Subnautica: Below Zero is Another Landmark in Video Game Horror

There are people who, I am told, feel relaxed when they play Subnautica. They find it pleasant to swim through an underwater alien world where distinct and colorful biomes seamlessly melt together, dense with extraterrestrial flora and fauna. For these people, the gradual acquisition of resources to construct bases, vehicles, and tools to more efficiently acquire resources is a serene process, a task to do at your own pace while leisurely following story threads about what happened on the mysterious Planet 4546B.

I am not one of these people, and I will not pretend to understand them.

A cursory search around a more relatable demographic, people who are in fact scared as shit by playing Subnautica, points again and again to “thalassophobia,” which means the fear of deep bodies of water. I can’t say for sure whether this is the root of my own reaction to the game, but either way, I’m sure it would make playing any Subnautica — both the original game and its arctic-based standalone expansion-turned-semi-sequel Subnautica: Below Zero — a rather stressful experience. But I think that stress stems from more than a specific brand of instinctual terror, certainly related but not quite the same. Though the scary parts of Subnautica are often inherent to its very premise of underwater survival, the ways that premise has been realized through a video game work in conjunction with versions of and/or responses to modern game design conventions, creating a game that has these frightening qualities baked into its very structure.

Subnautica: Below Zero

Survival, Horror 

The traditional horror game unfolds in what are either claustrophobic corridors or thinly-disguised versions of them. It strings us along one-way paths because linearity is the surest bet to successfully engineer tension, allowing developers to count on players being in certain places looking in certain directions when something finally goes, “Boo!” (Not for nothing did so many early entries in the genre operate from fixed camera perspectives.) And in a tightly scripted, claustrophobic horror game, we can somewhat prepare. We steel ourselves against what we believe is to come, which is an effective approach to horror in its own right — our minds cook up possibilities for what could emerge from the unknown, and the only way to progress is to step forward against our better judgment and risk finding out. 

But such linearity also comes with a vague certainty of where we must go and where the really hairy, bone-chilling stuff is going to happen. The unknown becomes a direct and quantifiable space right there in front of us, and by moving through it we essentially carve a safe zone out of the darkness, either totally clearing enemies and obstacles from the areas behind us or mentally noting their presence if we must ever return. 

Conversely, Subnautica‘s oceans offer plenty of nonlinear space, with plenty of escape routes and room to maneuver that should, in theory, work against any feeling of vulnerability. In practice, however, underwater navigation collapses the minuscule certainty and security we cling to in more straightforward horror games, stripping us of our knowledge of where we need to go and from which direction something freaky will emerge. The wide space becomes oppressive, a distressing counterpart to the apparent exhilaration of the open world “see that mountain/you can go there” ethos. Swimming provides a freedom of motion that lets you go anywhere, but you typically can’t see very far into the distance — the already-murky visibility fluctuates depending on what biome we wander into, how deep we dive, and how late in the day it is. We float through what amounts to another manifestation of horror game fog, freedom at the price of wondering what could be out there from every possible direction, in an ocean where it is all too easy to get turned around.  

Subnautica: Below Zero

Horrors of More

Eventually, we do come to learn the space, recognizing things like which creatures are behind the terrifying roars that cut through the ocean ambiance. It can be a slow process, like fumbling for a light switch on the other end of an unlit room, but we get there eventually (perhaps after tripping over a couple of things); we begin to remember the depths and the vague locations of where to get certain resources, of which objects are in which biomes. And in doing so, we rebuild a sense of security and safety out of old haunts and homespun landmarks like sea base buildings and deployable beacons.

But that security is fleeting, because even in the smaller, more focused map that Below Zero features compared to its predecessor, there always seems to be more space. The ocean covers a large enough area to make a central base inconvenient, if we even manage to pinpoint where a central base should reasonably be. Inventory space is limited, and the storage space of the seatruck we build to more efficiently and (somewhat) more safely explore the depths expands the inventory only slightly in exchange for some mobility. It becomes necessary to construct other bases and other supply caches, and then we have to keep straight which resources are stashed where and why. Subnautica is much easier when you’re organized, but as the space expands and the options grow, organization becomes difficult. I find myself taking shortcuts and sliding into sloppiness, thinking that I don’t need to stock back up on quartz or that I’ll be fine with what drinkable water I already have in the rush to accomplish a goal that’s now just within reach. 

