From this month’s newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

Who do I resent more when I am in the grip of an addictive game loop? The game designer or myself? Because Subnautica has me, boy does it. That first time I played I was just supposed to dabble with it in front of my children for about an hour but continued for the rest of the night, completely destroying my evening schedule. One involving sleep.

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

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!

19 thoughts on “Discussion: Gold to Lead

  1. Sticking strictly with survival games, my first few playthroughs of The Long Dark felt magical, as I gradually learned what was necessary to stay alive, keep my body heat up, stay fed, not fall through thin ice, etc. The first time I kept a character alive for eight days seemed very special to me, probably because I don’t think I’ll ever have the incentive to do it again. The magic went away after that. I’ve tried to work up the motivation to stick with the Story Mode (or whatever they’re calling it) now that it’s there, but it’s not as compelling as simply staying alive was on my first few tries.

    (And thanks for reminding me I have Subnautica in my Steam collection. Apparently I played it for 33 minutes back in 2016 and meant to pick it up again, then forgot that it existed.)

  2. That Kotaku article makes it very, very clear how badly the GDC treated Nolan Bushnell. When are people going to finally start standing up against these Twitter nobodies instead of instantly giving in to them?

  3. Hello Chris,

    I have another short thing to write about Subnautica + The Long Dark – in fact this newsletter was supposed to be it, but when I realised I was merging two quite different topics I chose this one. I haven’t played The Long Dark but it has always sounded like a game I need to engage with at some point. Both feel related to my beloved Miasmata.

    With Subnautica, after a little experimentation, it’s not particularly difficult to survive – it’s nowhere near as harsh as The Long Dark (from what I hear). However, to progress beyond a bare bones existence, you must push yourself into risk. At present, Subnautica seems to be less a survival game but more about self-improvement. That may change. There are some… omens.

    But sounds like your player personality is similar to mine: exploring systems is usually more fun than becoming proficient at them.

    Hi Kirsty,

    I’ll be honest, I’m not really into awards. It’s often difficult to see how influential or important individuals are and so much of what we know and love are team efforts or the culmination of designs that have been refined over the years. I cited Lewis Mumford in the book criticising patents as “a device that enables one man to claim special financial rewards for being the last link in the complicated social process that produced the invention”.

    And I don’t know how I feel about Nolan Bushnell. I was an Atari child but what Bushnell created eventually collapsed under its own hubris. I was more annoyed that Bushnell did the thing that almost every successful startup does – act like we’re the best because we were in the right time and the right place to win big. I am allergic to lionising entrepreneurs because for every success there’s a thousand failures; it’s worshipping numbers on a roulette wheel. And I’m not sure I could agree with a lot of things I’ve heard Bushnell say over the years.

    So when the #NotNolan thing started up, it was the first time I heard he was going to get some GDC award I didn’t care about. Awards are important to other people, of course, so it would be churlish to say this didn’t matter; awards can define what an industry or culture considers important or wishes to promote. I didn’t read the story very closely but it struck me that you could probably pull any big entrepreneur from that time and end up with a similar story. But if we were going to keep Nolan Bushnell out of an award for the reasons stated we might have to give up awards for anyone historically. Winston Churchill has recently come under renewed fire because of a new movie about him (really, can we stop making dramas about Churchill yet). Seeing the past through today’s prism has good and bad effects; we recognise the progress we’ve made but at there’s a tendency to take past achievements and smear the prevailing culture of the time across them. What would stand up? What are awards for? Celebrating individuals? Achievements? Electing role models? All of the above?

    The excellent Kotaku article doesn’t address this, of course. Neither does it come to any conclusions; it is ambiguous enough to draw whatever conclusions you seek. However, it does suggest that, despite excesses, Atari was one of the more progressive actors around. But I’ve also read that the idea of elevating a company that became synonymous for “hot tub meetings” is the problem. But then again, Atari wasn’t synonymous with that for me, not until #NotNolan blew up and I was told it should be a problem. Is #NotNolan, then, circular logic?

