The Mystery Generation Engine: Subnautica and Systemic Wanderlust

Introduction

My favorite thing about Subnautica (2018) is that it is full of mysteries, from the backstory of the watery planet you crash land on, to the unique mechanics sets you discover, to the unmapped and objective marker-free world.  But the biggest mystery in Subnautica for me personally has been figuring out exactly how it evokes and maintains its sense of wonder. This has been my biggest barrier to writing about Subnautica, despite having played it for almost two years now.  *Something* about Subnautica makes me play and experience it differently from other games, even other games in its same survival-crafting-Minecraftlike genre. I’ve played many games with a mystery-focused plot, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know the answer to the mystery.  I’ve played many games with fascinating systems to dig into, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know how they work. When recently starting my third playthrough of Subnautica, I was surprised to find that the sense of mystery was still present, even though I knew all the secrets of the game’s lore and the intricate details of its systems.  But what made that feeling linger? On a metatextual level, I enjoy that Subnautica had one last mystery for me to solve, and I hope that, through this essay, I can do that, because exploring Subnautica’s various mysteries has been one of my most engaging gaming experiences of the past two years.

Before I continue, I do want to give a spoiler warning of sorts.  Being a game all about mystery, Subnautica’s experience is cheapened, though not ruined, if you lose the experience of discovering it for yourself.  Even seeing screenshots of late game areas or learning about late-game craftables can take away from the exhilaration of seeing something for yourself for the first time.  I avoided wiki pages, trailers, and even other reviews of the game until I had finished it, simply because that particular rush of discovery is Subnautica’s emotional core.  If you have no intention of playing Subnautiuca, and due to the intense thalassophobia it evokes, I can absolutely understand that, feel free to read on. But if anything I’ve said piques your interest, I highly recommend you pick it up on your digital platform of choice and enjoy some of the most wonder-provoking experiences gaming has to offer.  So, with that out of the way, let’s dive in! (That is the last ocean-related pun I’ll make in this essay, I promise).

 

Systemic Mystery

The opening of Subnautica is an abrupt one.  The player violently crashes on the surface of a planet; they’re confused, the don’t have much narrative context, and they’re surrounded by a world that feels truly alien.  So, the first type of mystery they uncover is not a narrative one, but a systemic one. The player is given a set of survival systems that they’ve probably encountered in other games before: find food, find water.  The early

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I destroyed at least three of these by bad driving alone

bits of this are fairly straightforward as the player gets acquainted with their environment, gets comfortable with the game’s elegantly designed underwater control scheme, and starts to dip their toes into the game’s crafting system to synthesize food and water.  From here, the game reveals its complexity slowly, and ramps it up just as the player is getting comfortable. The game has three primary systems for the player to deal with: crafting blueprints, oxygen management, and environmental interaction. Each of these are emphasized to different degrees throughout the game.  The opening strongly emphasizes oxygen management and moderately emphasizes crafting blueprints, but doesn’t emphasize environmental interaction much. The mid game is all about crafting blueprints, with a moderate emphasis on oxygen management and environmental interaction. Meanwhile, the end game almost entirely foregos oxygen management (and, in fact, all survival elements), with a slight emphasis on crafting blueprints, and an intense, maybe too intense, emphasis on environmental interaction.  So, how do each of these systems pique the player’s curiosity?

Let’s start with oxygen management.  This system exists to some extent in other games, but Subnautica emphasizes it much more than other titles on the market, so new players will probably be less immediately comfortable with it.  The player starts with 45 seconds of oxygen, refillable by swimming to the surface or entering a player base or ship, but it is later upgraded to 75 by the mid-game, and can be optionally upgraded to 225 by the end game.  But simply changing these numbers has a massive impact on how the player interacts with the system. In the early game, it prevents them from spending too much time under water, and since the majority of the game world is set under water, it makes any interaction with the ocean floor feel risky.  Exploring a wreck, gathering resources, and hunting fish all feel more tense when the player can only do it for 10 more seconds before swimming to the surface. It also leads to moments where the player sees something new and exciting, but has to quickly duck back to the surface for some oxygen before they can explore it, increasing their anticipation for when they return.  However, as later game areas become more complex, this system would start to get cumbersome, so the devs wisely deemphasized it with greater and greater player oxygen capacities asproxy.duckduckgo.com.jpg the game continues, and portable oxygen reserves in the form of vehicles. It helps add to the pacing and tension of early environments in the early game, and then quietly exits when it is no longer necessary.

