Sunday, June 24, 2018

Subnautica: Minimal Storytelling, Survival and Exploration

The following contains mild spoilers for the beginning of Subnautica.

The beginning hour of Subnautica is one of my favorites in any video game. It starts with a space ship exploding, a life pod ejecting and the player character getting knocked unconscious. Upon waking, they find the cabin of their life pod on fire and filling with smoke. A hasty sweep of the fire extinguisher helps get control of the situation. Heart rate decreases, a moment passes to breath and regain composure. Climbing the ladder of the life pod, the player emerges onto a beautiful and heartbreaking scene. The Aurora, the space ship that moments before they had been ejected from, lies in the water, smouldering and on fire. All around, for miles in every direction is an unbroken horizon of crystal blue water. No islands. No structures. You've got a knife and a fire extinguisher and a broken, barely functioning escape pod. Good luck.

Subnautica is a survival game of the kind that has become all too prevalent on Steam. You've got a health meter and a water/hydration meter. There are crafting materials and blue prints of how to build things. But unlike the blocks of Minecraft or the endless forests of other crafting games that ask you to punch a tree until you have enough wood to make an axe, Subnautica leaves you with only the endless waves and a crashed spaceship. Diving beneath the surface reveals another world of plants and fish and color and beauty. It's enough to lure you into the loop. Get food and water to stabilize your needs, then go out for crafting materials. Build tools. Repair your life pod. Repair your radio.

There's no story here, no clever writing in these earlier moments aside from your PDA's helpful A.I. guiding you through the early motions of survival. The player character isn't named, they aren't even gendered aside from the grunted voice acting as you jump or hop or get bit by a shark. In these early moments there is only you, and the water, and the crashed ship and the will to survive, to explore. You can't swim that far from the life pod, you've only got so much air and it holds the precious fabricator that allows you to make clean water, well prepared food and your precious tools. That is of course until you get your first radio message.

The player isn't the only one to have bailed off that crashing ship of course. There are others, their life pods failing, their lives slipping away as they sink beneath the waves. You can try to save them but you'll never make it. The ocean, the predators lurking beneath the waves, the mistakes of those trapped inside. Fate always gets there first and all that's left are the shattered remains left behind, the scraps that help you survive a bit longer. Your alone here, with only the ghosts of those who weren't lucky enough to survive to keep you company. This is only the first hour of a game a I spent fifty two hours in before rolling credits. Fifty two hours of crafting and fishing and making clean water and building habitats. Fifty two hours of the ocean, of a single enviroment, of a single landscape. Fifty two hours of a small subset of simplified mechanics in an ever shrinking sandbox devoid of NPCs or quests or loot drops. Why? Because of the Sunbeam.

The Sunbeam is one of the first major story beats in Subnautica. It starts like most other things with a radio transmission. The Sunbeam is somewhere out there in the solar system, and they've gotten your distress call. The first message from their captain is him admonishing the entire crew of the Aurora for not answering the damn phone. The Aurora says it's in trouble, it calls asking for help but when we're returning your call you don't even bother to answer. How rude. Meanwhile you're in a tiny pod in an endless ocean with the view of a burning hulk to comfort you as the sun goes down and the temperature drops, left alone to enjoy your dinner of creeper, washing it down with water you milked out of a bladder fish.

The next day you get another message. It's the Sunbeam's captain. They've detected the large debris field that used to be your ship. He's sorry, he's so damn sorry. After all, he spent the last call mocking a bunch of dead people for not bothering to get off their lazy butts and answer the phone. But's it okay. He offers hope. They're across the solar system, but they're coming to rescue you. To take you home. A few more days pass. I managed to build a small submersible craft called a Seamoth that let's me zip around the ocean floor. I built a small base and started raising crops. The Sunbeam sends me a new message everyday. They're getting close. They're looking for a place to land. They've found an island far to north, farther out then I've ever been. Don't worry they say, they'll be there soon.

A count down timer appears on the HUD. I grabbed all the bottles of water and cured fish meat I could carry and stuffed it in my little submersible. I raced across the oceans, watching that little timer tick down, ignoring the calls of others in distress. I had to get there. I couldn't miss this chance. In this place I was so alone, but it was over now. I was going home. The site of land was mesmerizing. For all this time there had been only water, but here hidden behind the clouds was a tiny island. The landing zone was at the north side, I would make it there with plenty of time to spare. Then, rounding the island I saw a building, the first I had seen on this planet that I myself had not built. But it was wrong. Black, full of neon green lines at right angles. Guarded by a force field. Alien.