    Nevertheless, it comes down to what awards represent. I can’t speak to that because I’m contemptuous of awards in general (although I’d obviously accept anything was willing to give me). But it seems to me that if you want awards to celebrate moral fibre, you’re going to end up with a very short list, especially if we’re looking back historically.

    I was in two minds about including the link at all, but it was a well-researched piece and I didn’t have much else in the link kitty this month. I find discussions on these issues exhausting and not without risk to those involved on either side. There is every possibility this will happen in the comments here. All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.

  4. I’m not a survival-game-guy. Like many others, I danced with Minecraft in its beta (and presumably still own a copy, technically, I’d think?), danced with Minecraft videos in their early heyday, and then more-or-less realized it wasn’t for me.

    I think I briefly dance with all stripes of survival game. It’s usually in search for that magic moment—you identify that moment of being lost in a deep cave in Minecraft. For me, I think it’s definitely the moment RIGHT after that, when you finally find your way out of the cave and reach the surface, realize that you’ve made it back with all your ores and mysterious gewgaws which rumble with importance in your inventory screen. That’s the Minecraft magic that I found.

    Subnautica has a different magic, and it’s completely captivated me more than any other survival game I can think of. I had shades of this with Terraria, but it’s the base building in Subnautica. It feels so GOOD to make a high-functioning, beautiful base in just the right spot. In my late-game I build a deep sea base (which i dubbed GHOSTBASE OMEGA) at 900m, which was not only a challenge (there are depth modifiers on base hull-strength, so deepsea bases need to be approached and fortified with a pronounced level of attention) but provided a great luxury near later-game content.

    These are the reasons I can fathom for my Subnautica love (pun most specifically intended):

    1) none of the base building is destructive. all your base parts can be recycled, and can literally be carted off to build an identical base elsewhere. aside from some specialized materials (like computer chips, which cannot be reduced back to their elements), it’s freeing to know that you’re not punished for your decisions, and rebuilding base enclosures and accessories is snappy and feels great.
    2) the narrative elements are sparse but very well positioned, with effective writing and a snarky AI companion that is used sparingly.
    3) it’s spooky. there’s weirdness down there, some critters large and small which can prickle your neck hairs.
    4) hunting is not emphasized: the only creatures which return a resource when killed are small edible fish (which are identified as edible in your PDA after scanning). You’re not made to kill 20 murlocs for 40 murloc fins to make a gun. the sealife is there mostly to be observed, admired, and/or feared.
    5) the gating is brilliant, and mostly self-directed. progress achievements feel weighty and meaningful, with some fairly inspired rewards in place (a resource for much better gear, a transportation method, etc).

    All these things conspire to create what, for me, is the undisputed King of Survival Games.

    You be careful, Joel, because it’s consumed 60 hours of my life so far (tho I think I’m close to end-game). To me, this is a preposterous amount of time for a game in this genre, but I’ve enjoyed those 60 hours immensely.

  5. oh my God a fathom joke – the door is over there

    Hello again Leo,

    Every now and then I’m tempted to go back to Minecraft because there’s plenty more in there to discover and I hadn’t finished working on my railway (especially with the hyperfast Nether Expressway).

    I am still pretty early on and base building is quite basic. It was nice to make a base but it seemed really hollow and empty. More lonely than the tight space of the escape pod. I haven’t quite got to the stage of naming them because everything feels temporary. But you know I do wish I could scrawl names over areas 🙂 I don’t want to get too much into the details here as I feel I’ve still got a lot to go. But yeah, out there in the darkness, down there in the darkness… things look kinda freaky.

    I prefer the full first-person experience, so I’m not sure if I like something like Terraria, Don’t Starve or The Flame and the Flood. That just means I should fire up The Long Dark when I get a chance.

    Oh and I did tweet something along your final paragraph’s lines when I started Subnautica.

  6. Don’t forget: you can build signs, if i’m not mistaken (I don’t really do this, myself, but I think you can place them wherever you want to name things, like some all-powerful all-judging KING OF NAMES or something)

  7. “But sounds like your player personality is similar to mine: exploring systems is usually more fun than becoming proficient at them.”

