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This week, we will begin actually using our air tanks and regulators in scuba, something I have been looking forward to since the beginning of the semester. Coincidentally, I have been playing Subnautica, an open-world survival game set in the oceans of an alien planet. I certainly didn’t expect much when the Epic Store announced that it was free to play and keep if downloaded before the new year. I was hopelessly hooked after just trying it for minutes, as I was transported to an entirely new world, where I slowly figured out which flora and fauna tries to eat me.

I finally understood how people with thalassaphobia felt. This is a survival game after all and the uncertainty of what lurked in the murky waters really kept me on edge. After about 6 hours in, I realized the area the game starts you in (and where I spent most of my time) is called the Safe Shallows. It only ranged from 0-20 meters deep, and no creatures grew larger than a few meters. As the game progressed, I was brought to areas surpassing 1000 meters in depth, where leviathans surpassing 30 meters lived. Playing this game felt like eating a tiered cake, you start small at the top but the layers grow in size and complexity the further down you go.

I recently found out that Subnautica won the Golden Joysticks award for PC game of the year, beating out juggernauts like Fortnite.  Many people have expressed their love for the compelling title, going so far as to say it was the best game they’ve played in the past decade. What makes this game stand out so much and what have I learned from it? In no particular order:

  • The studio behind the game, Unknown Worlds, decided to release the game to the public as early access development in 2014, and continued to develop the game while players played it and gave feedback. Those early players saw an extremely buggy, extremely poor performing software package, with many missing features and regions in the world. Unknown Worlds took the feedback and continuously added new content to the game, and gradually polished it for its actual release in 2018, 4 years later. Unknown Worlds literally has their central project management board set to public on Trello, meaning anyone can track and voice their opinion on their progress and priorities. Subnautica was a game designed and refined for the public, by the public.
  • The game design is extremely well thought out and completely revolutionary. An open-world format means that there are no loading screens that interrupt the player; you’re completely immersed at all times. It’s extremely difficult to balance the open-world format with player directives. Subnautica has a loose story that ties everything together but the core of the game is still curiosity-driven exploration. As you become better equipped in the game, through equipment that enables further exploration, resources that provide better sustenance, and clues as to what happened on the planet, you can go deeper (literally) and build out in a more complex way. The safe shallows that I mentioned above? Terrifying for the first hours, but pale in comparison to what you find at greater depths. That’s the magic of the game: just as you’ve grown acclimated with what’s around you, you’re pushed to explore further and deeper, where it’s like leaving the safe shallows all over again.
  • Most open worlds are actually two dimensional. With the exception of occasional flying, most games confine you to the ground and the few meters above or below it. Subnautica allows players the privilege of exploring the entire water column, and the added degrees of freedom make for very interesting terrain design and navigation. Ultimately, it allows for mesmerizing scenes that are dense, non-linear, and fluid to navigate through, yet somewhat disorienting.
  • Resource management is critical to exploring deeper in the game. Oxygen, food and water, storage, energy, raw materials, and time, all have their corresponding depletion mechanisms that interweave wonderfully to create a cohesive system. Without carefully managing what you bring down (and back up) on a deep dive, you’ll end up in serious trouble. This actually has parallels to what we have been learning in the scuba class, where careful and deliberate planning is our best bet at surviving in an environment that our human bodies are not designed for.

I have been giving these points a lot of thought during the past weeks, and they have applications in the way I approach my life and work. With original design and a massive dose of creativity, Unknown Worlds proves it truly is possible to bring something completely new to the gaming sector, a sector that has recently been unashamed to slap improved visuals on the same over-used components and ship them as new releases.

 

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