Immersive Worlds

As you know, I’m a gamer. My recent play-list includes Cyberpunk 2077 (what a disappointment: a mediocre game with too much Keanu Reeves in it) and Fallout 4 (in survival mode). Fallout’s survival mode is how the game should be played – it’s much more “realistic” if that makes any sense. But its ending was horrible and really pissed me off. I needed a decent gaming experience. Oh, and somewhere in there, Anna and I did a bit of co-operative Valheim, which was surprisingly fun.

Thanks Anna and Eric, both pushing me to try Subnautica. I’m glad I did. It’s a game with a lot of things to like. For one thing, it has been rock solid: no weird glitches or crashes; stability makes it possible to lose yourself in a game, whereas errors and crashes just make the game something to laugh about. (“Hey look at the stupid thing that happened in Fallout“) So, that is my first point: Subnautica is beautifully solid and has a solid consistency about it – the designs, sound, concepts, creatures, are all at the same level of quality, which is very high. Perhaps I’ve got the advantage of playing a game after it’s been released for 3 or whatever years, but that’s why I generally don’t try to play a game on its release (with the regrettable exceptions of Elite: Dangerous and Cyberpunk)

If Elite: Dangerous had some of the things that Subnautica has, the game would be really good. What do I mean? You can build your own 50-meter submarine, and gear it up the way you want (within the limits of space) into a mobile research/exploration station. Then, you can go deep into the depths and get stuck under a rock ledge and have to inch your way out by going outside, looking at the rocks and the top of the sub to figure out which way to go next – and don’t get me wrong: I was on the edge of my seat the whole time; I felt like Captain Nemo. I was having a blast. It’s little things like being able to name your ships, adjust the colors (“we all live in a yellow submarine!”) and the interior and walk around in it. If Frontier had put that, and multiplayer ship-walking, into Elite: Dangerous people would still be playing it 10 years from now.

Of course there are no “sea badgers” (their cousins, the otters, have filled that niche quite beautifully) – I expect that if you put a badger in the sea, it would be very unhappy and miserable indeed. That seemed about right for Subnautica.

Another thing I love about the game is that the designs make sense. Or they try. It doesn’t just look like a sub, its amenities are about right, and you have to manage your battery life or you get to free-swim back to someplace where there is a charger. Let me give you an example of the finely-tuned gameplay in this masterpiece: you can’t put a battery charger in your sub because charging the batteries from your batteries works but just drains one battery into another and you lose quite a bit of juice in the process. You actually have to think about energy management. It’s not realistic but it’s part of a carefully-balanced system embedded in the game-play. There are a lot of “spoilers” on the interwebs and I don’t want to drop any, but let me tell you: if you screw up your energy management, you can do a lot of swimming. You can also come “home” to your base and discover that you screwed up its energy management and there is no breathable air in it because the scrubbers weren’t powered up. Fun! Especially if you were low on air and had just raced there to catch your breath… It’s unexpected excitement that makes much more sense than something like Fallout “Oh a deathclaw spawned behind you, now you are fighting for your life.”

The interior of Sea Badger, kitted out by me as an exploration lab

In survival mode, you have to manage food, water, energy, space, and all the things – while not getting eaten by some of the big things that swim around down in the depths.

The map is amazing – the game’s designers really worked to build credible biomes and they realized something that only comes slowly to the player: when you’re playing in 3-space, a “small” area is humongous. It’s deliberately a bit hard to navigate at first, but eventually you get the hang of it and you get gear that helps.

If you’re claustrophobic, this game is designed to mess with your head. A big part of the action is eeling your way into wrecks, to discover things about the stuff that has happened to you. That’s how you learn the digital designs for having your builder tool build you more better stuff. The whole time, you have a count-down for remaining air, and if you get disoriented inside that wreck, you don’t come out again. It’s fascinating: this game is stressful but the stress is fun, if you let it be. After all, it’s not as if you really drown, but – wow – you can get hung up in a piece of wreck and suddenly it’s real fear. The game’s ability to get me to suspend disbelief is that good.