Importantly, the player’s ability to upgrade their way out of the system is done organically, through the game’s tech tree.  Subnautica’s tech tree is the mechanical system that perhaps contributes the most to its systemic exploration, because it consistently creates moments of anticipation.  The player unlocks new blueprints by finding a hunk of wrecked technology and scanning it, but they usually need 2-4 wrecks to unlock each blueprint, and those wrecks are scattered throughout the game world.  The use of the blueprinted item is teased in item descriptions, giving the player some delayed gratification when they finally craft it. The blueprints themselves will often reference resources the player has not found yet, creating a rush of excitement when they finally find the final resource in a complicated blueprint.  The result is a system that absolutely follows the tech tree conventions of traditional crafting system, but is done diegetically, which can prevent the player from being aware of how gamey its systems are. And this diegetic reframing of classically abstracted game elements is one of Subnautica’s greatest strengths. The blueprint system is just a crafting tech tree, the crashed lifepod signal locations are just map markers, the cyclops’ scanner is just a minimap.  But because of how the game frames these elements, the player mentally models them as more complex than they often are. Games critic Joseph Anderson said that, “It seems like the devs wanted you to feel that, if you took your helmet off, those HUD markers would disappear”. That extra layer of authenticity takes what would be mundane features and uses them to enhance the player’s explorative excitement. Exploration feels more real when the player believes the tools with which they explore are real as well.

That isn’t to say there is no added depth to the systems, or that it is all smoke and mirrors.  The map marker system might just be a standard HUD map marker, but the player can craft buoys to place their own markers.  The crafting system may just be a gated tech tree, but the player can choose which branches of the tree to explore, ignoring some entirely.  Part of what has made my repeat playthroughs so exciting is that I get to dig into systems I had missed on previous playthroughs. The majority of the blueprints the player finds are optional, cool things they can dig into if they want to, not hard, mechanical requirements the game is forcing on them.  And the simple fact that these blueprints aren’t revealed from the start adds so much to the thrill of discovering them.

This principle is carried over into environmental interaction just as strongly, though it is one of Subnautica’s less refined systems.  Early game environments are genuinely interesting to explore, with new features such as oxygen-restoring brain coral, or hidden predators that rush the player.  They make the environment feel dynamic and fully realized in a way most survival games simply do not. Each object in the world can be scanned by the player, and most likely plays into some greater system.  Stalkers grab hunks of metal, dropping a tooth the player can use for crafting, and hoarding the metal hunks in their nest. Sea treaders kick up large resource deposits as they walk along the Envi.jpgocean floor. Some rocks have strange, organic objects attached to them that cause them to float, and the player can take those objects and use them to make any other physics-enabled object float.  Unfortunately, in the late game areas, this environmental interaction seems to decrease. These areas are much larger and less finely detailed. An area that might take a player ten minutes to fully explore, scan, and loot in the early game might be cruised over in a matter of seconds in the late game. This is partially because of how much the player’s speed has increased by the end game, but it does also seem like a deliberate choice on the part of the designers.  Many of the late game environments do look genuinely impressive, but feel systemically more empty.

