lost River area was so staggering I preferred to just live out of the Cyclops.

    Something I’d like to see: a game that includes base-building where actually BEING IN your base — or LIVING in it, or whatever — is part of the experience. I enjoy constructing in Minecraft or Subnautica, but at the end of the day you really only need a tiny space to store your stuff and build other stuff, so all that hard work to build a really lovely and livable space can ultimately feel a bit facile. The idea of having a lair you actually lurk in appeals to me, but it would have to be done right. I and a group of co-op friends are seeing this to some extent in 7 Days to Die; that’s a game where the base is critical and house-mouse characters have plenty do to “on-site,” and can still earn XP for the group even if they’re not out lootsploring every day.

    Looking back on a game as good as Subnautica, it’s certainly easy to zero in on elements that weren’t perfect, but like you I was largely in awe of the game and I don’t resent the fact that I eventually lost interest. Also like you, I prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting to tune Below Zero to a similarly idealized state. :)

  27. I only know about Supraland because John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun really loved it. It seems to have been ignored a lot of places, so I’ve been banging on about wherever I can. I don’t know how you can put into a trailer “This game is astonishingly clever and well-made.”

    https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2019/04/16/supraland-review/

  28. I think the emergent, free-form design that makes Subnautica so good inevitably entails risking the player getting stuck by some bad luck. It feels so good to discover things precisely because it seems like you might have missed them. (The trick might be to make the “seems like you might have missed them” more of an illusion, or to have back-ups you never see if you don’t need them?)

    I went almost the entire game without beacons (using the scanning room remotes as a range-limited substitute) because there was a wreck very nearby I forgot to go back to when I got the blowtorch. It made finding my way even harder than it was for some people, but obviously still better than missing an important Prawn or Cyclops blueprint. I’d used the scanning room more to look for blueprints, I would have found it pretty quickly, though.


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