Subnautica: My Underwater Barbie Dreamhouse
Updated: Nov 17
Why is Subnautica the perfect open-world game for me? I've loved playing house since my childhood neighbor Leslie had a mid-century modern Barbie Dreamhouse. I still remember its sophisticated aquamarine pool surrounded by a lux flagstone patio. I also love snorkeling, building things, aliens, and nature. And… I have claustrophobia, limited controller dexterity, and an affinity for loneliness and ennui. Subnautica gets me!
There are a lot of ways to play, I identify as a bumbling explorer. I have played over 48 hours and have only two trophies: Getting Your Feet Wet—awarded for the not so massive achievement of diving for the first time; and Personal Propulsion – which I achieved by building a Seamoth vessel. That trophy was a big deal. I am genuinely proud of myself for achieving it.
I may play Subnautica and never earn a single additional trophy. But I will still love it. There‘s always something new to discover. Yesterday I found sand stomping Sea Treader Leviathans and gathered many, many diamonds. What will I do with those diamonds? I have no idea. But I had fun watching the beautiful behemoths stomp the sand. I carefully darted under their giant claws to collect the shale containing diamonds before they sank back into the sand.
I may play Subnautica and never earn a single additional trophy. But I will still love it. There‘s always something new to discover.
Typically, I have been interested in how game mechanics marry with story events to produce emotional engagement for the player. Subnautica has limited traditional story events. Story comes from the increasingly difficult challenges of simply surviving Planet 4546B. I’m going to talk about three gameplay mechanics that successfully evoke my vivid emotional responses.
1. Messages For the first few hours of the game, and then what seems to me only rarely… I received messages. These come in several formats including emergency radio messages from fellow shipwrecked Aurora crew, PDA datalogs from the previously shipwrecked Degasi crew, and emergency messages from my vessel’s computer.
These messages lured me to explore resource rich areas. They also provided clues to the backstory of how I ended up on this planet, who else has been here, and what they discovered. The clues include research and hypotheses about alien inhabitants and their technology.
These messages lured me to explore resource rich areas.
Initially the messages gave hope and direction to my game play. Then they led to loneliness and despair over the death of every single other shipwrecked human. Finally, in the absence of new messages, I became self-reliant. Every gameplay session I set personal goals for myself and do my best to achieve them. In this game, I got nobody to answer to but myself!
2. Fabricators As I progressed through the game, I mined resources and found blueprints to fabricate more and more complex elements. I started out making batteries with a simple wall mounted Fabricator, progressed to build structures with a fabricator gun, then vessels with the Mobile Vehicle Bay, and upgrades at the Modification Station and Vehicle Upgrade Console.
I love making things. I love beautiful things. I love cool tech. With Subnautica it seems there are endless beautiful tech and even techno-alien things to craft.
My favorite item to craft was a humble trashcan. Before finding the blue print for the trashcan, and due to limited resource storage, I was forced to dump used resources on the ocean floor. I am a child of the Woodsy Owl era of campaign messages “Leave a trail that’s clean and neat in the north south east and west,” and “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”
Being a litterbug was hurting my heart. Using a trashcan was amazing. After fabricating it, I went back to my ocean floor dumping site, collected my used batteries and excess mushrooms (this was before I found the blueprints for the Battery Recharger Station and the Bioreactor energy device) brought them back to my gorgeous Moonpool and properly disposed of them.
Being a litterbug was hurting my heart. Using a trashcan was amazing.
3. The Environment Subnautica’s greatest strength is its seemingly boundless underwater and island world. When I first woke up in my crashed escape pod I was over shallow water filled with brightly colored acid mushrooms, florescent grasses, and intricately patterned corals. The day was bright and sunny, and other than a few minor injuries to myself and my pod, it felt like heaven.
But... Subnautica’s secret weapon that lures me, challenges me, and continues to punish me is the deep, dark, resource and blueprint loaded depths. The day/night cycle changes very quickly! A relative stroll in the exquisitely beautiful underwater park can rapidly turn into a deadly predatory nightmare.
At the beginning of the game, the resources that I need were in the shallow, sunny, nearby sand shoals. As my I learned of new things I could build, I needed to stray farther and farther from my home base, and plunge deeper and deeper into caves and wrecked pieces of the Aurora.
Here’s where it gets particularly scary for me. I mentioned that I have claustrophobia and limited controller dexterity… Diving into a complex network of caves or accessing a series of hatches in wrecks while underwater with limited oxygen supplies requires a calm head and a steady hand. I have those in limited supply.
When I do not have a visible horizon, have the limited field of vision in a diving mask, and my un-nuanced thumb control, I spin out. Literally and figuratively. I am genuinely afraid to go deep into the Jellyshroom caves. I’ve been in there very briefly. They are gorgeously luminous. I’ve gotten the Magnetite I needed, and I have gotten out! I used my Pathfinder tool to leave a trail of markers. And still I am scared.
When I do not have a visible horizon, have the limited field of vision in a diving mask, and my un-nuanced thumb control, I spin out. Literally and figuratively.
I know that there is a whole world to explore in these caves. I can see just ahead to decaying human living modules that I know are packed with blueprints and PDA datalogs. I can see alien artifacts, but I just can’t let myself linger. I am constantly turning back around to ensure that I can see my way out of this cave. It's so tempting to stay…
Subnautica gets me! It knows how to play on my worst fears and bring me some fantastic gameplay joy. It's a great example of balancing challenges with rewards. I keep coming back.