 

Exploitative Mystery

While some of the late game environments might be lacking in detail, exploring Subnautica’s world and uncovering its secrets is its greatest pleasure.  In keeping with its commitment to diegetic user interfaces, there is no map screen in game. And, after playing the game through three times, I am convinced that this is the single most important creative decision the designers made.  It encourages the player to interact with the world directly, in three full dimensions, not via a map screen. Over-emphasis on minimaps is a trap many contemporary games fall into, and an interesting thought experiment to highlight this is 1998’s Metal Gear Solid.  Metal Gear Solid is a soft 3D remake of its predecessor, the 2D game Metal Gear (1987). What makes this interesting for our purposes is that, if you removed the 3D viewport from Metal Gear Solid, and just looked at the game’s soliton radar minimap, it would play almost identically to the 2D MGS.jpgMetal Gear.  This is forgivable for Metal Gear Solid, an early 3D game, but many contemporary games can still be played surprisingly well just by looking at this minimap. Because 2D maps are more easily readable than 3D environments, this can encourage the player to just look at their minimap, pulling them out of the 3D world.  To avoid this problem, Subnautica does away with the map entirely. This means the player has to get more familiar with the landscape itself, and navigate it accordingly. The player’s vision can’t be drawn to a mini map in the corner, it has to be figuring out how the environment itself works. Additionally, because Subnautica is set underwater, traditional 2D maps might not work as well, since the player has to navigate complex, vertically-oriented cave structures.  The combination of complex environments that emphasize 3D navigation and the lack of any sort of mapping system to mitigate that complexity makes navigation in Subnautica a very intentional and involved process, which is surprisingly unusual in contemporary games. The player puts effort into navigating winding caves, avoiding ambushing predators, and ducking back to the surface or their vehicle for oxygen. I’ve said this before, but making traversal engaging is perhaps the most important factor for making open world games interesting over their long runtimes, and Subnautica does this by consistently forcing the player to interact with it in ways they aren’t used to.

This mapless system dovetails well with the utterly alien quality of the world itself, both in visuals and in systems.  By playthrough three, I know the environment well enough that this effect has faded a bit, but during my first two playthroughs, I was completely enthralled with the environments.  The were gorgeous and strange, filled with bioluminescent and oddly shaped organic matter, packed with strange sounds from off in the distance, like the groan of a far-off whale-like creature or the cackling of a nearby predator.  This further encourages the player to explore, by scanning everything in sight, finding out where those sounds are coming from, and learning what each of those creatures do. While the beginning of the game leaves the player confused and in awe, by

Subnautica DYNAMIC MAP! | Subnautica Mods #1 - Map Mod ...

This is a map mod that exists and I hate it

the end, they genuinely feel like a scientist and explorer.  They know what every sound means, how every predator hunts, which of the plants are useful, and which of the fish are difficult to catch. The fact that the starting area alone is packed with this much mystery encourages them to explore further. Maybe they’ve gotten comfortable in the Safe Shallows zone, but soon their radio picks up messages from crashed survivors, drawing them further away from their comfort zone and helping them find new blueprints.  This is further enhanced by the game’s one major landmark: the Aurora itself. From the moment the player gains control, they see the wreck of the Aurora far off in the distance, knowing that they will be able to explore it at some point. It’s a tease for something later, building up that anticipation. I think this accomplishes what is perhaps the most important part of exploration-focused games: making the player feel that there is something out there worth finding.  This was one of my issues with 2017’s Breath of the Wild, where the mechanics of exploration themselves were executed to near perfection, with new ways of exploring environments by climbing or gliding or shield surfing. But, after a few hours, I started feeling that there wasn’t anything worth finding. Nearly every discovery would lead to a korok seed or shrine, which made it eventually feel closer to checking things off of a list rather than genuinely following my own wanderlust.  But Subnautica wants to create a feeling of braving the unknown, and in order to do that, it has to have something out there that is genuinely unknown. Even by the end game, it continues to do this wonderfully.

