One of the reasons I wanted to shift my reviewing efforts to a blog, rather than continuing to write Steam reviews, is that Steam requires you to choose whether you would recommend a game or not prior to allowing you to post your review. This isn’t such a clear-cut thing for a lot of games. I want to be able to just talk about my thoughts and the experience of playing games without assigning a binary value or a number to them.
Subnautica is one of my favorite games. It made a deep and lasting impression on me. But it features one of the biggest overall disappointments in gaming I’ve ever experienced. The experience deflated so fast for me, in fact, that the outrush of air from my monitor catapulted me into space, where I died forever.
Throughout the early game, when you’re scavenging for bits and bobs, when you have no idea what’s out there, when you’re fighting an intense fear of the ocean’s lightless depths but have no idea yet how deep they really go, when the biggest and nastiest creature you’ve seen is literally the crappiest, tiniest predator in the game, Subnautica is both terrifying and fun. You’re compelled by the basic needs of food and water to risk life and limb (not really though, you’re just a wuss). It’s here that the game’s built-in narrative is strongest, teasing you with distress beacons, pushing you farther out. It’s here that you’ll also often overreach yourself or have encounters with Reaper Leviathans or Ghost Leviathans, the real-ass motherfuckers that drive Youtube’s banal reaction video goldmine for a reason. Anal leakage may occur.
In the mid game, when you’re building submarines and roaming farther out, heart pounding as you brave the depths, finding creatures that nearly stop its beating in sheer terror, seeing strange and wondrous alien sights and glowing lights in the deep, exploring the wrecks of ships, making progress, here the game is similarly brilliant. I would say everything up to about the Blood Kelp Zone is like this, and your entrance into that zone with its accompanying music is a sheer drop down a white-knuckle slide of abject atavistic horror. The first 20 hours or so is just really good stuff, in other words. I spent endless time just designing my home base, which I found really engrossing. I was obsessed with seeing what was over the next rise, what was a little deeper down. Everything new I found blew my mind with its beauty, and I gradually overcame my fears a little at a time to eke out a sense of hard-earned knowledge and skill.
And then you get the Prawn suit.
I didn’t realize at first how game-breaking this thing was. The Seaglide, Seamoth, and Cyclops each have their own niche of usefulness, and at first blush the Prawn seems to also have its niche. Since it can only walk along the ocean floor, its usefulness will probably be limited, I thought, it’ll be my little mining mech that I pull out every so often. I also thought it was a lot more vulnerable than it actually turned out to be, because the game had conditioned me through many carefully-crafted moments to fear the unknown and unseen, to respect my own limitations, to steer clear of the deadly creatures I’d seen so far. I dreaded falling into a crevasse from which I wouldn’t be able to escape. I dreaded running into a Leviathan of any description while stuck in the Prawn’s slow-moving, brightly-glowing shell. This illusion of vulnerability is helped by your main enemy at this point in the game being those patrolling teleporting robot things. They pull you out of your suit or your ship via teleportation, and that is about as completely awful as it sounds. Even the robot voice when you climb in the Prawn for the first time warns you not to be overconfident. You’re led to believe that you’re in a big dumb walking eggshell, basically, when in fact you’re sitting in Fish Fucker 6000, Machine God of the Ocean.
Don’t be fooled by the incredibly deep diving limit of the Cyclops, and forget everything you thought you knew about vehicular niches; the Prawn is your main vehicle now. It’s small enough to fit into any gap, and its tether arm lets you slingshot and swing off of obstacles like Indiana Fucking Jones. You can get up to some incredibly fast speeds in this thing. It has a massive inventory, and a near-infinite battery life. It can take a pounding from Leviathans of all stripes without blinking, and it can literally kill them with its default drill arm. That’s right: Leviathans can die. Say goodbye to the game you’ve been playing for the past 20 hours or more. We Prawn suit now.
Again, I didn’t realize this at first. I was out exploring (extremely tentatively, as usual, my heart in my throat) and a Reaper grabbed me from out of nowhere when I hadn’t realized they were even in the area. Their AI is set up so they try and blindside you, and they’re really good at this. I died again forever, RIP me. But I realized, as I was yelping like a tiny girl at the fish screaming in my face, that I wasn’t actually taking that much damage. The Reaper released the Prawn without destroying it, and I got the fuck out of there to repair, only to find that I’d taken something like 4% hull damage. Basically nothing, in other words. Reapers were now no worse than bumping into rocks.
Deeply puzzled by this, but emboldened nonetheless, I continued my exploration and found that all roads forward led through the places beyond the ancient bones at the bottom of the Blood Kelp Zone. There’s a Ghost Leviathan down there, and the game forces you to walk past it to continue. There’s no way around this that I found; you’ve gotta just grit your teeth and go for it. And not only is it totally possible to just vroom on past the screaming ghost worm daddy that crouches in the blackest corner of the closet in your nightmares, but actually he can’t even really hurt you that much in the Fish Fucker 6000. He gives you a little love tap, if he can even catch you. BONG goes the hull. Oh noooooo you got me. If you’re moving around at all, he has a hard time even getting you. He’s actually… kind of cute. He’s a cute little baby Ghost Leviathan.
Oh no. The game’s ruined, isn’t it?
What had been an incredibly tense process of gradual exploration in a seemingly-endless and terrifying world became, in that instant, a slog of backtracking through a shitty little crater, seeing the same wondrous alien vistas I’d seen dozens of times before. I lost interest in base building, because all my resources were going towards an escape rocket, and frankly, all the stuff in my base was probably contributing to the increasingly poor performance of the game. I had to turn my settings down to Low partway through just to salvage my framerate; I think the game was trying to load in the entire crater at once.
Speaking of that crater, the entirety of the game world is actually only about 2km in diameter. It’s tiny, actually, especially when you can move fast enough with the Prawn to make the frames drop like panties on prom night. If you try to go outside it, you get infinite Ghost Daddies spawning in and the ocean floor just drops off to nothingness.
Also, as I mentioned before, once you pass a certain point all roads forward are narrowed down to a single path down through the bottom of the Blood Kelp Zone. It becomes less about exploration at that point, and more about just putting one foot in front of the other. There’s cool stuff down there, don’t get me wrong, but I quit shortly after the scale of the world (and how little of it is actually used, there’s so many areas that just have like nothing in them) became apparent. By this point of the game, survival is also pretty trivial, more of a hassle than anything else.
So, I never did beat Subnautica. I was really intrigued by the story, by the mysteries of the parasitic creatures that seemed to be behind the infection the player comes down with, and by all the little stories of the other crashed pods. I loved and was scared shitless by every minute of the first 20 hours. And then it felt like I crashed through a portal into an alternate dimension where I wasn’t even playing the same game anymore. And this disappointment came packaged neatly as one of the game’s upgrades, something I was supposed to build. I felt betrayed, baited into it. Why had they given me so much power, so much invulnerability? It was like they weren’t even paying attention to the emotional progression of the game up to that point. It felt clumsy, unworthy of the rest of the experience.
Would I recommend Subnautica? I dunno. How can I recommend something that depends so heavily on my own (albeit common) fear of the ocean, an experience that relies on my own reactions to just the nature of the setting to create an emotional progression (maybe) unique to myself? How do you “recommend” your own internal mental landscape? How can I say “this game isn’t worth playing because the Prawn suit is overpowered” after I so thoroughly enjoyed myself for so much of the time I spent playing it? So I dunno. Anyway that’s Subnautica.