Eletiofe The Wondrous, Tedious Ocean of Subnautica: Below Zero

The Wondrous, Tedious Ocean of Subnautica: Below Zero

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A spacecraft hurtles towards an inhospitable alien planet, crash-landing on a freezing tundra. I escape from the wreckage, nearly blinded by white snow and battered by gale-force winds. My body temperature plummeting, I race across the land mass, eventually spotting water. Without a second’s thought, I dive in, and as my virtual body makes contact with the surface, the violence above is swapped for the serene oceanic below. Light shimmers in the currents, shoals of fish sway gently, and “pengwings,” which seem to be penguinlike creatures, dart effortlessly by. I get my bearings before ascending for a breath—the wind still howls—so I submerge again, back into the turquoise blue.

This juxtaposition between watery calm and bruising surface is common in the opening hours of Subnautica: Below Zero. Developed by San Francisco studio Unknown Worlds, it’s a survival video game that, like others, tasks players with managing various life bars such as health, hunger, and thirst. In this aquatic adventure, oxygen enters the equation too. Often the genre’s physiological abstractions, numbers which slowly drain towards death, feel like chores to deal with. But in Subnautica: Below Zero, the limitations of lung capacity fuel its moments of contrasting wonder precisely because the player is required to momentarily ascend for air. As the waters become stranger and more ominous, the game’s finite oxygen supply imbues its ecological exploration with a striking sense of tension. The pressure, so to speak, never lets up.

Subnautica: Below Zero began life as a DLC expansion for the 2018 original Subnautica before becoming a stand-alone title. Despite this evolutionary nature and my own familiarity with the original, surveying its alien planet still frequently leaves me breathless, from the teeming shallows I arrive in and the deep groans of leviathans to the cataclysmic eruptions of bedrock. The latter, it’s worth noting, makes me feel the smallest I’ve felt in a video game since 2019’s Outer Wilds pitted me against the massive cyclones and waves of its most terrifying alien planet, Giant’s Deep. Like that game, which turned the solar system into a giant and dynamic environmental network, Subnautica: Below Zero’s smaller but more detailed pelagic environments sustain a similar illusion of interconnectedness. Specific organisms and minerals can be found in particular places, almost as if they sustain one another.

These elaborate environmental representations feel put together with the kind of care that stems from keen and thoughtful observation. Confronted with such sights, I find it difficult not to think about the deteriorating state of Earth’s own vulnerable oceans—the acidification obliterating shellfish, warming water destroying corals, the proliferation of marine dead zones, and industrialized fishing wiping out sealife populations. Subnautica: Below Zero, however, makes a gentle ecological point not by showing us the devastating effects of such human-made processes but by illustrating how miraculous life is, even when it feels so thoroughly and strangely other. In this way, it feels in tune with the recent Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, which attempted to cultivate empathy between the audience and its eight-tentacled protagonist.

Against this abundant marine backdrop, I assume the role of biologist Robin Ayou, intent on discovering the fate of her estranged sister Sam. A shady monopolistic corporation, Alterra, looms in the background, a company with a history in arms dealing that now makes its money colonizing alien planets through industries such as deep-sea mining. Its detritus—living quarters, labs, vehicular remains, and a great many container units—litter the in-game seabed and few land masses. I acquire this technology by scanning that which I come across, and this is crucial to a narrative and material arc built on a logic of advancement. To go deeper, and to improve my own chances of long-term survival, I must become extractive like Alterra itself.

Compared to the free-form exploration, this aspect of Subnautica: Below Zero is notably systematic. I acquire blueprints that are basically “crafting recipes,” whose ingredients I source from the seabed. For a battery, which is necessary to power my tools, I need two ribbon plants and one piece of copper, so I venture out into the ocean, returning to the spots where I know they exist. More sophisticated objects require ingredients found in deeper, more dangerous waters, so I head there, too, only now in my hulking Seatruck. Slowly but surely, the wonder I derive from the game’s environments is swapped for transactional familiarity. The ocean, and it feels disheartening writing this, starts to resemble a gigantic, undulating grocery store. To collect the grapevine seed cluster I need for hydraulic fluid, I head to the kelp forest aisle.

The game only occasionally foregrounds my nautical consumerism, like when I drop items on the seafloor because I need to make room for more resources. Sometimes I find my own junk a few days later and feel a pang of guilt, despite this only being a video game. In the Seatruck, meanwhile, I’m both shielded and distanced from the oceanic inhabitants. As I whir through the organism-rich waters, small fish splatter against the glass in queasy yellow blooms, like insects swatting against a car windscreen—ended by my own conspicuous, outsized presence.

What doesn’t happen is any kind of significant oceanic deterioration as resources are plucked from it. Indeed, this static state makes me wonder how a game might handle environmental degradation. In Floating Point Leviathan we get a taste, a first-person underwater game about harpooning a beautiful blue whale. With each successful hit on the giant mammal, the game’s polygonal, pastel-hued visuals glitch and artifact to the extent that, by its end, the entire screen is shaking—ruptured to a nausea-inducing degree. In 10 brief minutes, Floating Point Leviathan makes a striking point about how destabilizing human action can be.

Because harpooning the whale glitches the entire environment, it means this single action reverberates throughout the game’s small but interconnected fishbowl-like world. Such dependencies are hinted at visually in Subnautica: Below Zero, but they don’t, as far as I can tell, express themselves in other ways. For a more symbiotic view of the ocean, players might also look to 2020’s In Other Waters, a top-down marine adventure, which its maker, Gareth Damian Martin, says is inspired by the pioneering work of Lynn Margulis, a biologist who proposes that symbiosis, not competition, is the force that drives evolution and adaptation. It contains a handful of beautiful moments where you witness first-hand the subtle interplay between marine life.

Perhaps this represents a failure of my own imagination, but I can’t envision a version of Subnautica: Below Zero that explores such systems of symbiosis, or that takes seriously the prospect of environmental degradation. How, really, would you simulate such complex, ever-shifting webs of mutualism and codependence in a game of this mammoth size? What it does reflect is the real world’s own imperfect relationship with resources, the natural world, and ideas of progress. Technology in Subnautica: Below Zero allows me to peer into the deepest virtual abyss, to feel the terrifying vertigo of unfathomable depths. I reach these submerged vistas because of the hours I spend grinding, farming, and consuming the ocean around me, only for its bounties to magically reappear a few hours later. I wish our real-world oceans were as resilient as the fantasy this game presents.


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