Under the sea!
I’ve played plenty of games that have been all about ‘flow’. Games with simple, abstract settings, easy to master controls, and often backed by gentle, ambient music; games that drop you out of the everyday, switch your mind to a different gear, and kind of force a meditative state upon you as adapt to the game’s soothing rhythm.
Subnautica is neither simple, nor abstract. It features a rich narrative, complex, interlocking survival mechanisms, and one of the most calming and yet also alarming aquatic settings I’ve swum around in since Super Mario 64 (don’t @ me – that water level was legitimately terrifying). But for all of that the game still manages to do everything in its power to slip you into a higher state of being through the power of flow.
It’s just that every now and then a giant sea monster will also try and eat you.
Subnautica has been in the slow evolution of Early Access for a while now, but I’ve come to it clean on its full release, and I’m pretty glad of it, too. While areas were added or changed through the game’s development, and its plot fleshed out, the final version is as complete as you would expect, and the challenges of the game’s Survival mode fresh and, well, challenging. You’re the apparent lone survivor of a starship that’s crashed onto an unexplored, aquatic world. There’s just you, your escape pod, and some very basic tools to stay alive. Ocean stretches around you as far as the horizon, broken only by the burning hulk of your crashed starship, and your loneliness leavened only by the uncaring AI that has accompanied your pod’s haphazard launch. It seems a barren world… until you leave your pod.
Under the surface is vast, rich, underwater world, with a dozen different biomes, complete with plants, predators, and varying conditions. As you move out from the your escape pod, you start to gather resources, and craft simple items – with more tools, you can gather new resources, and so on until you’ve built a mini-sub, and are starting to lay down the bones of an underwater habitat. At the same time, you get to explore your crashed ship, discover the reason behind its mysterious failure, and learn some dark secrets about the planet itself. The sense of exploration and discovery is beautifully organic.
At the same time, the flow of necessary, repetitive chores helps give the game a relaxing rhythm. You go out, find new (sometimes scary) stuff, but then you’ve got to go back to base and make more water, or prepare more food, or recharge some batteries. Given the very legitimate tension of the game – this world by and large wants to kill you, either by toothy sea monsters, lava vents, toxic environments, or crush depth – the routine you build up is remarkably soothing.
The late game may get a little drawn out, but the first ten or twenty hours of the game goes by in a wonderful flow of vivid seascapes and amazing creature design. By the end… you may not even want to leave the planet!
loneliness leavened only by the uncaring AI that has accompanied your pod’s haphazard launch