When I was a child, I loved to dream up imaginary worlds to play in. Sometimes, when I would translate these worlds from the imaginary into reality, they'd become pillow forts and Nerf guns or they'd be represented on a smaller scale with Lego blocks. As video games evolved from platformers like Super Mario Bros. to games like Castles, I started to recognize the opportunity they represented for expressing my imagination and creativity. Clearly, I wasn't alone in thinking this way either. In the last twenty years or so, video games have multiplied exponentially, providing many new worlds for me to explore. Much loved of those games are The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Dwarf Fortress, and most prominently Minecraft.
Minecraft gave me and others the ability to create worlds of infinite size using the basic rules provided to us. It was simple - a first-person sandbox survival game where I could build whatever I felt like. It was a challenge to me, an experience only I could make, but it lacked depth. After a time, I felt restrained by the rules of the game and looked to expand my experience through the use of modifications which introduced player-made, often more complex rule sets. These modifications helped, but didn't address the root of my problem, that being that Minecraft was a game without any form of narrative. It lacked the fundamentals of storytelling; there was no plot or purpose for my playing it. I could only enjoy Minecraft as far as my own imagination allow me to. Again, I wasn't alone in thinking this way, as sandbox survival games have changed dramatically since the release of Minecraft.
Simply put, Subnautica is another variant of the survival sandbox video game genre. Unlike its predecessors, this game stands out by immediately catapulting you into a interesting narrative.
The Capital-class star ship Aurora, of which you are a passenger, is hit by an energy pulse of unknown origin which causes the vessel to crash onto an oceanic alien exoplanet. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending how you look at it) you manage to reach one of the life pods aboard the Aurora and eject in time to survive the crash landing, but only just. You are knocked unconscious during the decent to the planet's surface. When you awake, you realize immediately that surviving on this planet will be difficult. You have no food, no supplies, no means of communication, and most pressing of your needs is the fact that your life pod is on fire. Good luck with that.
After addressing the fire and meeting the first levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, you'll have some options on where to head next. Do you go search for survivors? Do you want to explore the wreckage of the Aurora for supplies? Do you want to dive into the depths of what the planet has to offer? That choice is up to you. You as the player must decide what is the best way to survive the world you were literally thrust into.
Whether you play games of this genre or not, this idea that the player and the story align in parallel is such a radically different idea to the way open-world games have been developed. You are given multiple different logical pathways to examine as your purpose in this story. Unlike some open-world games, you can explore the various plot lines the game has to offer without suspending your disbelief of the narrative - no ludonarrative dissonance here. Your ultimate goal to survive ties in so well with the fact that you crash landed on this planet. True to this, as you explore you find additional plot devices ranging from logs from other crashed ships experiencing the same fate, to abandoned structures built by former survivors; it helps facilitate Subnautica's gameplay loop of exploring the ocean as means of buying yourself time to make your escape.
I'm doing my best here not to spoil any really interesting tidbits, but I have one other really important fact to add. As with most stories, this game has a plot twist which takes an opportunity to turn your act of survival back on you, and I think it's one of the more interesting story arcs in a video game that I've experienced in a long time.
Beyond the story telling, the game itself plays relatively complication-free. You collect resources from the environment to build things. The life pod you crashed in has a built-in fabricator (see replicator) which consumes these resources you collect to produce tools, structures, and vehicles for you. Some of these items can be constructed immediately, but others are made available only after finding and analyzing debris from the Aurora strewn across the sea floor.
An artificially intelligent PDA is provided to you to help manage your equipment and track the various bits of debris you've analyzed. Most alien flora and fauna can be analyzed too. Although it's fairly simple to use, the PDA probably the most essential tool you have for your survival. Also, it has a habit of talking to you when you least expect it, providing information about the types of creatures you encounter and the environments you find yourself in. As such, it's important to explore the various environments the game has to offer and check your PDA regularly for advice. Different areas of the ocean contain different types of debris for you to research, and some of those areas can't be accessed without the use of deep diving submarines.
When you finally do build your first submersible, you might begin to realize how much life the ocean has in it. You can dive much deeper and maintain your oxygen supply more efficiently. As you dive, different resources become available to you which may be crafted into advanced resources used to improve your fabrications with upgrades. Most importantly, having a submarine allows you to establish yourself under the ocean better. You can traverse the ocean much more quickly and find larger resource deposits to collect. Additionally, it becomes a lot easier to find a place to settle down in your sea lab.
