Almost sixty hours I’m already swimming in this beautifully dangerous, endless depth. Back and forth, up and down, searching for valuable metals, survivors or their logs, and at minimum a way for me to survive another day in this blue hell.
Subnautica tells the story of the crash of a huge spaceship onto an unknown water planet, which my character seems to be the only one to have survived. Floating in the escape pod and equipped with only the bare minimum, the game starts out like many survival/crafting games, only on or in an ocean. With a refreshing amount of depth, the game underlines its uniqueness with fantastic visual staging, but especially with its music. Nowhere is this more evident than at the game’s grand finale.
Warning: Massive spoilers about the ending of Subnautica follow.
Subnautica not only taught me the fear of the deep, but also the reward of diligence. After many, many days of play and steady progress (I built flippers, then medikits, eventually underwater vehicles, even -stations and botanical gardens), the final step of my journey is dawning on me: I am going to build a rocket that will allow me to defy gravity and leave the surface of this planet. This is so mind-boggling that I actually think it’s impossible. In comparison, the construction of my nuclear-powered submarine looked like a finger exercise.
Most of the operations in Subnautica feel pleasantly non-game-y. There are no cutscenes and no invisible walls. No big arrow telling me where to go, no arbitrary gates or forced paths. With so much non-linearity, music is especially impressive when it comes at the right time.
I use all my knowledge, hard-earned tools and helpers to find missing materials, combine them and build my escape rocket. To begin, I need to start with a floating launch pad. This platform alone is larger and more impressive than anything I’ve constructed before. Starting at the bottom with the rocket itself, the propulsion system follows. As I press the button to start the construction process, an electronic upbeat plays, a mix of one-note arpeggio and rhythmic heartbeat, but it fades into echo after a few seconds. An hour later, after I’ve gathered enough parts for the rump, the same thing happens. The rocket grows and looks ever more imposing. Finally I build the cockpit. Again five seconds of techno fanfare. Like a riff praising my achievement. A pat on the back, a flourish, and an exciting anticipation of what may come.
As the colossus stands and I climb into the rocket, I can hardly believe that I’m supposed to have built all this myself. I flip lever after lever to initiate the central systems and launch. I prepare a time capsule with a message stating that this hostile planet has offered me a home in a strange way and has made me grow.
I sit down in the only chair in the room, begin the launch protocol. The electrobeat is back. But this time longer than before, I realize it’s an intro to a longer track. Spacey melodic synths being layered, climbing the scale, building harmonies and tensions. The countdown starts, I sit back. On the half-glazed dome, I see the planet’s only flying creatures up close for the first time, as they linger on the roof like pigeons, but then, startled by the rocket vibration, fly away. The beat drops. The countdown reaches zero. My eyes are wide. My heart stops for a moment. Liftoff.
I’m at the concert of my favorite band, in the first bars of the chorus, wanting to sing along at the top of my lungs. I know every word and blissfully drown in the waves of hysteria.
My fate is now out of my hands, I have to trust this band, sorry, this rocket. We actually take off, reaching incredible altitude in seconds, piercing the cloud cover, visibility turning black. An orbital debris field damages the rocket, for a moment it is not clear whether this was not a suicide mission after all.
But then: silence. Gentle choral sounds as my rocket turns towards orbit and I see the planet from above again after a long, long time. I set a course to the next “Interstellar Phase Gate” – the first stop on my way home. My spaceship goes into hyperspace, the music goes back to uptempo beat. I grin at the same face over which I feel a tear trickle.
Subnautica, developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, was in Early Access for four years and obviously gained a lot from that when it was officially released in 2018. Simon Chylinski is responsible for the soundtrack of Subnautica. Unfortunately, you have to separate art and artist harshly here – after some very problematic statements, the composer was fired. The successor Subnautica: Below Zero has been available since May 14, 2021.
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