I could barely bring myself to leave the starting area when I first played Subnautica. Submerging myself in the water was terrifying, I had no idea what awaited me in the depths of this alien ocean. I crafted basic items, trying not to stray too far from the tiny floating pod that served as my only sanctuary. All around the distant blue abyss was calling me, pushing me further out. Eventually, I mustered the courage to wander over to a nearby kelp forest.
I heard something roaring close by, but not close enough to see. Something moved through my vision, larger than any fish I’d seen. I descended into the luminous green, my heart racing.
The forest is full of “Stalkers”, shark-like alien creatures that love to chase and attack you. And sure enough, that’s exactly what they did. Desperately, I carved lines in the water with my tiny pocketknife as they circled me. Everything looked the same in the midst of the kelp forest and I lost track of them, only to be caught off-guard with a watery grave. In a chaotic scramble, I turned off my game and didn’t return for months.
There’s a word that sums up why I felt so scared playing Subnautica. It’s thalassophobia: a fear of the sea. Specifically, a persistent fear of its vast emptiness, the creatures within it and the huge distance from land. This game is entirely responsible for me learning what the word even meant, and my realisation that I probably have it.
With that in mind, it seems a little strange to return to the game some time later. I ventured back into the deep waters, aiming to go further than my last attempt. Knowing what to expect from those luminescent green forests now, I wasn’t about to let the Stalkers get the better of me. I soldiered on, grabbing all the materials I needed from the forest while carefully avoiding the carnivorous creatures. I ducked under their jaws and snatched resources from the tall, glowing plants. It was a rush, but I managed it.
I may be scared of the sea, but I’m also fascinated by it. Not knowing what’s beneath the waves is unnerving but it triggers a morbid curiosity in me. Even our own oceans on Earth, have all kinds of creatures that don’t seem real. It’s the most mystifying slice of our planet and I’m captivated by how they survive down in the depths. This is why I returned to Subnautica – if a small kelp forest right at the beginning of the game can create all these different feelings within me, what else could be out there on this alien world?
And so I attempted to explore every corner of Subnautica, to overcome my thalassophobia and experience what the rest of the game had to offer. It’s a brilliant game, and it exceeds at creating an atmospheric ocean adventure where the journey into undiscovered areas fills you with dread, excitement and surprise in equal measure.
The genius of Subnautica is multi-faceted. It’s excellent at creating a feeling of isolation, pulling you down to a depth with no-one to accompany you. Any human voices you hear are limited to recordings found in destroyed pods, essentially as if you’re listening to ghosts. But hearing the remnants of lost crewmates drives you forward, pushing you forwards to piece together this story of sunken souls.
Your only friends are the machinery you craft on your journey. Further into the game you get an ability to scan the ocean terrain ahead of you, and as the faint outline extends into the abyss you get a true sense of how enormous this world is and how tiny you are. Watching the empty void reveal itself was haunting, and it sent shivers down my spine. Even when you’ve built a more advanced submarine, you’re still a dot in comparison to the vast emptiness around you.
Another triumph of Subnautica is its sound design – or rather the lack of sound – where the endless silence of the depths hits harder than any soundtrack could. Even when the music does present itself in-game, it serves nothing more than to make those silent moments more dread-inducing.
At times I’d be entirely submerged in a midnight-black cave, low on supplies and scrambling to find the exit. I’d hear noises from below, distant movement, echoing roars. Still, I ventured onwards. I was rewarded with new crafting opportunities and story progression, but more importantly I had new sights to gaze at in astonishment. Ancient skeletons of titans with jaws wide enough to swallow the biggest living leviathans in the ocean, huge canyons where ghostly sea monsters roamed, and broken structures from a long-extinct civilisation, now home to new inhabitants.
When I finally reached the end of Subnautica, and my escape rocket was ready for departure, it felt solemn. I didn’t want to leave this astonishing world, despite all the terrors lurking within. It was starting to feel like home. I grew to know its inhabitants. The more time I’d spent underwater, the stranger it felt whenever I had to travel up to land. Subnautica was an unforgettable experience for me, one that taught me perseverance can lead to incredible rewards, and although I still shiver at the thought of taking a deep dive into our oceans, I’m more interested in celebrating the prospering life below than ever before.