This is not to say that the player can explore freely with no limits.  Early on especially, the player is limited by easy access to food and water.  Furthermore, the depth of certain areas might not allow for exploration with the amount of oxygen the player has, or they might hit the hard limit of crush depth.  Crush depth is one of the only linear upgrades in the game, where the player’s vehicles cannot descend below a certain depth without breaking. The player needs to craft expensive depth modules to allow them to go deeper.  I initially wasn’t a fan of this more artificial upgrade system, but I think it does work well to gate the player from certain areas and build anticipation for reaching them. Some of my favorite moments in Subnautica include stumbling upon new areas that I didn’t know existed, even on later playthroughs, and knowing that I couldn’t go there just yet because of limits.  These are accompanied by these dramatic, terror-inspiring drop offs. Usually, this particular track on the soundtrack kicks in right as the player is staring down the drop off, Original Inhabitants, filled with unsettling choral tones.  I’ll be

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Finding Nemo (2003) really does this best

completely honest, this moment TERRIFIES me.  During my most recent playthrough, I tried to play the game in VR, but staring over the edge of one of these underwater cliffs was the moment, I said, “Screw it”, and switched back to the non-VR version.  Subnautica is brilliant at capturing both the beauty and the terror of the ocean, and as someone who is absolutely petrified by any large body of water, these are moments where that terror hits its peak.

 

But eventually, the player crafts the resources to go back and explore these areas, and the terror must be confronted.  I love the setup phase for these expeditions, as you have to pack up food and resources, top off your batteries and ship fuel, then set sail into the unknown.  And these later game areas really do feel different from the earlier ones. The intense god rays streaming down from the surface and friendly, bioluminescent creatures from the starting zones give way to pitch black environments with more predators, more pressure, and less oxygen.  You interact with these environments differently, staying close to your ship in case a predator swims by. The Blood Kelp Zone and Grand Reef are my personal favorites, and evoke the very specific kind of terror of looking back up towards the surface of the ocean and seeing only blackness.  At this point in the game, interactions with the game’s leviathan-class predators becomes more common. And goddamn, are they terrifying. The Reaper Leviathan is the first leviathan-

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Yeah, I lost that ship

class predator the player is likely to encounter, probably the ones swimming around the Aurora crash zone. In pictures, they look kind of goofy, but in game, few creatures can evoke its specific brand of shear panic.  It’s first encountered far off in the distance, where the player might just barely see its silhouette or catch a brief glimpse of it. For me, this is the most terrifying part. Wondering if you actually saw a reaper, or if it was just a trick of the light, wondering if it’s headed in your direction, if you have time to get away…this is Subnautica’s horror at its finest. Actual interaction with the Reapers is fairly simple.  If you get too close, they’ll make chase and attack your seamoth, and if you’re unlucky enough to be caught outside of your ship with it finds you, well, that’s game over. So, not the most mechanically interesting enemy in gaming, but absolutely one of the more emotionally interesting ones. End-game areas are filled with Reapers and the even more deadly Ghost Leviathan. Avoiding them is an absolute treat when playing in the Seamoth, but unfortunately, it becomes less interesting by the true endgame, which…is definitely Subnautica’s weakest moment.

2018-11-14_00002.jpgThe late game begins when the player crafts the Cyclops submarine.  The actual process of doing this is incredibly exciting, and finally gathering all the parts to construct it feels like a towering achievement within the hostile game world.  Boarding the sub, realizing you have complete control over this massive vehicle, can use it to go to depths you could never reach before, is legitimately exhilarating. But the player’s actual experience of the sub is…mixed, to say the least.  Firstly, it is *incredibly* easy to get the sub stuck on the environment. It has four exterior cameras that help with this navigation, but moving around the safe shallows where most players set up their base is a good way to get it permanently stuck.  Additionally, the sub is primarily used to navigate the extended underground zones of the Lost River and various lava-filled zones. These environments are entered through winding caves that are easy to navigate when the player is swimming alone or zipping along in their tiny seamoth, but with something the size of the cyclops, it never feels quite right.  I absolutely understand what they were trying to do with the cyclops experience, it just feels untested and unfinished in a way other aspects of the game really don’t. It feels like it needed a few more months of dev time to smooth out the cyclops movement, maybe decrease its size or increase the size of the cave entrances in the Lost River, maybe improve the FOV from the cyclops window…there are a lot of potential solutions, but they clearly didn’t have the time or budget to iterate on them.  The end result is an experience with a lot of good ideas, most of them poorly executed. The idea of distracting large predators by firing out a decoy is a unique idea that delivers on the premise of the game, but the large predators are so non-threatening that it’s rarely worth the hassle. The predator attacks are genuinely terrifying, with the player safely inside their ship, but hearing the giant beast outside. But, after the player realizes that they can just run away, they become more annoying than tense.  The sonar system is a legitimately fascinating idea for how to explore dark environments. But it drains 1% of the ship’s energy per tick, meaning it is better used as an occasional aid than a viable navigational alternative. There are a lot of ideas to love about the cyclops mechanics, but the whole of the experiences feels much messier than the rest of the game.