One of the reasons the game works so well is the audio is perfect. For a game, it’s flawless. The music is great and ties to what’s going on around you. When you swim off the continental shelf and it drops down to pitch blackness below, the music starts welling up with some intimidating-sounding stuff that really makes you want to turn and swim back to someplace safe. But everything about the audio is great, including something all-important: the levels are consistent. If you’ve played Fallout or Cyberpunk you know what I mean; when the voice acting changes pitch and volume in mid-sentence it yanks you right out of the game instantly. Subnautica‘s audio is perfect (like Elite: Dangerous)

Similar to Valheim except more tied to some kind of underlying model of reality, Subnautica is mostly a game about exploration and building. You build and expand bases. They are whatever you want them to be, and figuring out how to manage energy for a base is an interesting problem. [I have a deep base that has a single vertical column 400 meters up to a general purpose room covered with solar panels] You really do feel like you’re coming “home” when you have 12 seconds of air left and are running for the hatch-entrance. I know it’s stupid but I have a real sense of accomplishment that my base is so freakin’ exactly what I want it to be. One mode in the game is you can play where all you do is just build, and there’s no need to feed yourself, etc. I like the challenge of needing a load of some particular material that requires a dive into a twisty cave-system, the timer running down, I’m dodging fish that want to sample me, and I have 10 seconds to grab stuff then I need to get back to my air supply or this whole attempt is a waste.

Everything is balanced beautifully. You can’t just go do stuff: you have to plan to do stuff. It’s logistics and adventure and more than a bit of fear.

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I’ve only died 14 times so far. Some of my deaths were really awful. What a blast!


  1. says

    I had this game recommended to me by a friend but I did not try it yet. After reading this, I definitively will not try it because I am indeed claustrophobic and I do not need a source of nightmares. But it does sound like fun.

  2. says

    I just played this as well. In my diary I wrote: “I always joke about how every game would be better as a walking sim, but I find that exploration games can benefit from a little bit of danger and labor, which can make new discoveries feel a bit more meaningful. Subnautica handles this perfectly, and without (usually) being too punishing.”

    When I say it’s not too punishing, I mean that death doesn’t really set you back by much, and you can usually avoid it by playing it safe. And I think I must have played it much safer than you, cause I died like 3 times or so? I’d be like, “only 40 seconds of oxygen, better escape already”. I can only handle so much tension, haha. Kind of nice that the game gives you control over that.

  3. snarkhuntr says

    I rarely have any spare time for gaming anymore, but remember fondly some games that really caught me. Fallout 4 was a grind, and I just felt disconnected and uninterested in any of the storylines or quests. I haven’t tried Valheim yet.

    Subnautica was nearly perfect. One of those rare times that I’ve been utterly gobsmacked by a game. I can think of few others that grabbed my attention so completely or held it so long. They also managed to really effectively balance the learning/exploring/tech tree advancing portion of the game, and I was able to (nearly) complete it without resorting to spoilers. (there was one thing that was very much not communicated well, or perhaps I’m just dumb :) ).

    As you noted – the sound design was excellent. I played the game a lot on a laptop with headphones while travelling, and the sound makes you really feel like you’re inside that world. The first time those alien whale thingies came swimming past in a wall of noise was a huge rush.

    I’m putting off playing Below Zero for as long as I can, so that all the bugs will have been ironed out and it will be as smooth and delightful a gaming experience as the parent game.

  4. kurt1 says

    Played a lot of Valheim when the early access was released. The game is awesome, solid foundations, really excited where they take it. The mix of exploring, foraging and mining, base building and fighting big bosses reminds me a lot of Terraria. First major update Hearth and Home will come soonish.

    Also played Hades this year. Not the biggest fan of rogue-likes but this one was amazing. One of the best games I ever played. Come for the fun and intuitive gameplay, stay for awesome characters and story.

    Currently playing Witcher 3. Havent played any of the others. I like it more than Skyrim, more unique characters and side quests and a more interesting story.

    Next up will probably be Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which I hope will not have the stuff that bugs me about Witcher 3: a setting that is medieval but occasionally quests and dialoges break with that setting, like characters talking about vaccines and have an understanding of what plagues and illnesses are.

  5. kestrel says

    Not a gamer but the artwork is lovely, and dude, is that a fish tank in your lab?! Or is that for collecting specimens? Either way, nice.

  6. StevoR says

    Very tangential but curious did you ever play ‘Bushido Blade’ or (I think it was called something like?) ‘Abe’s Oddworld’ and if so what did you think of them?

