At around the 35-hour mark, I sat, depleted on the couch, staring at my TV. I felt like Matt Damon at the end of The Martian and he departed Mars into space on his makeshift shuttle. A mixed bag of emotions swept through me as I was hurdling helplessly into the endless void of space. A huge wave of relief, a tinge of foreboding, and a real sense of accomplishment for the work I put in. There was also regret; I was leaving this makeshift home that I put in hours to build and to make homely. But this is not a review about Subnautica, but about how Subnautica is basically a masterclass at scaffolding.
In teaching, scaffolding is when an instructor deconstructs complex concepts into smaller chunks so as to provide key points of knowledge specifically at the level of experience the learner requires. And this is what Subnautica does fantastically well. Never did the game give me more than I could handle at any point, and never once did I feel out of my depth (figuratively and literally).
The game cleverly starts in an enflamed lifepod capsule with a single Fire Extinguisher on the floor. Of all the scientific equipment in the game like the prawn suit, fabricator, or habitat builder, the game decides to introduce the player into this survival game on this alien water world with a scenario that we are more intimately familiar with: putting out fires.
Well, technically I’ve never put out an actual fire in my life. But I know what a fire looks like. I know instinctively that a red cylindrical canister is a Fire Extinguisher, and I know that if I picked it up, and then applied the Fire Extinguisher upon the fire, I’ll be able to, well… extinguish it!
In this simple, arguably relatable scenario, the game has taught me:
1. How to pick up an item
2. How to select the item and use it.
3. That when I interact with things in the game, it can be affected by my actions.
All this is done without a step-by-step, 6-page game pausing instruction manual telling me to press X to pick up an item, explaining to me that items come in various shapes and forms and that if I press R2, I can use the item that I’m wielding in my hands.
And, to be absolutely honest, I didn’t need to put out the fire. The game provided 2 more options to escape the situation, a ladder to the top of the escape pod, and a hatch to the shallows beneath the pod. I could climb to safety, escaping the deathly fires to survey my surroundings from up high, or take a refreshing dive into unknown alien waters. Either way, it was my choice.
At this point, I’d like to also point out that technically, there is no way to progress from that point unless the fires were taken out. The ship radio and fabricator (seriously best invention ever) are locked behind the fire. But the player doesn’t know this, and the game did not force this linear path to play out. Yes, it was an illusion of choice, but it was the freedom of space to muck around that made all choices in this game self-directed. I only progressed when I wanted to, and that made all the difference.
Part of the ingenuity of the game is its lack of directive but always providing a clear player purpose. Leaving the planet was clearly my main objective, but I had no way of immediately knowing how to do so. However, I knew the main ship I was ejected from was sitting duck a distance away from my lifepod. Also, in the vast ocean laid out in front of me, this was the one MASSIVE thing sticking out of the waters, calling me to it.
So once gameplay picked up, I always knew exactly what my next objective was, and how it related to my overarching objective. While my immediate concern was surviving, what with the constant hunger and dehydration (perks of being human), I soon realized that the ship's nuclear core created an impenetrable radiation zone, preventing me to get in. The game also gave me a simple crafting recipe for an anti-radiation suit, with ingredients I’ve not encountered before. So, my tasks were laid out in front of me.
- Eat bland, glowing fish
- Drink non-vegetarian water
LONG TERM GOAL
- Find out what a “Synthetic Fibre” is made of
- Find the thing that makes “Synthetic Fibres”
- Hopefully avoid any deadly creatures guarding these natural materials
- Get enough to craft synthetic fibres and anti-radiation suit
- Gear up with other equipment like knife and torches
- 8 extra SUBTASKS
- Swim to giant crash
The brilliance of the game is that none of this was asked of me. The game provided no checklist, no quest tab, no markers or beacons or arrows on the map to tell me what I should do next. This was completely self-directed.
And this continued in a similar fashion throughout the game. Every time I completed a task and progressed, the game provided me 1 new recipe that required 1 new item that I’ve not seen before. This new material would usually be locked away slightly deeper than I would be comfortable with. And I’d usually need to craft items or vehicles that would allow me to just barely reached those depths.
It was an absent teacher, never giving a player more than they can handle at any one point. It made sure that there was always a clear direction for the player to head towards while making it JUST difficult enough to accomplish.
And that finesse is truly what makes the game stands out. The game made progress organic and meaningful. I could only reach so far because of how much air I had. My vehicles could only traverse so far, and I could only go so far before needing to return to base to eat and drink. Balancing these systems limited how far, deep, or long I could explore. There was no tree stopping my progress until I learned Cut, or construction in progress, or city watch guard who arbitrarily needs a baguette to allow me to pass. This meant, the more prepared I was, the longer, further, and deeper I could go. I was my only limit.
Beyond that, the constant discoveries of new biomes, new depths, new creatures, and combinations. Every single tool discovery felt like a game-changer, layered upon my existing knowledge, and then stringing a plot of alien technology and infection seamlessly through it. Experientially, this was the best application of i+1 of input hypothesis I’ve experienced in games in years.
On the topic of things the game doesn’t provide, it doesn’t give the player a map. While this confused me to no end with navigating, it only added to my experience and immersion of landing on an alien planet at the end of the game. I never realized what a crutch an in-game map would be until my metaphorical nose was pried out from it. I had to rely on my physical awareness of space to remember where the multiple landmarks were, and I paid much more to distance and direction than I’ve ever had to in any other game. It gave me this deep sense of trepidation and adventure, the same way I’d imagine I’d be if I were lost in the actual wild.
And so brings me back to the end of the game. There I was on the couch, flying off into the great abyss. For a moment, I thought I understood death. Everything I did, everything I owned, was left there on that planet. My ultra-cool submarine with my portable plants kept me fed. My souped-up Prawn suit and Seamoth that kept me alive through countless situations with the leviathans. My first base, with a double-decker observatory with a twin bed, posters, and a mini aquarium with all the Cuddlefish I found through my travels. And now, I could not return even if I wanted to.
It felt inevitable. And it gave me a deep sense of loss and finality. This game’s experience was fleeting, and the only thing I have of my time in the game are my memories of it. And perhaps, that is good enough.