To close this section out, I want to pose one more criticism of the game’s exploration systems, and propose a potential solution.  I don’t usually do this, because inventing mechanics on my own is cheap when I don’t have to do the work of actually implementing, testing and iterating on them, but I think exploring the possibility space the mechanic proposes can lead to some interesting insights.  So, the game’s lack of a Map ROom.jpgmap is something I praised earlier in this section. But, near the end game, it becomes incredibly cumbersome. Trying to find a specific resource or blueprint fragment is engaging when there are just a few zones to search, but less so when you need this one item to progress and you have no idea where to find it.  This means that, by the end game, I usually end up caving and looking up a map or wiki entry, rather than spend hours scanning every environment for something I might have missed. So, how could it be improved? Well, the game already has a system I think this could be built on top of, the scanner room. This is unlocked fairly late in the game, right around the time the player would start to feel the slog of the game’s lack of map.  By this point, the player has started to expand into a space that is larger than they can reasonably keep a mental map of, especially with the lack of distant landmarks other than the Aurora. So, I’d propose turning that scanning room into a map room, that the player can only access from the scanner room itself. Their scanning room maps some of the area after a few minutes, and they can build portable scanners to place in other areas of the map to increase that radius.  Existing buoys would also show up as the map expanded. Maybe they could use the cyclops to generate mapping data as well. I think this works because it keeps the early game feeling of the unknown, but by the mid-to-late game when the player is probably looking up maps on the wiki already, it makes mapping and exploration an active progress. The player would have to go out of their way to do this, it wouldn’t happen automatically. I think that’s consistent with the feel the game is going for, helps remove some late-game frustration, and actually adds more exciting actions.

 

Narrative Mystery

Even without my proposed mapping system, Subnautica already evokes a greater sense of wonder and discovery than most games on the market.  And, fortunately, the game’s loose frame narrative only expands on this idea. The premise of the game is fairly narratively simple, and I think that works to the game’s advantage.  The player is flying on a ship to an uncharted world, their ship crashes for some reason, and they need to survive. That premise does expand slightly as the player explores the Aurora, but not by much.  What you see is what you get. At first, this might seem to be missing an early opportunity for more mystery. Hit the player with a narrative hook early on so they have something to stew on. But I think this would detract from the initial emotional experience of the crash.  The player is supposed to feel frantic, scrambling to survive. proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpgAdding more narrative beats would dilute that experience. And, additionally, it means that the player doesn’t go in *expecting* a story. Most survival games on the market barely have a narrative at all, and Subnautica’s opening is about as complex as they get.  There is an implied narrative beat of reaching the Aurora in the future, but nothing explicitly story-focused. From here, the story is eased onto the player, giving them the audio logs of other survivors, which at first seem almost narratively empty; just glorified quest markers. But then the player starts realizing that all of the life pods have been destroyed.  Maybe they don’t put it together on their own that something is hunting these characters, but some of them might. But, this is still light enough that the player isn’t expecting a larger story. Even reaching the Aurora and disabling the ship’s reactor doesn’t provide much of a narrative resolution, it just makes the area nearby safer. The player is being driven by systemic and explorative mystery, and the last bit of narrative possibility has been removed from their mind.  But, after finding the Aurora, the player gets a message with a rendezvous point for survivors. Confused, they’ll head to the coordinates, and this is where the narrative finally reveals itself.