  7. komarov says

    I’ll second, third… nth? the subnautica recommendation. I haven’ t actually ever finished it because I played it a lot in early access, meaning I have a lot of familiar ground to cover before I get to see new or finished stuff. But this is one of those games that did early access right – they spent ages on this and it was amazing to watch the game progress. This is also the one game that has been tempting me to trying VR. Of course that’s still so prohibitively expensive and/or comes with the facebook iron ball firmly attached so … nope. So now I’m waiting until I can improvise my first multi-monitor setup (cutting edge, I know!) so I still get to milk the game’s visuals at least a little bit.

    P.S.: My favourite death (by quantity) involves getting turned around in wrecks or spending just slightly too much time cutting through a door. In the early days it used to be easier: oxygen tanks just went into the inventory space. You can probably guess where that led and why it was changed.

  8. Nes says

    Oh, Subnautica is great. Beautiful visuals, great sounds and music (made by a bigot, unfortunately, but they fired him when they found out), building, exploration, and they generally do a good job of pointing you in the right direction for materials or story. For example, when you follow a distress call to one of the life pods, there’s usually a point of interest nearby that you need to explore. On the other hand, it can be fairly easy to miss certain things… like, I’m nearing the end, and I missed a fairly small opening in a structure (I even had difficulty finding it once I knew roughly where it was). If I hadn’t looked it up on the wiki, figuring that there must have been more to it, I wouldn’t have known that it was an actual story critical structure and not just a decorative piece (several of which I had seen elsewhere… unless I also missed openings in those).

    If you haven’t played it yet, Marcus, I’d recommend The Forest (or maybe wait for the sequel coming out sometime this year, Sons of the Forest). Your plane crashes, your son is kidnapped, and you have to look for him while trying to survive. There are also… locals… who aren’t exactly welcoming. Personally, I’ve barely even touched the story, as I’ve been having too much fun with building, exploring, and observing/interacting with the locals.

    There are a few basic building blocks that you can snap together, but most of the building is free-form. The costs for the buildings are pretty realistic, too. When you put up a blueprint, you need to fill in every stick, rock, log, or… other building material… that you can see. If you want to build a large defensive wall, be prepared for it to take several in-game days and dozens of trees, because you’re going to need a log (4-5 per tree) for each one in the wall.

    Though the game is billed as survival horror, there is an option when starting a new game to not have enemies, so you can play it as just wilderness survival if you want, or as a more of a building sim where the neighbors don’t stop by and interrupt you or perform sturdiness inspections. As I understand it, there are still enemies in the story-related areas (mostly caves), but they apparently don’t respawn, and those areas are also easy to avoid as you have to activate an opening to get to them.

  9. says

    Not a gamer but the artwork is lovely, and dude, is that a fish tank in your lab?! Or is that for collecting specimens? Either way, nice.

    Yep, it’s a fish tank. They’re pretty and they are also emergency food, if things get that way.

  10. says

    If you haven’t played it yet, Marcus, I’d recommend The Forest (or maybe wait for the sequel coming out sometime this year, Sons of the Forest). Your plane crashes, your son is kidnapped, and you have to look for him while trying to survive. There are also… locals… who aren’t exactly welcoming.

    That does sound interesting!

    As an aside, as a certified hater-of-kids, I hate when games try to rope me in around the “rescue your son” axis. Ugh. I really totally don’t give a shit about spawn. Fallout 4 had that whole, “travel everywhere to rescue your son” meme and I was so pissed off that when I found him, I ${deleted}

  11. says

    Very tangential but curious did you ever play ‘Bushido Blade’ or (I think it was called something like?) ‘Abe’s Oddworld’ and if so what did you think of them?

    The only ‘Bushido Blade’ I remember was an old 90s playstation game that was a head to head fight game. Not an RPG.

    I never did ‘Oddworld’ – I heard it was pretty good, except it’s a platformer and I despise the genre. It’s my failing, not the games’, I just hate having my sense of timing played with as a critical aspect of the game.

  12. Nes says


    As an aside, as a certified hater-of-kids, I hate when games try to rope me in around the “rescue your son” axis.

    Oh, I’m 100% with you there. It’s another reason I’ve avoided the story, but that bit got cut out while I was editing. I hated it in Fallout 4, too, to the point that the furthest I’ve ever made it in the main quest is recovering a trench coat and learning about Corn Flakes (intentionally vague because spoilers).

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