In the face of our need for more resources and our desire for more Content, our wide thirst for “more” dismantles any kind of safety we’ve cultivated. And we are not accustomed to “more” betraying us in this way. We adore the prospect of “more” when it comes to video games, a medium terminally obsessed with ballooning size and scale. “More” is deeply entrenched in the culture, reinforcing a value system that constantly places the most expensive and elaborate titles at the top of the food chain simply for their reliable capability to offer us a lot of something in some capacity, like more open-world Content or more of the production value and technological wizardry deemed so important by an industry in a perpetual hardware arms race.

We demand everything be “more” than its predecessors and its immediate competition, so marketing copy touts maps that are three times as big with twice as many quests and tens of thousands of words in the script. The sickness extends even to how we talk about other mediums in relation to games, where assertions that video games are some culmination of human expression widely and embarrassingly echo across conference stages and Twitter timelines. In our constructed context where “immersion” is the ultimate goal of all media, video games have the most of it and therefore sit at the end of creativity as a straight evolutionary line, making any predecessors obsolete; just like you can’t play some games on older hardware, you can’t play a movie or a novel. Video games must be the most entertainment and the most art.

And in this suffocating culture of “more,” the masterstroke of Subnautica is how the overwhelming nature of its size attacks the medium’s viciously consumer-facing ethos. It leaves us in the throes of fear, hoping for less because the size and the more-ness is exactly the thing that’s frightening, that leaves us so very exposed and burning through resources we didn’t know were resources because it’s preferable to try and callously feed a baby alien penguin into the bioreactor than dodge the humongous demon shrimp patrolling below the icebergs near your (in retrospect) poorly-placed encampment. Fewer biomes, crafting materials, and horrible monsters would make the situation so much easier to manage, so much less overwhelming.

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Subnautica: Below Zero

Cold Days in Hell

Where Subnautica: Below Zero diverges from its predecessor is in its own conception of “more,” which manifests in more robust aboveground mechanics. Where land traversal in Subnautica was once an afterthought, Below Zero now features all manner of devices, mechanics, and locations to engage with once outside the water. But to do so is not traditionally gratifying; if the surface once served as a kind of escape, a return to the sort of mechanics and vistas we are accustomed to in other games, Below Zero goes in the opposite direction. Your body temperature constantly drops at varying speeds depending on the weather, and the worst storms will do more to tank your visibility than any of the murkier biomes. The aboveground segments are a little clunky and tedious, less streamlined in an inversion of how games that are not predominantly about swimming tend to have less-than-remarkable swimming systems.

And yet, I hesitate to characterize any of these additions as explicit problems with the game, even and especially when they make the land so much less harrowing than the water. You can see farther into the distance, just as long as the weather is clear. There is less uncertainty and fewer potential paths to travel or be caught unawares within, and the sense of an oppressive and overwhelming space subsides — it’s easy to spot things against the barren glacier, any resources and any creatures like relatively harmless (until you grab their babies) four-eyed pengwings or the carnivorous snow stalkers deterred by flares. There is an enormous ice worm that can break through the ice and should, in theory, replicate the same sense of vulnerability we have with the roving underwater leviathans, the dread of not being able to see what’s coming for you. But it’s never quite the same; even the spatial restrictions of the aboveground space pales against an endless undersea abyss. Up above, there’s a bit of calm, a comparative ease that you get by trading away things like underwater mobility to be boxed in by glacial cliffs, caves, and crevices. It is safer, if rather unpleasant by comparison.

Your partner AI is always advising you to seek shelter in the face of harsh weather conditions, and it’s telling that one of the best places to avoid plummeting temperatures and zero visibility is simply to dive back below the water. The arctic of Below Zero is troublesome enough that we feel relief re-submerging ourselves, reclaiming the maneuverability we sacrificed and came to miss. Until, of course, it isn’t a relief — eventually we venture into some larger unexplored area and those additional options we’re so grateful to have again become instruments of stress and terror once more.

In a lot of ways, Subnautica: Below Zero appears to be toning down the horror of its predecessor, with fewer titanic monsters all with less overtly terrifying designs. Ultimately, however, the game ends up spacing out its most dramatic and intense moments even further. And in similar fashion to how so much solitary travel in a game like Shadow of the Colossus gives the eventual battles a sense of weight, all the time spent gathering and building either below the water or in the arctic air amplifies the horror of Subnautica. A version of these games that constantly tries to scare you is not nearly so effective because we would come to expect it, and perhaps we would be forced into smaller spaces because that’s what horror tends to mean in a video game. Instead, in what is otherwise not a straightforwardly scary game, horror punctures the shell of collecting and exploring more Content. For the Subnautica games, the greatest tension comes from turning horror into an invasive force.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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