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game review: subnautica


"marine salvage for gamers."

i did not finish subnautica. i try my best to finish every game i review, but i felt that after twelve hours of having a merely okay time, i had gotten the essential experience.

subnautica is a underwater-themed survival crafting game released in 2018 and developed by unknown worlds entertainment, previously known primarily for natural selection 2. at the time of this writing, it enjoys "overwhelmingly positive" reviews on steam. survival crafting games such as subnautica have generally found immense success over the past ten years, mostly targeting the large niche of people who found minecraft's total open-endedness somewhat overwhelming.

like most of these games, subnautica is a game about relentless, skinner box-esque tech tree climbing. the creative joy one could find building elaborate contraptions in minecraft is gone, replaced by a checklist of technologies one can build by assembling the right materials. in order to unlock an item, one must first engage in the tedious act of scouring the ocean floor for countless near-identical shipwrecks, in which can be found scannable pieces of things you can build. upon scanning enough pieces of something, the blueprint is unlocked and you can build it.

in minecraft, one might design and build an automatic resource farm of some kind out of constituent machine parts: redstone, pistons, hoppers. in subnautica, this experience of creation is taken away, and replaced with replication: you neither design nor build your machines. there is, for instance, a machine which automatically purifies water for you to drink. to build it is exactly the same as building any other large machine: you go to every shipwreck you can find, scan all the pieces you can find, and then place it somewhere in your base, in a room you built by a similar process.

the game keeps very tight control over the order in which it is possible to do things. because the game takes place underwater, you have a limited oxygen supply, and you drain oxygen faster the deeper you go. you can improve this first by upgrading your oxygen tank, then by building a submarine and upgrading it. there is again no creativity here, no problem solving. the solutions to the problems are already there, you just need to find them.

you can't simply decide "i want to automatically purify water" and construct a contraption to do so, like you would in minecraft. if that's something you want, and the designers have decided you're not at the appropriate stage of the game yet, you simply can't. if those blueprint pieces are deeper in the ocean than you can go right now, you have to first focus on upgrading your submarine so that you can go deeper to find them. you don't get to have priorities, the game has them for you.

even if you could have your own priorities, the game's large, repetitive environments give you absolutely no clues as to where to look for the specific things you want. you can build a "scanner room," which will tell you about blueprint pieces nearby, but even with the highest upgrades its range is pathetic.

the only way to really find out how to do what you want is to look it up on a wiki, which will tell you the locations of the blueprint pieces. unlike in minecraft, where you might consult a wiki for crafting recipes for small components to be used in a larger contraption of your own design, or for a schematic for a contraption someone else designed but you get to enjoy the delightfully manual process of constructing yourself, deciding where to place it, and adapting it for your needs. in subnautica, you simply scan something to learn the blueprint, and then magically construct it with no thought required.

descending into a cave full of glowing jellyfish or swimming alongside giant coral-encrusted leviathans is genuinely incredible. unfortunately, pleasures like these can already be found in abzu, a game which doesn't feel the need to make exploring the breathtaking beauty of the ocean into a set of chores.

there is nothing of particular interest in subnautica despite this. comparing it to abzu only results in laying bare how subnautica's functional graphics do nothing to enhance the beauty of the ocean environments. comparing it to minecraft merely shows how integral lateral thinking and problem solving is to a compelling survival game. and it has nothing else to show: there's no interesting combat, no particularly compelling narrative, nothing to make your playtime anything but marine salvage for gamers.