I’ve never survived long in survival games: for one, I’m simply not very good at them; but I also don’t tend to find their mechanics especially compelling — survival for survival’s sake doesn’t feel fulfilling and the grind and constant demands for micro-managing essential resources doesn’t appeal.
Subnautica was the first survival game to grab me, in large part due to its remarkable storytelling. It has an exquisitely designed narrative structure which ties a loose, flexible plot into its core mechanics and progression systems, such that story is never a distraction or interruption from the game; instead, the story is woven into every single action you do in the game, providing deeper meaning and a drive to keep exploring.
This has an immediate effect on the survival mechanics, disguising the endless need to find food and water behind a compelling setting and story. Tonally it avoids being one-note, shifting between beauty and mystery and dread in a regular basis.
It’s a very good game.
What I’ve only appreciated now that I’m a fair way into the game is how it taps into the usual feedback and satisfaction loops of a roleplaying game, without falling into the usual tropes and traps.
Traditional roleplaying progression
RPGs tend to be level-based. This is true whether it’s classics like D&D-style Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, the Elder Scrolls series or The Witcher 3. The process is simple and repetitive:
- As you perform tasks in the game — usually combat-related, but sometimes also connected to exploration, conversation or other achievements — you earn ‘experience points’, or XP.
- When you accumulate enough to hit a particular (somewhat arbitrary) threshold, you ‘level up’. This is a very gamey moment when you’re notified of the levelling up. This usually grants you a limited number of ‘skill points’.
- The skill points can then be spent to upgrade your skills, in a transactional process similar to purchasing items in a shop.
The new skills might be new magic spells (now you can do fire magic!) or a new weapon ability (now you can use axes!), or a more specific ability (now you can pick locks!). More often, however, they are statistical increases, improving your attributes in some way, such as increasing the amount of damage you deal with a particular weapon or spell.
These incremental increases tend to be percentage-based and are often very hard to observe in the game itself. A 5% boost to critical hit chance will only very rarely result in something happening in-game. As such, levelling up in RPGs can be somewhat obtuse, laboured and slow. Depending on the surrounding game design, much of the impact of levelling up can be neutered by enemies also scaling with your abilities — while this is intended to provide a continual challenge, it can further reduce the impression of meaningful change.
The best levelling moments in RPGs are when you unlock a completely new skill, but those are infrequent. Far more common are the minor, almost imperceptible stat-boost upgrades.
Subnautica and meaningful change
While Subnautica is not an RPG by traditional genre definitions, it taps into similar ideas but approaches the notion of ‘levelling up’ in a very different way.
There is no character levelling whatsoever in Subnautica. There is also no combat, outside of occasional fight-or-flight moments with mean fishies. Instead, the game operates around technology which you can build and use. This requires researching blueprints to find out how to make stuff, then gathering the resources to do so.
The key difference is that one sword in an RPG is largely indistinguishable from another. This is often fiction-breaking, in that a sword presented as The Ultimate Weapon early in the game will inevitably be surpassed by a Generic Kitchen Knife later on, simply due to the player finding the knife while at a higher level. The items themselves become unimportant, with only their raw attack numbers holding any meaning.
In Subnautica, every item delivers meaningful change to the player’s experience. There are far fewer items but they each have noticeable impact on the game. This is accomplished by having them interact tightly with the core survival requirements: food, water and oxygen.
Food and water
Early in the game, finding food and drinkable water is a huge challenge. It takes a while to figure out which fish you can eat and which fish are good for processing into drinking water. To catch fish you have to physically chase after them. This immense pressure is there from the start: if you don’t figure it out quickly, you will die.
Much later, you acquire a device which makes catching fish easy and fast. You can store live fish in an aquarium in your base, so that you always have a ready supply. You can grow edible plants. That survival pressure entirely disappears, such that it’s easy to forget how stressful it was in the first hour.
Meaningful change: the requirement to eat and drink ceases to be a challenge. It’s still needed and important but it becomes routine and simple to manage, enabling you to concentrate on other priorities. This does not happen due to an abstract levelling of a statistic (‘You can now last twice as long before needing to eat!’) but through the application of technique, equipment and strategy.
Even more dramatic in how it drives the game’s pacing is the need to breathe. Subnautica is primarily an underwater game and at the beginning you can hold your breath for about thirty seconds. This is one of the factors which makes catching fish so tricky at the beginning of the game.
After a while, you are able to build a diving suit with a large oxygen tank. Suddenly, you can stay underwater for 60 seconds. The doubling of time reduces stress when performing familiar tasks, such as catching fish, but it also unlocks areas which were previously entirely inaccessible due to their depth. There’s a handful of oxygen tank upgrades, each of which fundamentally changes the game; making it less scary and increasing your mastery over the world.
The trick the game plays here is that as you’re able to dive deeper, you encounter new challenges: more dangerous creatures, or navigational challenges as you venture into cave systems — holding your breath for longer doesn’t help if you get lost in an undersea cave and can’t find the surface. Building a ‘seaglide’ helps: this is a motorised device which propels you around at far greater speeds and has a torch and topographical map: by increasing your swimming speed you can explore deeper, even while having the same limitation on breathing time.
After getting used to this setup for a while, there’s another paradigm shift when the player is able to construct a ‘Seamoth’: a single-seat submarine. This enables you to zip around at much greater speeds and also makes it easier to go deeper. It provides additional safety while you’re inside its cockpit, again resetting the comfort threshold as the player explores.
The biggest shift this makes is that the Seamoth has its own limitless oxygen. Suddenly you can dive to 300m and use the submarine as a portable lifeline: no longer do you need to make the long trip back to the surface to find oxygen; instead you simply clamber back inside your trusty sub.
It’s true, meaningful change: by this point it’s hard to remember that first hour of the game, when you’re scrabbling about without any equipment, desperately trying to grab a silly fish as it darts away.
The notion of safety and home
The Seamoth is not simply a useful tool. It represents safety, as does the physical base that you can build and expand. Your base can be sited almost anywhere, providing an opportunity for player expression. What this does on an emotional basis is shift the bubble of safety from the tiny liferaft in which you begin the game to a large, multi-function and comfortable base of your own making. The Seamoth (and, later, a larger sub called Cyclops — which I’ve yet to experience) becomes a mobile representation of this safe space.
A ‘camp’ in an RPG tends to be where you go to talk to your companions, and perhaps find shops or other systems for upgrading items. Such camps tend to be isolated from the rest of the game, existing in a bubble that is rarely affected by other gameplay or story systems. In Subnautica, not only do you get to design your own camp, it also serves to represent safety and exists directly within the world. It’s a space you carve out of the dangerous environment and, as such, holds far greater meaning.
While Subnautica is operating within the survival genre, for me it scratches all the same itches as a good RPG. It does so in a way that is far more organic than the rigid, artificially-imposed, stats-based levelling of roleplaying games. The progression in Subnautica is tied directly into the world and the story; in RPGs, the levelling of your character tends to be separate from both those things, impacting on them only in a fairly abstract manner.
Critically, a traditional RPG can feel like you’re adjusting a hugely complex and extravagantly presented spreadsheet; Subnautica, on the other hand, feels like you’re adapting to a world.
Thanks for reading! I’ve got another Subnautica story which compares its menu systems with No Man’s Sky’s. It’s very nerdy. Read it here.