What Makes Subnautica Such a Good Game?

The open world genre of video games is unique. To be a captivating experience, an open world game must be interesting enough to hold your attention and influence you to explore. No game does this better than Subnautica: an underwater survival game that veers into horror territory. Subnautica began as an early access game in late 2014 – it was unpolished, full of bugs, and prone to crashing whatever platform it was being played on. Through the years, the determination of the developers and feedback from players shaped the result: Subnautica was released as a full game in early 2018. The praise for Subnautica has not slowed down in the five years since its full release. This game is packed to the brim with individuality and qualities that set it apart from its peers. Unknown Worlds Entertainment, the developer team, created a future classic. In the sea of open world games to choose from, how does Subnautica stand out?

Subnautica throws you right into the action from the very beginning. The player begins in a life pod that has been ejected from a burning spaceship. Once the life pod has landed, the player wakes up and sees that they are now stranded on an oceanic alien planet. The opening shot is one to remember: the soundtrack emits a foreboding thrum as the crashed ship is seen for the first time, surrounded on all sides by water. Aside from the device that gives occasional tips or guidance, the player is completely alone and free to decide where they want to go, what they want to do, and how they want to move forward. As the story progresses, the player, bit by bit, uncovers the secrets of planet 4546B, including a fatal infection that has taken hold of the wildlife, and soon enough, the player. The more information is revealed, the more dangerous the mission becomes. Despite the looming threat of death, the mystery surrounding the planet is strong enough to make you forget why you hesitated in the first place. Where did the infection come from? What are the origins of the strange structures scattered around the environment? Who were the people stranded on this planet before us, and how did they meet their end? These questions are all answered eventually, but to find these answers, you must explore terrifying settings filled with creatures who don’t want you there.

The plot of Subnautica is unlike anything many people have ever seen. The pacing is flawless, and the flow of information is always present in some form or another. Environmental storytelling is a massive aspect of Subnautica. The player learns things about the planet and its inhabitants through previous bases built by others. There are subtle hints everywhere the player looks that give them an idea of how small they are in the grand scheme of things. The player becomes tangled in a mission to save both the planet and themself – a daunting task that brings them to every dark, terrifying corner of planet 4546B.

The level design of Subnautica is one of a kind. It can’t be said for many games that the world feels truly alive, but for Subnautica that claim stands true. The vastness of the open sea can be both horrifying and beautiful: a duality which this game takes full advantage of. The gorgeous graphics can be admired when the player stops and takes a second to look around, but this opportunity is rare when deadly creatures are hunting them down. There is never a visually dull moment in Subnautica with its impressive 19 biomes to discover and explore. These biomes range from safe to so dangerous that it’s a risk even going there. Every environment has distinct aspects that make it discernable from the others: color scheme, flora, fauna, etc. For example: the grassy plateau biome is known for its trademark creature called the reefback. The aptly named reefbacks are docile, harmless, gentle giants that support an ecosystem on their backs. They emit a thunderous groan that can be heard from miles away. The grassy plateau is covered with red grass and protruding rock structures. A biome on the other side of the safety spectrum is the dunes. The dunes are dark, ominous sand fields that bring forth terror in the player like nothing else. The dunes are known for one thing: the reaper leviathan. There are 8 reaper leviathans in the dunes, which is a shockingly big number when even one reaper is enough reason to quit the game. Reapers are long, snake-like fish that sport sharp red mandibles on their face, as well as an impressive set of teeth. If the player gets caught by one, they’d be smart to prepare for game over. The reapers’ haunting cries are so piercing that they can be recognized in an instant. Level-headed players tend to avoid the dunes at all costs, but eventually, whether it be for a rare blueprint or a creature egg, most will find themselves begrudgingly driving their Seamoth in the direction of this dreaded place.

The soundtrack and audio design of Subnautica deserve their own separate credit for how spectacular they are. The game would not be half as terror-inducing as it is without the spatial audio that cranks the immersion up to one hundred. There’s nothing quite like venturing into a dangerous biome – the deep grand reef, blood kelp zone, crash site, you name it – and hearing the echoing cries of the wildlife around you. This flawless audio design works hard to remind th player of how small they actually are in this universe. The player, a lone adventurer who wasn’t supposed to be on this planet, is intruding on these creatures’ home, and they are not afraid to let the player know that they aren’t welcome. No one can put it in better words than Bart Torgal – a previous victim of planet 4546B. “We shouldn’t have gone so deep. They do not want us down here.”

Music seems like it would be the odd one out of Subnautica’s game design. With such great immersion and sound quality, in a game that takes place in an alien ocean no less, what could music possibly add? Much more than you may think. The music never takes away from the experience, it simply adds to it. It’s never out of place or overwhelming. There are designated songs for every section of the game that play softly as the player explores. The music will give comfort in some scenarios and build on the dread in others. Synth filled melodies will hold the player’s hand as they journey into unfamiliar territory. Soft vocals will surround them as they stare into the gaping mouth of a dark cave. The music of Subnautica is masterful and tunes an already perfect game into an unforgettable experience.

It’s difficult to stand out in the gaming industry. Making an experience that will stay in the memories of players forever is a big challenge, yet Subnautica does it with ease. The overflowing character of the world you’re suddenly dropped into is enough to keep you hooked, as well as the mysteries that encompass planet 4546B. As a seemingly standard survival plot transforms into a life-or-death mission to save both yourself and this horrifyingly beautiful world, you’ll find yourself not wanting to leave.