    Yes, this is largely true. But it also depends on what the game lets me do with those systems once I’ve begun to learn them. I’ve found myself replaying IOI’s 2016 Hitman compulsively more than 200 hours in because, although I’ve learned the systems available to me and become fairly adept with some of them, they set up explicit challenges for the use of those systems that keep enticing me to push the limits of my proficiency. While, for me, The Long Dark was all about the systems themselves, with the only challenge being survival time, and therefore ceased to be interesting once I’d survived long enough to prove I could do it.

    The Long Dark’s Story Mode is an attempt to fix that by giving you “meaningful” things to do with the systems, but so far I haven’t found the story meaningful enough to keep playing just for the sake of the few goals it’s given me up to this point. I have to wonder if that would have still been true if the Story Mode had been part of the game when I picked it up in Early Access and learned how to play it. But then I would no longer have been learning the systems strictly for the sake of survival and learning them instead as a means to achieve plot goals (as opposed to Hitman’s “challenges,” which have very little to do with plot). This would have felt very different and might well have been less interesting.

    If you haven’t played The Long Dark yet, I recommend you go with the Sandbox Mode first.

  8. Yeah, I’ve heard very much the same thing about The Long Dark too: avoid the Story Mode and go Sandbox.

    I’m a first-person guy generally but I enjoyed The Flame in The Flood for the most part. It gets a bit cumbersome later on with your inventory and once you’ve worked out various tricks it’s hard to trip up. I liked the forward momentum of the river/flood though, constantly pushing you towards The End.

    The biggest issue I have with most survival games is the crafting and how it becomes this big menu game of stockpiling crap and jamming it together while internalising recipes and shopping lists. You’ve got to do a really good job of the UI to make that stuff tolerable, let alone enjoyable for me.

    I played Terraria with friends far longer than I expected to and I just felt like I spent most of my time chipping away at the earth and filling my pockets with hundreds of dirt blocks and other materials while trying to work out what crafting stations did what. The Heath Robinson UI didn’t help either. I will say that discovering new chambers and caverns was, at times, exciting, but those moments were surrounded by a lot of dull repetition.

    I never really got into Don’t Starve, and don’t think I ever starved in it either, but I did go insane nearly every time. Never worked out how to prevent that within the game itself though.

    Does Sir, You Are Being Hunted count? Or is that getting too close to STALKER territory? Either way, I found it evocative, tense and refreshingly crafting-free.

    Miasmata is the one for me though. The handful of roughly hewn but well thought out systems rubbed together in ways that created these illuminating sparks of joy, terror and awe. The whole thing was held together my a simple objective: cure yourself. “How? Oh! Hmm. Ah, okay. Right then…”

    Actually, on reflection, you know what? I think I need an end to these games; something to work towards and be able to close the loop. I need ‘My name’s Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate!’ to get me on my way, to point me in a direction. Subnautica seems like it might tick a lot of my boxes.

  9. I haven’t really played a survival game advertised as such yet, but I have spent several hundreds of hours in Skyrim heavily modded with survival mods. I used the mods to increase the resource gathering requirements eg by lowering carrying capacity and adding the need to eat and drink, stay warm, take baths etc.

    I found this grind to stay alive so much more interesting than the grind for increased power in the base game. Perhaps because I was role playing outside the main storyline, using the Live Another Life mod to start a series of characters with totally different goals. If I’m a Redguard archaeologist with an interest in Dwemer artifacts, I’ll learn to live off what you can find in and around Dwemer ruins as part of the job.

    I’m excited to play Subnautica soon, it sounds like the very light touch story will suit me perfectly.

  10. Leo

    Oh I didn’t think of planting signs outside of bases. Then again, I wonder how useful they are in such an open 3D space. I was using a chain of pipes as a navigation aid and they were actually pretty difficult to see, so a solitary sign probably isn’t useful unless I can somehow make it Las Vegas sized! (Subnautica team, feature request)


    I do wonder, also, that fascination with games full of responsive systems is just a resurgence of The Simulation Dream. I was watching Mark Brown’s video on systemic games and I’m not sure it really conveyed how hard it is to make all those systems really useful and important. He did cite that in Metal Gear Solid V he ended up sniping through most missions and that’s a key point. Are the systems engaging?