Constructing a sea lab, or sea base if you prefer, allows you to place permanent structures on the ocean floor. They consist of multiple cylinder-shaped structures which connect together like Lego blocks. Each piece is hollow and by attaching a hatch to one of these pieces you access the interior of the structure. The interiors aren't all that exciting until you add some furniture, which you can use to decorate or store your equipment and resources in. As well, you can construct power supplies to generate oxygen and recharge your tools and vessels. You'll have access to various forms of power from solar to geothermal to bio-diesel, to name a few. Building a sea base requires a large amount of resources, so while it's feasible to have bases strewn across the ocean, it's more efficient to build exactly what you need. Sea bases are one of my favorite parts of the game.
In all, everything you do and every bit of resource you collect will impact on the sort of play experience you have. I like this because the game doesn't make it that difficult to unlock new technology. You explore the ocean naturally and find ways to do it better. As your experience progresses, this goal shifts to better align with the narrative, but as I described above it doesn't get in the way of your actual play experience. In fact it facilitates it and makes you want to collect resources all that much faster to resolve the situation you find yourself in. Coming from an experience like Minecraft where the work you do has little purpose, this is an welcomed change to the survival sandbox genre.
So what's left to say? Well, by now I hope you've seen how pretty the screenshots are. Subnautica is an alluring, radiant, and stinking gorgeous game. The world feels so alien and strange, yet so many details of the game are there to be observed and made familiar. From eerie floating islands to vast forests of kelp, there are many things to see during your expedition in the deep.
At first, the alien surroundings may seem unnatural, but as your experience gives way to time you'll see a natural ecology in the works. For example, certain plants require sunlight and are closer to the surface than others. Other plants found far deeper tend to be bio-luminescent, providing light as a warning signal. Most creatures move in packs and do their best to avoid predators; some even have defense mechanisms such as the ability to release clouds of poison gas. It's pretty easy to believe that a natural food chain exists in Subnautica, answering the often wondered question of "Yes, but what do they eat?". Even your own character, an intruder to this environment, will find a place in the ecosystem. You will have to decide what to eat and whether or not you are making a lasting impact on this environment, but it'll never feel old or stale. The game is too pretty for that.
Furthermore, it's clear from the sort of technology that your character has access to that you're from an advanced society. Everything you'll make will have a constructed, futuristic look with plenty of moving parts. Characteristically white, round, and smooth, it almost feels like Subnautica's artists were trying to adapt Portal's motif. Such an ascetic postulates on the idea that had your character a few more tools to use, you might not even be on this planet, but it begs the question of who or what could do so much damage to the complex star ship Aurora. Who's the hunter and who's the hunted on this planet anyway?
It's worth noting that Subnautica is presently in Early Access on Steam, meaning that the game and it's story aren't yet in their final forms. This is probably my largest, albeit unfair, criticism of the game. Fortunately, the final version of the game is slated to be released sometime in the middle of May 2017. If you feel like you want to pick it up before then, you can find it here.
Subnautica isn't without flaws in it's present form. Because it's an early access build, it suffers greatly from not having been optimized. My computer can handle the intense visuals only so well before the frame rate drops. As well, I've experienced a few crashes from time to time. I have to imagine these things will be ironed out before the final release though.
Other than that, some of the environments are a little underutilized. They're no less unique or interesting, they just happen to have little to interact with. It's possible that these areas might get filled in later too, but we'll see. I hope so, as areas like the Koosh Zone are really interesting to look at but have very little to touch or take back as resources. Nevertheless, any new player would get a very good investment out the current build.
Regarding that, I would also like to add that I waited a long time before I bought this game. Only as of December 2016 did I actually feel like the game had enough interesting content for me to invest time into, and I've invested over forty hours so far. I'm not a huge fan of early access games, primarily because they aren't representative of the complete experience - things change too much. That all said, it's clear that Subnautica's development is coming to a close. As that happens, I would urge you to take a look at this game if you're interested in sci-fi stories or running away with your own imagination. Subnautica isn't so much a sandbox as it happens to be a bath tub. A tub for all your deep sea diver toys and rubber ducks to play in, lest you forget the fantasies of your youth.