The Subnautica: Below Zero Seatruck Is a Home for Little Labors of Love

The story of Subnautica pulls me along, but its little rituals around work are more satisfying.

The Subnautica: Below Zero “Seatruck” is a new contender for the best video game vehicle of all time. Besides its amazing name, the modular submarine perfectly summarizes what sets Below Zero — and its predecessor — apart from other survival games. It’s a clunky, chunky semi truck built for the harsh, frozen, and/or boiling sea of Planet 4546B. It’s a home and a tool. It feels like it, too, as you carefully pull it apart and put it back together during what’s often a sci-fi long haul trucking sim.

Unlike Euro Truck Simulator and Elite: Dangerous, however, there’s quite a lot of story in Subnautica: Below Zero, and it all takes place sometime after the events of the first game. Now there are multiple, speaking characters within the world including protagonist Robin. She’s in search of the truth of her sister’s death — after the Amazon/SpaceX nightmare corporation they worked for said she died due to “employee negligence.” It’s the beginning of a conversation Subnautica: Below Zero has with labor, one that is much more direct than the previous game’s slight winks and joking nods to corporate exploitation.

Your sister, Sam, took a high-paying job with a company she knew was bad news, despite her sister’s protests. Her belief being that old chestnut we’ve heard so many times: that she could change the organization from within. Things obviously didn’t go as planned. You spend the rest of the game on the watery planet where she passed, searching for clues.

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Games often tell this kind of story. Usually it’s with blood, guns, and gritted teeth. Subnautica: Below Zero instead defaults to deliberate, repetitive, almost meditative toil. Anyone one who’s ever worked will quickly recognize the little workday rituals that pop up in the process.

Once you build a real base, for instance, you might always enter through the moonpool to make sure your Seatruck is charging between runs. You’ll need it in top shape as you hunt for gold, diamonds, or blueprint fragments scattered on the ocean floor. Then you offload at the lockers you so painstakingly sorted into types: rare ore, organic material, uranium, or maybe even Ion Cubes if you’re lucky. Each haul creates new possibilities — like infinite power from geothermal vents or a snow speeder that can zip across glaciers.

The Seatruck itself needs more tending, too. There are repairs to make. Not to mention the vehicle itself is split into “modules” that LEGO together in whatever order you like. When it’s time to charge, or enter some dark trench too slim to fit a full train, you can detach the modules behind you. It’s a simple process, but not a quick one. Every decoupling requires you to turn and pull a massive metal switch that closes shut with a clunk. Only then can your little sea semi dart around like a skittish fish. When it’s time to reattach, that’s another several second process of manually gripping and pulling the trailers through the water by steel handles. They finally close tight with another satisfying sound.

subnautica seatruck

Repeat this process ad infinitum. That’s Subnautica: Below Zero. Except spread the actions out across increasingly exciting vehicles, structures, and tools. You’ll start with flippers that add 15 percent movement speed. You’ll end with a mech that swings between giant jellyfish on a grappling hook. But that liturgy of decoupling and rearranging the Seatruck as needed is the game at its core.

Lots of survival games direct progression through base-building. But few games make it feel as purposeful as Subnautica. I know; I’ve looked. It’s reverent of the tiny, necessary actions that go into creation that those patterns become the gameplay, rather than something off to the side. You don’t often (and often can’t) kill hostile creatures in Subnautica or Below Zero. There isn’t really combat. Nor can you offload much manual labor onto magical machines that harvest and assemble materials for you. Instead, you puzzle out more efficient routes to manually explore and excavate. And it feels so good.

It’s enough to make me think I might like Euro Truck Simulator. Otherwise I might, horror of horrors, start playing EVE Online again. But Subnautica: Below Zero also funnels its undersea trucking down a genuinely interesting story — one with a definite conclusion. I like having that light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it does mean I’ll spend another three years diving after the same high after I finish the sequel.

No matter how deep I go, though, I can always swim back to my Seatruck. It’s a bright little compartment densely packed with a sense of doing. It reminds me of why and how it can feel good to make things — to move, pack, and store things when they serve a purpose beyond enriching some far-off overlord.

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Steven Strom

An obsessive writer broadcasting to you live from the middle of nowhere. Thinks cute things are good, actually.

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