Detail of a canvas painting of a swimmer, focusing on their yellow-flippered feet, against an ocean-blue backdrop.
“Ocean Paintings 2015” by antoine renault is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Subnautica is the best console-based video game I played in 2019. Despite the low likelihood that I will ever actually finish it, I would heartily recommend it to anyone comfortable with typical FPS controls and who could afford to spend a few days-to-weeks exploring an engaging and accessible survival/crafting sim, and perhaps the best “low-HUD” immersive adventure I have ever dove into.

Allow me to unpack that latter term, since I just now made it up. (And please do tell me if better label already exists for this!) By “low-HUD”, I mean an open-world adventure game with FPS controls but not an ever-present Skyrim-style on-screen readout, painting compasses and mini-maps and task-lists and floating arrows in the sky and glowing markers in the road telling you precisely where go to next and who to talk to and/or stab. I understand why games — successful games, great games! — have these, and I do not like them.

In real life, you gain much less familiarity with a neighborhood if you navigate solely through a GPS device whispering meter-precise directions to you, versus having a short list of more ambiguous landmarks to look for and recognize. Often you want the easy way, of course — when you just have to pick up a bag of cat food or whatever and then get back to work, you don’t always desire an adventure of urban exploration in the process.

But when I play an adventure game, I always want that! In fact, I feel resentful and even a little sad that the designers crafted this beautiful and enormous world full of things to do and places to see and people to talk to, and then all but insist that I follow a pre-written to-do list while my character somehow knows exactly which person wandering around this town is the man I’m looking for, or precisely which drawer in which desk of which room on which floor of this building I learned about just five minutes ago has the secret code I need, because in all cases the Green Map Pointer of Destiny decrees it. As a result, these games feel less like exploring than just gulping down content by way of exploration-like activity. I still have to make my dude walk around, after all, and he can go in any direction I please — but going in any direction other than directly towards the next Green Map Pointer feels like a bizarre waste of time, like rewinding and rewatching the same scene of a movie repeatedly in a pointless attempt to make that scene longer instead of just letting it play as intended.

But if Skyrim (or Witcher 3 or Outer Worlds and on and on) didn’t have that hyperactive HUD, few people outside of hardcore adventure-game fans would have played it. It would have been too hard! I’m not even sure it would have been possible, in fact; surely the game was designed from the outset under the assumption that players would allow the game to continuously act both as Dungeon Master and as personal assistant, removing as much friction as possible from getting the player to their next joyful Quest Complete! fanfare and the extention of their to-do list by another page.

This personal distaste means that some of my favorite games over the last several years have included immersive 3D exploration games that do not lean heavily on all this on-screen metadata — hence my label of “low-HUD” games. And I have played and enjoyed plenty: Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Soma, to name three very different examples. The first confines itself to a single, large suburban house, and involves mainly self-paced, no-stakes poking around while it tells you a story. The latter two present more substantial open worlds to explore and simple puzzles to solve — and in Soma’s case, creepy monsters to evade. All three games leave it up to the player to map out their respective territories, though; none give you radars and compasses and GPS bing-bongs when you need to turn left. And I glommed onto each experience the moment it began, thinking Ah, at last, this is what I want!

Subnautica, also a member of this low-HUD club, raises itself above any other I have played due to its uncanny success at mixing in a real-time survival-simulator, a genre I’ve wanted to like for years but have always only bounced off, whether the venerable Minecraft, the blunt Don’t Starve, or the swiftly cruel The Long Dark. Subnautica takes elements from those games — hunger/thirst timers, hostile wildlife — in order to set its basic, initial stakes. In due course, Subnautica’s focus shifts from such immediate challenges to learning to live as a castaway, with an eventual — very eventual — goal of escape and ultimate victory. I have unironically called it the best adaptation of The Martian into a video game I could ever hope for.

The magical turn, for me, happens with this sequence of early-game observations and realizations:

  1. The very first time you pop out of the crashed pod to look around, you see the burning wreck of the mile-long starship it had ejected from taking up much of the horizon in a certain direction. “Ah, yes, mise-en-scène, very good,” you think to yourself, and then disregard the wreck as window-dressing.

  2. You want to make note of some interesting underwater features you find while exploring. You always know your depth and how far you are from your pod, but you have no compass, no sense of bearing. But you do have an enormous crashed starship parked on the horizon. This piece of scenery suddenly gets a new role: “north”. You can now make crude triangulations of any feature based on its objective distance to your pod and what direction you travel relative to the line between your pod and the ship.

    Nothing in the game tells you to do this, and nothing in the game “knows” that you’ve made this connection, much less scribbling your notes into a paper notebook as I began to do. But you inevitably start thinking of the ship in these terms anyway anyway, and it feels awesome, becauase that’s you thinking like a survivor for real, even just a little bit.

  3. If you swim in the direction of the ship, you get some blather about deadly radiation from its busted-up engines — and anyway, it’s very far away from the safety of your pod. “Ah, of course, diegetic limitation on the game’s explorable area, very good.” But then you learn to swim faster, and then you discover ways to ward off radiation, and then you start receiving nudges that the ship holds material and information you need to order to continue the overall quest.

    The wreck thus undergoes a second transformation from scenery to useful scenery to complete explorable area that has rested in front of you this whole time with its own dangers and realities and rewards. This floored me. Some real design magic, here!

Once I thoroughly explored the ship — and completed the plot-critical task it contains — the game blew up for me, in the sense of my character’s ability to widen their explorable hemisphere even further (and deeper), their motivation for doing so, and my own confidence as a worthy player of this difficult game. And the game paced right along with all this, giving me many more sequences of mystery and discovery and mastery much like this initial, long-paced encounter with the shipwreck, and all still in the same, seamless, open world stretching around that smelly old life-pod. It is very good, and I played it for weeks.

This all happened last summer, right after I shipped a knot of projects for both my dayjob and for IFTF that had consumed nearly my attention for several months. I needed a vacation, and Subnautica gave me a seaside holiday really unlike anything I’d ever experienced in its medium. Alas, holidays have to end sometime, and after around 200 hours of play I felt it time to return home — making a cliffhanger out of my poor aquanaut, who we last saw plodding a thermally shielded mech suit through a vast undersea volcanic system, searching for a rumored cave network. Continuing from this point would mean sinking many more hours into building a scanning-base rated for the proper crush depth, and I love that I know that, and I just can’t. I knew that I had eaten my fill of this wonderful game, and had reached the extent of my appetite.

We do sometimes return to vacation spots we treasure. Maybe the time will come when I cannot resist blocking out a couple more weeks to climb back into my lead-lined wetsuit and see how much deeper Subnautica goes. But until then — and even if I never do — my time on Planet 4546B will always be some of the very finest I’ve ever spent holding a game controller.

(For further reading, see also Matt Weise’s review of the game from a narrative perspective.)

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