The Terrible Loneliness of Subnautica

In the dark wet depths below, I find a pair of outcroppings; brittle sandstone fragments that jut out from the side of a crevasse. I check my gauges to get a bead on how my oxygen reserves were tracking.

I could surface now and come back down with air enough to stay for a while, or I could roll the dice and hope I still have enough to last until I got what I needed, with enough breaths to spare.

I stay, striking my scanner against the first rock. Copper is no wash, but neither is it the metal that I  hoped for. Thirty seconds my alarm warns. I swim over to the other rock and apply force enough for it to crumble. This time the glint is silver. I finally have the elusive metal, the one that will let me begin to make this world a home.

With precious few seconds of air remaining, I begin my ascension, unsure if this new dimness is my vision blacking out as I breathe my last, or an encroaching dusk waiting to greet me above the blue line.

There are no life lines. There is no rescue team. Nobody can save me, but me.

Subnautica is a gorgeous survival game with a different spin – one that puts you in the middle of a very alien planet that is almost completely submerged. It literally drops you onto the planet with minimal resources, and those it does provide are gone quicker than you realise.

The speed with which you can lose that buffer it gives is lightning quick, a fact that soon makes learning how to subsist on the planet a necessity.

While you can hop into a more forgiving game mode if you like, finding food and water becomes a priority in normal and hardcore play, more so than expanding your capacity for movement and exploration. Oxygen tanks and other attire will make the search easier, but it is a constant concern even once the game moves more heavily into its exploration and building play.

Once staying hydrated and staving off hunger are manageable, exploration becomes a means to find resources. Whether they’re the materials used for crafting and construction, or if they’re the discovery of new technology, crafting in Subnautica is innately intertwined with survival.

Constructing a base, building tools and creating vehicles are ways to stay alive, gather more resources, or travel further, and the link between crafting and survival is so tight that one rarely moves far without affecting the capacity of the other.

Subnautica has been on Steam Early Access since the end of 2014, but was only added to the game preview suite on Xbox One in May 2016. Since those early days, there have been countless updates on Steam, and four significant updates on Xbox to bring the two versions into parity.

As with other games spread across preview programs, it is the Steam version of the game that is the lead platform, with content patches coming to Xbox some time later.

There are allusions to a story, but in its early state this is a mood provided, and not yet a compelling narrative. As a surviving crew member of a large capital that crashed on the planet, you explore the deep, occasionally finding messages from others who crashed on the planet, only to find that you are too late.

They are never there waiting to be found, and your journey is permanently alone. You are there eventually, but always too late and forever alone.

It is both tranquil and haunting, with the casual exploration side of the game providing a sense of peace yet conveying an all-encompassing sense of emptiness. If you count the denizens of the deep, you’re constantly surrounded, but you aren’t there with other people, real or virtual.

By the time you uncover one of the derelict bases it becomes obvious that not only are you alone, but that it isn’t the first time the planet has been touched by humans, and that you’re very much going to stay alone.

The distances between attractions and the time in which hazy water or a horizon of lapping waves make it seem more isolated. Moments of frenetic thrashing with aquatic predators do steal you away from introspection as survival becomes a greater concern, but they are also temporary. Once they’re behind you, it is back to the wide blue nothing.

As you build and explore, none but the swimmers will ever see it, and only you will ever explore it. You are the only audience of your creations, and you are all alone.

This may change once the game dives deeper into its story, or presents a winning scenario, but for now Subnautica brings a sense of hopelessness. You survive, you overcome obstacles that might have crushed you before, but nothing you do will matter to anyone but yourself.

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