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.
* * *
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.