Not Recommended for Those With Thalassophobia.
Alma’s unsettling appearances in the first F.E.A.R. game. My decision to quit and never come back thanks to the constant aura of smothering terror in the P.T. Demo. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem trying to convince me that my TV was on the blink. All of these are examples of video games getting under my skin, giving me that sense of tingling anticipation that something truly horrible is about to happen. The three games mentioned above are pillars of horror in video games. Subnautica is not even classed as a horror game. It’s an open-world, survival-crafting experience with bright, cartoony graphics, but that first play-through was spent in an almost perpetual state of near-unbearable dread.
It might just be me, but it’s the open ocean that does it. Those endless, unknown depths. Those distant, unidentifiable sounds. That grasping, limitless, suffocating void filled with leviathans horrific beyond imagining just waiting to suck you into their inescapable, cavernous maws. Subnautica has its light-hearted moments, and is enjoyed by players of all ages, but if the idea of dangling alone in a pitch-black, watery abyss is as unappealing to you as it is to me, then this game will absolutely terrify you.
Enough about my weakness to water, though, let’s talk about the game. Subnautica is set on an uncharted planet known as 4546B, whose surface is almost entirely composed of a vast, deep ocean. When the spaceship you’re on crash-lands on this watery world, you find yourself stranded and alone with only the cold, computerised voice of your PDA assistant for company. The game will offer up a few hints and markers early on, but you’re pretty much on your own. It’s nice and safe in the floating escape pod that brought you to the planet, but those hunger and thirst meters are ticking down already, and hanging around there isn’t going to get you back home. It’s time to explore.
Once you get your bearings you’ll start to understand what you need to do to survive. Important tasks include hunting for edible fish, creating potable water, and scavenging for equipment to help you explore. You’re probably going to drown. A lot. It’s all too easy to get distracted while searching for resources, and end up misjudging how long it will take you to get back to that distant, glistening surface before your air supply runs out. However, search enough wreckage and harvest enough materials from the local flora and fauna, and you’ll soon be able to upgrade your equipment and leave the comfortable shallows, heading deeper and wider. Persevere, and you’ll discover that there are quite a few surprises out there.
Survival/crafting games don’t tend to put too much emphasis on the story, but Subnautica is very different in that regard. Through audio recordings and interesting discoveries, you’ll start to piece together a very interesting tale about the planet’s history and ecosystem, and will become embroiled in a surprisingly deep and involved mystery. As the plot threads unravel, new plans and blueprints will become available too – from more advanced air-tanks to a mighty submarine called the Cyclops, all of these gadgets help to let you go deeper and deeper into the abyss, where you’ll finally get to the bottom of the compelling mystery.
Another thing that you can do to help keep yourself alive is build an underwater base (or a series of bases), where you can craft, plan, or just take a breather in relative safety. As long as you keep your base powered, you won’t run out of oxygen, and you can build such helpful devices as battery chargers, storage containers and water purifiers. These bases have a nice, clean, futuristic aesthetic, to which you can add decorative items such as beds, plant-pots, and even aquariums, and if this building aspect really appeals to you, there is a “creative mode” in which you can work on huge, underwater complexes with no restrictions.
Its cool and everything, and constructing a vast, aquatic utopia is an interesting aspiration, but Subnautica is really about the moments. That moment when you swim out into the open ocean and the sea floor drops off into an abyssal trench, and you hear a shrieking, haunting cry out in the murky blue. That moment when you go to a new biome for the first time and the PDA voice informs you that you’re in the migratory path of leviathan-class lifeforms. That moment when you’re exploring in your compact submersible and a dreaded Reaper Leviathan appears from nowhere, grabs your craft and shakes it around like a dog with a chew toy. That moment when you realise that maybe you weren’t the first sentient being to splash down on this planet after all…
Subnautica is absolutely packed to the gills with memorable and awe-inspiring experiences. Most of them invoke negative feelings like loneliness, isolation and dread, but there is wonder too, and a real sense of adventure and discovery. When I finally finished the game and was given the opportunity to leave the planet behind, despite feeling unease and anxiety for practically my entire adventure, I suddenly didn’t want to go. When it was finally time to escape the terrifying deep, I found that I didn’t want to leave this beautifully dangerous world behind. I think they call it Stockholm syndrome.
Played on PS4