Subnautica Review – Deeply Absorbed in Darkness

The ocean swallows me whole, and as I sink into its depths, I wonder if I will ever surface again. It is an alien world beneath the waves. A world of dizzying proportions, the safer shallows giving ground to impossible darkness in the depths. My lungs feel the crush of the pressure as I stare into the cold, dark, blue abyss, and wonder if I will escape this place alive. The first bite promises I will not escape unchanged. Even with my oxygen tank, I wonder if I will drown—I wonder if the darkness will swallow me.

I may die in the shadow of this haunting, beautiful alien world, but the I’m convinced the journey will always feel worth it. I dive into Subnautica.

 

A World of Wonder

The alien world greets me with the pleasant chatter of fish. The shallows are a beautiful wash of colors: vibrant pink coral and soft beige sand surrounds me on all sides. A single pod drifts on the surface of the eternal ocean, and I alone must survive any way I can. Rescue will inevitably come, I must live long enough to see it.

With that, I dive into the water, swimming through the space. Alien fish skitter around me, I can hear this world exploding with life as I watch my oxygen indicator sink. I swim as fast as I can, gather what materials I can, and head for the surface. My helmet breaks the waves as I draw in the biggest gasp I can manage. Oxygen returns, I hold a few nuggets of copper in my dive suit, and ponder the potential options that follow.

Subnautica shipMy time on the planet is broken up by runs. Moments where I lance into the water, gather what I can, and retreat to my home base where I am safe, dry, have oxygen to breath, and a tool that allows me to convert these materials into usable equipment that helps me dive deeper, dive safer, and harvest more. My radio works, but the messages I get prompt me to dive deeper, into more dangerous waters. I fear the dark, but I swallow my fear and plunge into the unknown. Every tool I find seems to lead me to another tool, every material an upgrade to make the deeps less hazardous, but the fear never leaves me.

I’ve seen creatures my computer calls Leviathans. They must be twenty or thirty meters long, thrashing and enormous, their very presence in the water seems to leave a horrified wake. When I hear them screech, they are already stalking me. I expect the first to catch me will kill me. I swim hard back for home. Next run will have to be safer. The deeps are my salvation, and my terror. The darkness down there hides more fears. I am not safe there, but cannot be safe without conquering them. Next dive, I go a little deeper.

 

Progression

Nothing here is beyond my training. I’ve seen this all before. I venture, cautiously, into caves and carve materials from stone and use these materials to help me survive. Further, nothing on this planet is really unfamiliar. The sharks all appear to my eyes as sharks, the scavengers have a sort of luminescence that promises an unwillingness to attack—they are nonthreatening. The planet has a kind of meditative calm to it as long as I am not in imminent danger. However, in the darkness deep below, there is no luminescence, just darkness and the horrifying noises of dangerous predators.

Crafting new tools feels comforting in an incremental sort of way. New tools let me swim faster, or lead toward crafting new components or vehicles. Survival training had a checklist of things to do when in a potentially dangerous and hostile landscape, and the experience checks all the boxes: survival, exploration, building, resource management, hunger, thirst… Check, check, check, check. The list goes on exhaustively long.

However, previous experience always suggests the human tendency to want to craft means to defend oneself with some kind of weapon or firearm. Aside from a knife, and that’s honestly more tool than weapon, I find myself having to face the deeps defenseless. When the undersea creatures attack, my first and honestly best course is simply to run. Even if I can injure them, it’s never worth the fight.

subnautica

When the darkness howls havoc, I flee. Survival favors cowards.

 

Loneliness

I lay alone in this pod, staring through the porthole into the depths below. My gloved hand leans against the glass, and the ocean beneath me moves. I am alone.

Alone.

That word, by itself, has a gravity beyond almost any other in the language, but one that’s difficult to come to grips with. Rarely does one ever, truly, completely feel alone. This planet is covered in ocean, the voices on the radio are the only promise of life that may end up being the ghosts of time passed before I woke in this pod.

I am alone.

subnauticaAt times, I can find kits left behind by others in similar survival scenarios, or interesting tidbits and art that give me inspiration to survive another day. I shake off the emptiness I feel above while fish and fury wait for me below the waves, but more than anything, surviving feels like a solitary experience.

I shake off those thoughts, and plan my next dive into the deep.

 

Beautiful Darkness

This world is beautiful. The fish glow, and chirp, and chitter, and swish, and squabble, and swim, and we are bathed in beauty nearly indescribable. Back on Earth, humanity had such an alien relationship with creatures under the surface of its oceans. Deep parts of the ocean went largely unexplored except by specialists, and what they found down there beggared wonder and curiosity. On this ocean planet, I can’t help but imagine how I feel now is how they felt then.

I suppose it could come as no surprise to me that this world does not need me here. Predators feed on prey, fish swim and breed, creatures of all size move with an impossible grace, and I am here struggling to get by, to find rescue however it may come. However, this planet does not need me here. Seemingly, this planet does not even want me here.

I want to dwell down here all the same. For as violent as it can be, for as dangerous as it never stops feeling, this world is beautiful. There are no caverns that don’t have some kind of wonder. Oh the surface, the distant horizon stretches forever, and piercing the deeps betrays a wide array of plant and animal life. Flora and fauna of dizzying purpose and style exist everywhere there is to turn. Sometimes, I just want to stop where I am, hundreds of meters beneath the surface, venting precious oxygen up to the surface, and simply watch the world go about its business.

In more ways than one, this world is breathtaking.

subnautica depthsFarewell

I wrote a letter, perhaps to leave behind when I leave, perhaps to serve as my final will and testament to whomever else finds this little blue speck in the endless void of the universe’s ocean above. I hope it will speak to this experience in ways I wouldn’t think to say in person. Or perhaps it will simply serve to exist after I’m gone, a record of how this planet changed me.

To whom it may concern,

I did not arrive here on purpose. The technology I leave behind is not malicious, it is not with the intent to pollute these waters or mark this world. It is with a quiet desperation that I made them, and a louder regret that they will outlive my presence here, one way or the other.

The darkness deep on this planet is full of wonder, fuller still of danger, but above all, has instilled in me a kind of respect I did not anticipate when I first laid eyes on the harrowing future this planet has left for me.

But, no matter the cost, I don’t regret it. This wild, wondrous, horrifying world has checked so many boxes I expected, but did so much more with them than I thought possible. If I had to do it all again, clammy hands violently grappling with death time and again for the most meager of survivals, I would. Perhaps insanely, I would.

I cannot in good conscience advise you to visit this beautiful, terrifying oceanic hell. It will very probably kill you. But you really should visit anyway.

It is wonderful, and even though I hope to leave, I also never want to. This place offers me no remorse, and that alone says more than I can.

With deepest hope for your continued survival,

Ryley

Overall: 9/10

Subnautica is a beautiful game, only occasionally marred by sluggishness and the odd, errant bug.

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About Taylor Hidalgo

Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer and editor. He's an enthusiast of books, exercise, videogames, and friends. He'd love it if you read his work, let him know if you enjoyed it, and also made friends with him on Twitter.