Originally published in The Declaration April 2016

Steam sales are, and will forever be, my kryptonite. Who could resist picking up half-price early access games you come across in your many hours spent poring over YouTube let’s plays, like you do, when you’re me? My latest and greatest impulse buy was Subnautica, a first-person survival adventure game in which you play a space traveler, the sole survivor of a crash which leaves you stranded on an alien ocean planet. The game is currently in development by Unknown Worlds, and typically costs $19.99, though I was able to pick it up for $11.99.

I say “impulse buy” because I didn’t take the time to check the recommended specs before I bought, and was disappointed to find that my standard-issue Cavalier Computers Lenovo T430 laptop was not going to cut it, graphically. Not to be deterred by little things like “minimum hardware requirements” I had to run the game at a lower resolution, and in windowed mode.

One caveat of this review as a result is that I can’t comment on the graphics, which are gorgeous, and the frame rate, which is smooth, in the videos I’ve seen of other people’s gameplay sessions. The other caveat of course is that the game isn’t yet finished. And now, the part of the article where I actually talk about the game itself.

Underneath the visual level, there’s a tremendous gameplay experience to be had. As it is now, the game’s survival mode opens in an escape pod. A computer voice directs you in putting out a fire from the crash and describes basically your situation, which is clear enough visually as you pull yourself out of the pod and survey the world around you.

The Aurora Mining Vessel that bore you to this planet is out of commission, and deteriorating rapidly. There’s you, your escape pod, and a vibrant ocean, both beautiful and terrifying, rich in resources and strange flora and fauna. The tutorial is minimalist; there is in-game documentation providing you with a survival checklist, a few basic instructions on how to harvest resources, and not much else. This is a real strong point as it encourages the player to figure things out by exploration and experimentation.

There are 4 gauges on the display, showing your oxygen level (which determines how long you can stay underwater) as well as health, hunger, and thirst. On board the escape pod is a fabricator which transforms raw materials into crafting supplies, food, drinkable water, and new equipment. And from here, the world is your alien oyster. You can craft oxygen tanks to expand the amount of time you spend underwater, better dive suits for expanded environmental capabilities, tools to make resource collection easier, and eventually even your own undersea base to replace the cramped escape pod. As you begin to push out into the waters further from the pod, there are blueprint fragments to be found among the scattered wreckage of the Aurora, which when assembled allow you to construct better structures and even your own submersible vehicles. These are customizable, and even nameable, which is a nice touch.

Through it all, there is a satisfying balance of elements that makes Subnautica a joy to play. Survival mechanics provide a challenge, but one that never feels all-consuming, or prevents you from exploring, crafting, and upgrading equipment. Atmospherically, the game plays equally on your senses of wonder (as you discover forests of alien kelp, and deep dark undersea caves) and of fear (as you discover the foreign, often violent creatures which inhabit these biomes. As though deep-ocean critters on Earth weren’t scary enough).

As a kid (and even now, eternally the Boy Scout) I always loved survival narratives in books. I ate up Robinson Crusoe, the Swiss Family Robinson, Hatchet, etc. I’m less drawn now to fantasize about isolation and independence on that level, but there’s something in Subnautica that taps me back into that longing for the clean slate, and the infinite possibilities for shaping your surroundings into your own world outside the bounds of civilization. This is made even stronger by modern gaming’s insistence on perpetual connectivity—no shade intended toward No Man’s Sky, another indie exploration game that I can’t wait to get into later this year. It’s nice, though, in the ocean of compulsory multiplayer and “always on” connectivity, to have these private islands of our own design. Or uh, private oceans, in the case of Subnautica. Whatever, the point is play the game. It’s fun.

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