    Miasmata had a story and it wasn’t that gripping – but trying to navigate across the island, inch by inch of exploration, was the best thing ever. I’m not sure how Subnautica pans out yet but Tom Jubert was a writer on the project – the real reason I’ve had it on my radar for years – who was writer on the original Penumbra, The Swapper and co-writer on The Talos Prinicple. Fun fact: Gregg B and I met in the comments of Tom Jubert’s blog.

    Thanks for The Long Dark suggestion.


    If there’s one thing my puzzle exploration has revealed, it’s that when I say I hate a particular game type. I actually hate a lot of those games, but probably not all. I’m might indeed get on with something like The Flame in the Flood, but the idea of 2D survival adventure doesn’t excite me in the way that Minecraft does, of exploration in surround-o-vision.

    But if there’s one thing Minecraft has to answer for, it is the explosion of crafting systems which are tricky to be fun. Carting around massive inventories hoping for matches can be a right pain. They can feel so utterly artificial sometimes, like the developer is right there in front of you, wiping out that sense of Being There. So far, Subnautica seems to feel level-headed, although “getting down to gathering resources business” took me out of the moment somewhat. And the game won’t let you build things you don’t know how to build – it’s strongly gated and doesn’t offer experimental alchemy. Minecraft was the only one I felt got that alchemy right, but only in the beginning stages: later on I just wanted to know all the cool shit I could make.

    HA HA “Heath Robinson UI” oh my GOD, Gregg, how on fucking God’s Earth did that game succeed?

    I don’t know about Sir; I’ve not played it. I didn’t get the impression that was a “survival” game in the sandboxy, get-stuff-to-stop-dying sense. Hey, anyone tried The Forest? That was a Miasmata-like mentioned to me way back in the day.

    This early in Subnautica, Gregg, I can stay alive very easily. There’s no “reason” aside from personal curiosity to go digging around in the depths and making things harder. In a sense, that’s the problem with a survival game that has no end: if you achieve a type of systemic equilibrium where you shouldn’t die, there isn’t much point playing a survival game any more. So they must either end or shaft you with a little randomness, a la a roguelike.


    Yo, hello! I totally agree there’s a lot of joy to be found in increasing the grit in games, particularly if it’s a concoction you’ve crafted up personally. My own particular secret is not to reload a saved game at the first sign of trouble. You can get away with this in most modern games – you don’t end up in unwinnable states, so you can live with mistakes. The mistakes are what make things so much more interesting and unique and a pure run generated through save scumming wipes out.

    I only reloaded Subnautica a couple of times when I was doing something particularly crazy several but it’s actually a pain to quit out of the game and reload – it’s actually a really slow process. Subnautica won’t stop you doing this, but won’t help you either. That’s fine with me.

    (I’ve never played Skyrim. TL;DP)

  11. Joel, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend that you play base Skyrim now if residual feelings for the Elder Scrolls universe hadn’t pulled you in by now. But if anyone reading played and enjoyed it for a bit but felt that the main story was too lame to support the role playing you need to do to immerse yourself in the world, I highly recommend looking for inspiration at the modding community and at character guides like this and this.

  12. Kfix: I play Skyrim more for the exploration than for the story, but I didn’t think the story was *that* lame. Thanks for those character builds, though. I’ll have to try them. Yes, after nearly seven years I still occasionally play Skyrim. (It took an embarrassingly long time for me to realize that the werewolf form has its own skill tree. Now I feast on corpses every chance I get.)

    RE: The Long Dark. The devs are apparently aware of the problems with the story mode and in their latest Dev Diary indicate, after making some excuses about how it was always supposed to get better with the third episode, they’re now rewriting the first two episodes in response to player feedback. It sounds like the changes haven’t been pushed past the test branch yet, but when they are I plan to start the story mode again from scratch.

