Hold your breath and dive in
Subnautica: Below Zero
Unknown Worlds Entertainment Available on Mac, PC, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Sometimes, when I play a video game where a protagonist might drown I'll unconsciously hold my breath until my avatar finds oxygen or dies. Maybe it's because I'm a lifelong swimmer, but situations like this make it all too easy to imagine myself in risky aquatic situations. And so it was that Subnautica: Below Zero, which largely takes place underneath an ocean, elicited no small number of panicky reactions.
The sequel to 2014's Subnautica, Subnautica: Below Zero slips players into the wet suit of Robin Ayou, a scientist who travels to an alien world to try to suss out what happened to her sister, Samantha, who worked for the ethically dubious company, Alterra. After receiving a vaguely worded notice from Alterra informing her of her sister's death, supposedly due to Samantha's “negligence,” Robin takes it upon herself to investigate.
Following a rough crash landing on the surface of the planet 4546b, Robin seeks shelter in a small underwater lifepod to escape the dangerous weather conditions that regularly roil the planet's surface. The lifepod is equipped with a storage locker and a fabricator which 3D prints tools and equipment. The fabricator also cooks fish and extracts drinkable water from them. To fashion the necessary tools that will allow her to explore the ocean's depths, Robin must scour her surroundings for minable resources.
My favourite parts of Subnautica:
Below Zero were those which sparked anxiety. It's easy to become disoriented exploring the game's numerous underwater caverns. Finding a longed-for resource and then losing it on account of running out of oxygen before Robin can replenish her tank is the sort of exquisite pain the game offers, and bumping Robin's head on a ceiling where I expected open water provoked a sharp, fleeting sense of dread. Curiously, the way Below Zero oscillates from long restive stretches between points of interest to short bursts of perilous activity absorbed my attention in ways many more-frenzied popular horror games don't. Progression in the game on its default Survival mode is built on a series of tiny victories like crafting an item or finding a difficult-to-locate place.
When I started playing Below Zero I was initially put off by the need to track resources back and forth while also making sure Robin doesn't die from dehydration or hunger. Fortunately, the developers were far-sighted enough to include Freedom mode which eliminates the need for food and water; there is also a Hardcore mode where Robin only has one life and a Creative mode that cuts out the story and eliminates the need to Hooverup resources, find blueprints or worry about oxygen and hunger.
Subnautica: Below Zero's conventional sci-fi storyline never raised my interest. But the painstaking effort it takes to get Robin from one minor narrative point of interest to another made me appreciate its small, very human scale of success.