So I explored the island. And I entered the facility and I learned that while I was alone, I was not the first to come here. But all the while the timer was ticking down. The Sunbeam was coming. I couldn't miss the pick up. Coming back up to planet, I heard the radio transmission. The Sunbeam was here, their captain saw the island. He saw me. They were touching down. This was it, I was going home. But then the building awoke and turned and looked suspiciously like a cannon. There was a flash of light, a burst of screams and then only static. The Sunbeam broke apart like my own ship had and was no more. I was alone again, more so, for the hope of rescue was now dashed.

And I was hooked. Hooked on Subnautica and its story, whatever it turned out to be. Told in much maligned audio logs and journal entries, the story of Subnautica is told sparsely, with long hours of only the waves and the ambient music and the bubbles to keep you company. But it works, it works so well to flesh out the world and add layers to something that appears so flat, so unforgivably silent.

This game is so stupidly pretty in motion.
There are, arguably, too many survival games on Steam. Many of them follow the same model of punch a tree and get a stick. Add a stick and a rock and get an axe and go from there. It's the "go from there" where many of them fall apart. Sure their are things to craft and a tech tree to climb, but there's no real reason to do any of it. The latest trend in these games has been to add multiplayer, to hope the fun and the interesting stories will be player driven and dynamic. While this looks on the surface to be a decision born of wanting to give players an endless mix of new and interesting stories, it is actually a failure of design. Unable to come up with a solution for making the world interesting, they shift a design problem to being a technical one. While adding multiplayer to game isn't easy, it provides a set of logical steps that can followed and a clear indication of whether or not it's working. Building a world that is interesting to be in on its own is far more challenging. Worst of all, these games takes place in familiar forests and caves. Subnautica succeeds not only because they use their environment so well, but because they were willing to do something more with it.
There are at least a half a dozen distinct areas within Subnautica, all hidden beneath the ocean waves and flowing seamlessly into one another. Each hides treasures and materials and story. Each biome is visually distinct, not only lodging it in the player's memory, but serving as its own reward. Each has new life forms, a new color palette, new challenges to be overcome. And that's why at its heart Subnautica isn't really a survival game at all. It's an exploration game that uses those survival elements to push forward that sense of exploration.

Within minutes of playing Subnautica I was set up in a way that ensured I would never fail to survive. I had food. I had water. I had a first aid kit in case I danced too closely with a shark. I strove out into the wilderness, into that inherent risk because I wanted to see what was there. At first I wanted to search for wrecks, for pieces of the Aurora that had fallen so far from where I landed, to find blueprints and new things to assemble. Then I searched to look for new areas, new wonders and life forms, to scan them and build out my database. To catalogue and understand the world around me. Finally I went out in search of answers, of a cure for the mysteries that lie at the center of the ocean. 

It's a blueprint, a map, I wish more survival games followed. Way back on the Gameboy color there was a game series called Survival Kids, later Lost In Blue on the DS, that understood this well. Yeah there was a hunger meter and a thirst meter, but there were also ruins and puzzles and mysteries to uncover. So many games are about exploration. Of systems, of combat mechanics, of equipment and story. They have an unparalleled ability to show us new worlds and experiences. In many, many games I have walked through forests. I was walked through caves and put a rock and stick together to make an axe. In far too few games have I swam through them. In far too few games have I navigated my way through a sunken wreck, looking for treasure, keeping a mental route of the way I swam in so I knew how to get out before my air supply was empty. In far too few games have put an egg into a incubator just to learn what came out, not so I could get some upgrade, or a new companion, but because I wanted to better understand this world that I lived in.

Subnautica isn't perfect. There are times when the game fails to render the scene fast enough. There was a time in which I was cruising through the ocean so quickly in my Seamoth that I hit an invisible wall, only for an entire wreck ship to materialize around me. There was of course, no way to get the Seamoth out at that point, for I had solved the mystery of how you put a ship in a bottle by some sort of quantum teleportation. There are times when things flicker and when fish swim through the air in your supposedly sealed underwater base like some sort of hunger induced hallucination. But these are minor quibbles, technical hurdles on an otherwise supremely well executed design.  

Subnautica is a world of beauty and of color and of interesting choices and stories that are all too few in the gaming landscape today. I deeply enjoyed Subnautica and the things I saw there will stick with me for some time.