Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
We come from the water, but we are not meant for it.
Air? Land? These are environments where the human body fuckin’ thrives. We can run. We can breathe! Only on very rare circumstances—earthquakes, Tremors, etc.—do we have to worry about something 20 times the size of us coming up from below to consume our bodies whole, a mere krill in the baleen of madness. Air and land kick ass. Water is the wet hell where the monsters live.
Now, is this very reasonable fear I possess of the Stygian depths entirely formed from traumatic childhood memories of watching Mario be bashed around by an eel and then drowned in Super Mario 64? Who can say. (Fuck that eel, though.) But this phobia of the sea is an elemental part of how I play video games in my adulthood. Ask me to walk into the spooky house full of monsters? Lock and load, baby. Ask me to wade across a kiddy pool where I can’t see what’s lurking six inches beneath my paddling feet? Instantly, my inner Bartleby The Scrivener comes to the forefront, with a hearty and nervous “I would prefer not to.”
But what is October—the very heart of that glorious time of year we know as Spooky Season—all about, if not the facing of various fears? And so, earlier this week, I finally pulled the trigger on a game I’ve been fascinated with for a few years now, but have never actually played, because it seemed to sit at the nexus of literally every single thing that scares the shit out of me in video games: 2018’s Subnautica.
For the unfamiliar: Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s Subnautica is a survival game, one of those very popular breeds of danger-filled first-person simulators where you start by awkwardly tying two sticks together in your inventory, and end up building vast palaces of indestructible wonder. (Or, other people do. I usually end up getting my head bashed in by another player with slightly sharper sticks.) The twist with Subnautica is that you’ve crash-landed on a planet that’s 99% covered in water, which means that, if you want to do anything except float gently in your very safe, only slightly broken escape pod (and then starve to death), you’re going to have to jump into the ocean.
I did not want to do this. In fact, I spent the first minute or so of my time with Subnautica peering out uselessly for any kind of land I could maybe go stand on, instead of dropping myself into the drink. (The exploding spaceship in the distance looked briefly promising, but I quickly determined that I had no way to build a raft to let me go hang out in its on-fire-and-therefore-not-underwater safety.) Even though I knew, intellectually, that the game was not going to start me in Shark City first thing, I still did not want to plunge into that opaque, writhing membrane of wetness. But, seeing no other alternative (and vaguely worried the game might sink my escape pod in order to force my hand), I finally made the jump.
And you know what? All of my fears were unfounded! When I hit the water, I was immediately greeted by a gorgeous coral reef, teeming with abundant resources, non-hostile, beautiful, and delicious lifeforms, plenty of light, and OH SHIT OH SHIT WHAT WAS THAT NOISE. OH SHIT, LOOK AT THAT THING, SHIT, FUCK, IT’S GONNA MURDER ME.
Okay, so as it turns out, that thing—a.k.a the Crashfish, literally the least lethal hostile thing in the entire game—totally did want to kill me. But even more importantly, it made it clear to me that my time with Subnautica was probably not going to be very long. Not just because my cats would probably go into revolt if they heard me make little screams every 10 minutes or so for hours at a time—I was streaming the game, too, which means my high-pitched “Aaaagh!” is now recorded for posterity—but because it highlighted one of my biggest problems with that bastard, water: the way it renders a human being totally helpless, especially in the face of threats that have evolved to operate so smoothly within it. The appearance of this tiny, frankly adorable enemy sent me into an immediate panic because it was in its element, and I was out of mine. All horror games operate in the space of helplessness—it’s why you never have quite as many bullets, or quite as powerful a weapon, as you actually need. But there’s a special kind of powerlessness that comes from being confronted with a creature capable of literally swimming circles around you, and which is pressing that advantage to achieve your destruction. It’s Panic 101.
But despite this sudden tutorial in my own flabby, moist haplessness, I still pressed on with Subnautica. I explored the game’s relatively safe opening area, only drowning a dozen or so times in the process. Eventually, I felt the adrenaline spikes diminish, built up some resources, got a handle on what the game wanted me to do. Then I started exploring a little further afield, pushed by the need for more diverse resources, and that’s when the bottom dropped out from under me. Literally.
Because the fear of being snacked upon by an apex predator—and every predator is apex, when it’s a fish, and I’m a person, and we are not at the seafood counter at the local WinCo—is only part of the terror of being underwater. The other part, the more fundamental part, is the sense that erupts inside me when I look down into water so deep and so black that I can’t see what’s lurking down in the infinite depths. “There are giants out there in the canyons,” Billy Joel once sang, and the man was as right on this topic as he was about those damnable uptown girls. I don’t know if it makes it better or worse that I’ve read enough about Subnautica to know that there really are things down there, cruel and aggressive and ready to bite. Probably not. It’s not the moment when they actually kill me that’s going to hurt, after all; it’s the seconds right before, when the fear that something could come swimming out of the darkness transitions into the ugly certainty that my worst fears have just come to pass.
We come from the water, but we are not meant for it. I might, at 36, still occasionally cope with a fleeting paranoia about some dark corner of my home, and the unseen monster or killer hiding in it. But my rational mind can always cut in, reminding me that I am safe. It has no such defenses against the depths; indeed, it is just as unmoored as the rest of me by the yawning void of the unknown, this roiling soup of thalassophobia I find myself hovering in. Instead, I’m reduced to the childish cadences of a Pixar hero: “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” It’s not fear I’m fighting now, but something deeper. When I look down into the abyss, it is the cold grip of dread that wraps its way around my heart.
Anyway: 8/10, great graphics, solid survival gameplay, a stark confrontation with the horrors that hide just out of eyesight in the primordial periphery of the human mind. Would not play again.