The rendezvous coordinates are on dry land, which seems to have appeared out of nowhere.  It’s kind of hard to express how much of a shock this is. In any other game, finding a normal island would be a fairly mundane experience, but in Subnautica, a game set entirely underwater with no land in sight, this is a shock.  That beat of intense surprise and wonder is something Subnautica pulls off multiple times throughout its runtime, and it is incredibly impressive to me that it can continue to do this even when proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpgthe player is already expecting it; most games can’t even manage to do this once.  This puts the player into a specific mindset that Subnautica evokes intensely during just a few narrative beats: investigative wonder. The player’s scanner becomes their primary means of interacting with the environment, learning bits and pieces for each blueprint or hidden audio log.  During these sections, the game becomes less of a survival game, and more of an adventure game, which dovetails Subnautica’s mystery genre effortlessly. Having popups with links to in-game descriptions of items is not uncommon in contemporary games, but Subnautica is one of the few that has me to actually read them.  These entries provide actually valuable information, and stoke the player’s curiosity on just what they imply. And, in a genre-appropriate touch, almost every entry ends with the phrase “Further analysis needed”.

The remainder of the game switches back and forth between exploration mode, base building/crafting mode, and these intense moments of adventure game-like discovery.  It doesn’t overload the player with these info dumps, it spaces them out to make them feel unique. Discovering the first bit of alien technology also evokes this feeling wonderfully, because, going into the game, the player didn’t even know there would be any technologically-advanced aliens.  Digging into the apocalyptic plague that forms the crux of the game’s lore also fits Subnautica’s existing genres, making the player feel like a scientist as they scan, research and synthesize a cure. The last narrative shock moment in the game is the reveal of the immense sea emperor leviathan, a moment that genuinely shocked and terrified me even on the non-VR version of the game.  This introduces the game’s first honest-to-god character well into the third act of its story. If a proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpggame is going to have characters at all, they’re usually introduced early in the first act, but here Subnautica is, adding them in right before the endgame. And while the final story missions of the game are…basically a glorified fetch quest, the narrative does conclude in a satisfying way.  Building a rocket to leave the planet is as time-consuming an undertaking as it needs to be to feel momentus, and the sequence of saying goodbye to the planet (and the adorable cuddlefish pet), dropping a time capsule for another player to find, and going through the launch sequence feels final and satisfying in a way few endings from systems-focused games ever are. The narrative may not be the foundation of Subnautica, but the restraint with which its beats are delivered to the player and the subtlety with which they are conveyed make it stand out.

 

Conclusion

TV and Film director J.J. Abrams is famous for his concept of “mystery box” storytelling, and his ideas for how crafting that mystery box can draw audiences in, even over long form, serialized content.  The problem with his approach is that, most of the time, revealing what’s in the box ruins the story. I loved Lost during its original run, but I have never gone back to rewatch it.  The mystery is gone. I know all the answers. Yet, after three playthroughs of Subnautica, I can still return to it and feel almost the same sense of mystery I did the first time.  The game’s systems make the player experience the world in a way that keeps that mystery present, by always teasing them with more to explore. With over 70 hours invested in this game, there are still entire areas I have not explore to the fullest, still narrative possibilities and text logs I haven’t discovered yet.  But it’s not just that there is more of the text that I have not seen, it’s that the methods of engaging with the text themself evoke the same experience that its static narrative beats try to. Subnautica doesn’t work because it contains a mystery, it works because its systems, narrative, and environment create the experience of uncovering one.  In the same way that John Wick can show a stylish gunfight, but Superhot is a stylish gunfight generation engine, Subnautica is a mystery generation engine. The team at Unknown Worlds is currently working on a standalone expansion for Subnautica, titled Below Zero. And while I’ve tried to avoid any of their pre-release media, I have caught a few screenshots of frozen oceans and eldritch deep-sea creatures.  Perhaps Subnautica’s mystery generation engine is set to do a take on H.P. Lovecraft next, perhaps not. But, regardless, the team has proven themselves adept at evoking wonder and curiosity in all elements of their game, and I look forward to seeing what they adapt their formula to next.

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