There Aren't Many Underwater Games, but 'Subnautica' Proves That's a Mistake

Games, in general, invest much more resources in space exploration than ocean exploration, just like in the real world.

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Aug 12 2015, 10:00am

Image: Unknown Worlds

I'm 200 meters deep in an underwater cave on an alien planet. Down here, my small Seamoth submarine is more sensitive to collisions. One too many dings against the rocks, and I'll breach the hull, destroying my only ticket back up to the surface. It's already banged up pretty bad, but this is the only place where I can find lithium, a crucial component in crafting the power cells that the Seamoth and other heavy equipment require.

Where the passages are too narrow, I exit the submarine and swim, exposed to giant, eel-like creatures with mouths that are nothing but teeth. I'm keeping a close eye on how much energy is left in the Seamoth, when I'll need to eat and drink next, and how much life I have left, but the need for one resource is always more pressing than the rest: air.

Historically, this constant anxiety for the next breath make for some terrible video game moments, but developer Unknown World's Subnautica, a game about exploring and surviving the depths of an ocean planet, makes it work beautifully.

An early, notable example of a bad water level is from the first Sonic the Hedgehog, a game known for speed that came to screeching halt in an underwater zone, where the blue mascot had to carefully travel from air bubble to air bubble before he drowned. The Water Temple from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was so hated it was redesigned in following versions, also comes to mind.

"There aren't a lot of underwater games probably because it's so challenging," Unknown Worlds game director Charlie Cleveland told me. "Movement is slow. The world is largely blue. Projectiles move slowly. It's hard to gate the player's movement. Oxygen is a constraint. Huge chunks of the play-space between the water and ocean floor are empty. These are all big challenges, and ones we've worked hard to address."

When game developers want to let players move with complete freedom, explore strange worlds, and pilot cool ships, they almost always send them to space.

Games, in general, invest much more resources in space exploration than ocean exploration, just like in the real world.

Even Subnautica originally started as a space game.

"That slowly morphed quite naturally into an underwater environment," Cleveland said. "Space felt a bit sterile whereas underwater is so lush and varied, it just seemed so much more interesting to explore. At the time there were also quite a few other space games that were announced so we wanted to steer away from that."

Finally building that big submarine is one of the most rewarding things I did in a game this year. Image: Unknown Worlds.

Subnautica starts with a crash landing, leaving you with nothing but a wet suit and fabricator machine, a kind of 3D printer you'll use to craft items. In order to craft items, you'll need to harvest materials from the ocean floor. Basic ingredients like coral and titanium are littered on reefs near the surface, more rare materials like copper and silver are in deeper kelp forests, and the really rare materials, like gold and my precious lithium, are hidden in even deeper caves.

This survival and crafting formula has become popular in the past few years, first with Minecraft, and then with Day Z, an Arma modification that put bunch of players on a zombie infested island and let them figure out the rest.

It's a particularly popular genre with Steam Early Access games, which release as unfinished prototypes that players can buy and see—if all things go according to plan—evolve as development continues.

Subnautica is another survival and crafting game in Early Access, but it's exactly its ocean theme that separates it from the rest of the chum. That, and, of course, the fact that it's being developed by a capable team. Unknown Worlds made its name with the first-person shooter Natural Selection, a free Half-Life modification that pit a team of aliens versus a team of space marines.

Cleveland brought the idea for Subnautica to the rest of the team shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook. He thought there would be merit in working on a less violent game, without guns and combat. Subnautica, instead, focuses on exploration, and so far it doesn't let you kill anything but the small fish you want to cook, but that doesn't mean it's boring.

The need to stay hydrated and fed means you always need to be doing something, and the best way to take care of those needs is getting better tools—submarines, storage units, oxygen tanks—which requires venturing deeper. The goal is to survive, gather materials to craft equipment that can take you deeper, where you can find more materials to build more equipment that can take you even deeper, and so on.

One of the main problems with developing an underwater game is guiding the player through all that water to the interesting stuff. With a land-based game, Unknown Worlds producer Hugh Jeremy told me, most of the action takes place on a single plane.

"In an underwater game you have the terrain of the ocean floor, but you also have say 500 meters of water above you where gameplay could occur," Jeremy said.

One way Unknown Worlds solves this problem are tall vines that reach the ocean's surface. Like much of Subnautica's aquatic life, they're pretty to look at, but they only grow out of kelp forests, so they also serve the purpose of naturally guiding the player further down where there's stuff to do.

It's just one way in Subnautica solves its underwater problems by drawing inspiration from our real oceans. Subnautica's art director Cory Strader told me trips to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, gigabytes of reference photos of real world fish, plant life, and landscapes, all help create the game's alien ocean.

Early Subnautica concept art. The current build of the game looks remarkably close. Image: Unknown Worlds

"Innumerable hours spent watching documentaries and YouTube videos and Google image searching about Earth's oceans, definitely gave me a profound realization of how truly bizarre and alien our own world is, and it sometimes felt daunting trying to top that," he said.

If anything, one of the biggest challenges for the team now is establishing Subnautica as ocean on another planet, when our Earth's oceans are already so alien to us.

"If you go diving on the Great Barrier Reef [off the coast of northeastern Australia] as I was fortunate to do recently, the world looks so much more alien than Subnautica's world," Jeremy said. "We spend a lot of time above the ocean surface and generally we don't realize just how alien the world is down there. Perhaps we've created a realistic experience, perhaps it's not alien enough."

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.