Subnautica | Dive into a new survival experience
Subnautica | Dive into a new survival experience

Subnautica | Dive into a new survival experience

Posted on 05 July, 2024

Game designer

Art Director

Cory Strader
More Info

Lead Composer

Simon Chylinski

Publishing Year

Type of game



Subnautica was first announced by Unknown Worlds Entertainment in 2013, as a small project born in the wake of Minecraft‘s success and the survival genre’s popularity. However, the final product took almost five years to complete – at the cost of 10 million dollars and multiple bankruptcy risks.
To counter the high production expenses, the studio resolved to sell the game in early access. This decision allowed the developers to get valuable feedback from the players, which shaped the game into the open-world, exploration-based survival it is today. Thus, the 2018 release featured adjustments, story expansions and graphic enhancements that met the taste of video game players worldwide, with over 6 million copies sold.

Stranded on an alien planet

Ryley Robinson is part of Aurora’s crew, sent by Alterra Corporation to build a phase gate in a remote system. However, the mission takes an abrupt turn when the ship crashes on the oceanic planet known as 4546B. This is where the game starts, with alarms blaring as the protagonist rushes into a life pod. During the evacuation, a shock wave sends debris flying and knocks him unconscious – moments after seeing the Aurora explode. With no other pod nor land in sight, Ryley appears to be the only one left after the catastrophe. Stranded in an unknown world, he must find a way to survive in hopes of rescue.

Image courtesy of Unknown Worlds Entertainment © 2018

While Subnautica might seem to lack a true storyline, with no stated objective besides survival, this is not the case. Contrary to survival storylines like Frostpunk, here the narrative is introduced a while after the initial stage of the game via distress calls. Investigating these signals will lead to acquiring data entries, which both shed light on the events and reintroduce the human element into an otherwise lonely game experience. By learning about the fate of those who came before, the player will uncover the planet’s many mysteries. As well as learn how to stop an unforeseen threat from spreading through the galaxy.

Breathing life into this submerged world

From the very beginning, the world of Subnautica feels vast: a wilderness that is both untamed and unfamiliar. A sensation that grows the more the protagonist ventures through different biomes and ever-deepening waters. Two core elements contribute to strengthening the game’s immersion: sound and visual design. The first conveys the feeling of being underwater through efficient sound effects and a well-crafted soundtrack. In particular, music serves to set the scene as each location has its track. From the light and upbeat tunes of the early shallow areas to the more eerie notes of underwater caves. Even silence has a prominent role, in communicating the isolated state of its protagonist.

Image courtesy of Unknown Worlds Entertainment © 2018

The visuals work as complementary to shaping the game’s universe. From the change in light with the day and night cycles, to the distortion created by waves. From the bubbles leaving Ryley’s mask to the sunrays filtering from the surface. It brings an element of familiarity to the alien, which renews the player’s curiosity with each new area. True to life, the nature in Subnautica is as fascinating as it is unsettling. A combination is also found in another explorative video game set in a flooded world, Submerged Hidden Depths.

And while Subnautica does not present itself as a horror game, it still manages to craft moments of tension seeped in thalassophobia. Such as swimming alone in the open sea, while the bellowing cries of giant unseen creatures echo from the darkness. It manages to convey the feeling of being small and defenseless in a world of leviathans.

A new take on the survival genre

Compared to staples of the genre like Don’t Starve, Subnautica differs from form in many ways. In addition to health, hunger and thirst, exploring the depths introduces a new parameter to keep track of: oxygen. Making sure to have enough air to venture below but also to make it back to the surface becomes crucial. Even more so in a game without a map, which leaves the player to use landmarks and positional audio to navigate their alien surroundings. Moreover, it does not feature the quest structure that is common in many video games, from Dark Souls to Call Of Duty. Instead, it lends itself to cycles of exploring, gathering resources and returning to the base for crafting. This routine is an obligatory passage that allows the player to become familiar with the mechanics from the early stages.

Image courtesy of Unknown Worlds Entertainment © 2018

Each piece of knowledge becomes a precious tool in preparation for what is to come. Finding blueprints grants access to new technologies – including vehicles such as the Seamoth – which unlock the next level of gameplay. They allow excursions in areas once unreachable without the worry of oxygen, providing a safer environment when exploring wrecks. The same goes for the base building mechanic, which becomes fundamental in a world with so little dry land. Bases double as shelters, where to grow food and plants, as well as stations to recharge one’s vehicles before the next expedition. All of these mechanics represent different ways to approach exploration, which in turn increase the player’s engagement.

Subnautica: the beginning of a franchise

Another notable element that sets this title apart is the fact that it does not revolve around combat. Contrary to other sci-fi titles like Mass Effect there are no fight mechanics, no health bars for the fauna and no rewards for their defeat. The few weapons available are to either capture smaller fish for food or to stun larger creatures, but have little offense power. This is because the in-game world of Subnautica revolves around the law of nature. One where the protagonist is the prey, and whose predators – the leviathans – are meant to feel like a force too great to be reckoned with. More akin to Amnesia, these are enemies one can only flee from, hoping not to catch their eye.

Image courtesy of Unknown Worlds Entertainment © 2018

Said unconventional dynamic and the players are encouraged to find their approach to survival is what leads to its success. Albeit being far from perfect – suffering from frame rate drops and bugs that can disrupt the flow – Subnautica still holds up to the passage of time, and is now an ongoing series. In 2021 the expansion Subnautica: Below Zero was released, with a third chapter in the works.


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