Until recently, PlayStation players were able to freely access Unknown World Entertainment’s Subnautica. The sea-based survival game was included as a part of Sony’s Play at Home Initiative on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. The game previously circulated online as a popular game with streamers; however, the free access once again boosted its popularity. While many potentially saw videos of the early access version, the completed game is an incredible experience.
Additionally, the sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero, takes the franchise to frozen waters. It’s a world filled with discoveries, but only for those brave enough to continue it. However, the issue players may encounter is an unwillingness to keep playing, but not due to any lack of quality. This article will breakdown why Subnautica is terrifying, and why it is worth it nonetheless.
The Danger is All Around
Most games afford players the luxury of a least a few directions of safety. On average, players feel the need to maintain a sense of vigilance regarding what’s in front and behind. Each flank opens up a vulnerability, but the ground feels safe. Similarly, not as many threats come from the sky, so players rarely concern themselves with above and below. Subnautica, by contrast, imposes an all-encompassing sense of dread by opening up the possibility of threats from all directions. The most heart-pounding space to exist in the game is floating in the middle between the surface and the ocean-floor. It becomes all the more suspenseful at night when the dark further obscures the dangers of the depths.
Subnautica is terrifying because it is so difficult to avoid this state of vulnerability. Swimming atop the surface completely hides what could be lurking below. Similarly, sticking close to the seabed restricts your manoeuvrability should something attack from above. The first-person perspective of the game also limits player visibility, making every threat feel just outside of the camera’s periphery. Even so, the game continuously reminds players of nearby threats, as the sounds of cries and roars are almost constant.
One of my most nerve-racking experiences happened as I swam along the seabed. A giant serpent-like shadow appeared in front of me, and when I looked up, a Reaper Leviathan swam above. It was the first time in any game that I genuinely held my breath, afraid it would somehow hear me. The ocean floor never felt like a safe place to be again.
Out of Your Depth
Every aspect of the game is intentionally designed to make players feel as though they do not belong. Each moment spent in the water continues to deplete your oxygen, and sooner or later you will begin to drown. While the shallow starting area provides a comfortable beginning, players quickly have to head into deeper waters. From introducing more aggressive creatures and disorientating cave systems, everything about the depths continues to make players feel unwelcome. The leviathans in particular serve to make players feel small and helpless. While some weapons are eventually craftable, for the most part, players don’t stand a chance against most creatures.
Even when players find themselves on land, they are made to feel like they don’t belong. It’s easy to feel a sense of relief upon reaching an island, as though you’ve been saved. However, the game cleverly integrates ruined remnants of previous survivor bases to show that these refuges were unsustainable. Resources are limited, strange crabs keep attacking you, and there is no solution for getting home.
From the moment the player steps out of their escape pod, their first sight is an endless ocean. Making that plunge into the water for the first time is scary because there doesn’t seem to be anything else. They have no idea what is beneath the water, but there is no escaping it. Subnautica is terrifying due to its narrative reaffirming you can’t live out your days in comfort, even with a base. The presence of the infections means the planet is rejecting you, and every moment spent there is worsening your condition.
Nowhere to Go but Down
The shallows afford you with a very limited number of resources. It can be tempting to simply stick to its safety and gather the necessary fish for food and water. However, doing so will mean missing out on the most useful equipment in the game. From the vehicles, to base components that can grow food and produce water, the depths hold treasures. Whether it’s simply to make surviving more comfortable, or it’s to explore further, diving deeper is a necessity.
This becomes more apparent following the realisation that the player character needs a cure for their infection. Datapads around the map suggest that deeper waters hold the key to a cure, but it’s difficult to get there. The environments become darker, teeming with more dangerous life, and your vehicles will be crushed if sent too deep. It becomes especially horrifying when exploring the deepest areas, as you are so far from any safety or respite. Running out of food, water or even battery power, with no spare provisions, makes you feel truly doomed.
The only exception to going down is instead climbing aboard the wreck of the spaceship floating in the water. Subnautica is terrifying because it knows how to balance risk and reward. Players will need the tech onboard the ship to explore deeper waters, and so the journey is inevitable. However, this means braving waters where a Reaper Leviathan stalks. Simply working up the courage to try and sneak past it is enough to make some players reconsider.
New Environments, New Dangers
Although players will gradually become accustomed to their starting zone, new areas feel like a drastic departure from the previous. Given the aforementioned need to continue exploring, the game never allows you to get comfortable for long. Each new area you explore seems to operate on its own set of rules. From increased depths, new creatures and even environmental hazards, your first time in each will always be the most dangerous. One moment you’re in a shallow reef, then you see the seabed drop so low you can’t see the bottom.
It’s the suddenness that can be the most horrifying, as you often feel like you’ve wandered too far. In this regard, the game truly allows players to feel lost, with a pang of regret for being so curious.
The environments themselves are also creepily designed, becoming increasingly alien the deeper you go. The increased dark obscures threats, while every light source is a potential trap. While cramped spaces will heighten claustrophobia, open spaces will make players feel exposed. One area of the game looks like a bleached forest, creating an environment akin to an underwater haunted forest. Subnautica is terrifying because it leans into a eldritch style of horror. At times it feels almost Lovecraftian, exposing the player to concepts that feel beyond their understanding. Creatures such as warpers encapsulate this, being able to teleport players out of safe environments if they stray too close.
This is a more personal aspect that will trigger some players more than others. Thalassophobia is the fear of the ocean, and more specifically deep water. For some people, a mere image of the ocean is enough to induce panic attacks. While it’s rational to be afraid of environment we aren’t equipped for, the level of anxiety is hard to describe. This game almost operates on the assumption you will have this phobia, and if not, it will make you understand. It is no coincidence that if you search thalassophobia online, images of Subnautica will appear.
As someone affected by this phobia, it struck me from the moment I began the game. The game awards players with a PlayStation trophy just for jumping in the water for the first time. This might seem a tad patronizing, but for me, I felt like I earned it. I stood on that escape pod for much longer than I should have, unable to make the plunge for a while. Subnautica is terrifying, but for some it’s almost unplayable.
At one point I accidentally strayed too close to the ship. I could see the shadow of a Reaper Leviathan nearby. I knew I had to hastily swim back towards my base, and so I did, but the entire time I kept my eyes closed. Eventually I paused the game momentarily to calm down, which felt foolish from the safety of my gaming chair. The game taps into something real.
The Best and the Worst Experience
I am not someone who plays horror games. I don’t receive the same thrills from scares or terror. Yet Subnautica felt entirely different. It was such a rewarding experience. I often resented playing moments of it because it made me feel so anxious. However, every single time I made it back to base with a new blueprint or material, I felt fulfilled. The game benefits greatly from no scripted jump scares. The danger is all around you, but the game rewards vigilance. Adequate preparation and taking your time will allow you to scrape by, even if you never feel powerful.
Even so, in spite of feeling out of my depth, the game never made me feel like I couldn’t survive. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about it was the allure of exploration. Like a siren’s song, even though I knew the dangers, I could not resist the pull of the deep.