  13. Christopher: The skill trees for werewolf and vampire were only added with the Dawnguard DLC, so maybe the first time you went furry they just weren’t there? Either way, there’s so many moving parts to those games that you shouldn’t feel at all bad. I’ve racked up well over 800 hours now across several versions and keep going back to build a new character every year or so and I still find new things even in the base game (although with so many mods now I get confused as to what that even is sometimes).

    I guess I didn’t do a good job there of describing my issues with Skyrim. I love the lore of the Elder Scrolls and the layers that are piled into the world in books and environments, and I love polite discussions about the politics and strategy behind Ulfric’s decision to demand the validation of Talos worship and precipitate the civil war (opinions vary on this).

    What’s annoying from a role playing POV, and of course this is not an original observation about this or many other games, is that the way the story is delivered in the game requires you to be ok with a petty thief becoming the most powerful person in the land in a few weeks, but who also has to start at the bottom of the next guild you join.

    Which is why I much prefer the tighter role playing character builds I do now, rather than trying to do everything with one eventually all-powerful character.

  14. “TL;DP” haha!

    I remember trying to use a mod that removed the GPS style marker map out of Skyrim so it became this physical thing in your hands. I was hoping to inject a bit of Miasmata’s sense of being lost and having to engage with the geography of the land to get around (lol!) but I just couldn’t get it working, and it’s not like it had the supporting systems to really wring the most out of that. There were a lot of other aspects I didn’t like about the game however that ultimately stoved-in the experience (dull characters, mushy combat, a hideous UI etc). “Dude, you’re just playing the wrong game. Put down the mods” came to mind.

    I expanded upon some of Fallout 3/New Vegas’ survival elements with mods and that worked a lot better than expected, but it still never felt quite right because neither of them had been designed from the ground up as survival games.

  15. So I’ve never played Skyrim simply because if I played it, I’d have nothing to write about for months. It’s the reason I’ve stayed away from Mass Effect even though I think I’d really enjoy it. Of course, games sometimes get the better of me – and here we are with Subnautica. I have copies of Morrowind and Oblivion in my Steam library which were purchased for like near-zero-pennies. I spent about half an hour in Morrowind making a character and it was like, okay, see you later. And later never came. Maybe one day…

    Should I go into these games for story? I’ve seen more of Subnautica’s story now and I have the same feeling: the execution is absolutely exceptional, but I’ve seen nothing new. There are no surprising story beats thus far and I’m going to write about a particular event soon. Uh, damn, what happened to Ouroboros…!

    The Subnautica nav markers are minimal and Gregg it actually gives you a lot of control over them.

  16. Joel: So you never play big honking games? That may explain why I so rarely post to my blog. I play these 100 hour games then decide to play the rest of the series and before you know it six months have passed and I still haven’t decided what I want to say about them. I think you may have found the better approach. And I really need to get serious about Subnautica because you make it sound fascinating. I played it for a while the other night and now I can’t remember what happened. (Maybe I shouldn’t take the sleeping pill *before* I play the game…)

  17. I used to play big games – I spent a lot of time in Far Cry 2, for example – but since I started writing for Electron Dance I found that spending too much time with one game left me with nothing to write about. I’ve got a book on the go, film work, writing an article a week, a 7am-5pm job and a busy family life… the time for games just isn’t there! By the time I’ve finished the game, I wouldn’t be sure if I’d have anything intresting to write that hadn’t already been said. It becomes the equivalent of working 50 hours for one post… that no one will read! When you just start out on Subnautica a few weeks after it goes gold and tweets are already coming through with “cool enjoyed the 60 hours I spent on the game”. Gah, I forget how quickly people finish games when they’re young and childless.

    The games win, sometimes. I spent so many hours in Minecraft and but Minecraft is pretty much done from a writing perspective. I tried my best. Dark Souls, also, but I stopped at Blighttown and haven’t been back. And The Witness was no short jaunt. Lest we forget what Neptune’s Pride did to my life so many years ago…

    Still it’s short-sighted: by not playing Skyrim I don’t really understand the phenomenon.

    *sigh* but Subnautica, it’s like the perfect game. I can’t really complain. I’m gonna try, though.

Comments are closed.