Yesterday I called a fish a four-letter word.
To be fair, it had come out of nowhere and was apparently trying to bite my leg off.
Nope, I haven’t suddenly gotten into extreme swimming: this happened in the world of Subnautica, a PC game of survival, exploration and crafting in a lush and terrifying underwater world.
The story goes something like this: you crash-land on an alien planet. As far as you know, all your crewmates on the enormous starship you flew here in are dead. You have to find water and food and a way to survive in this hostile environment where everything wants to eat you.
There’s a story, but you can ignore it if you want to and just build stuff in the ocean. Or just swim around looking at cool stuff, if you so wish: the world of the game is huge, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of all the monsters and biomes and seascapes there are to find.
I’ve played seven hours of Subnautica so far. I’m pretty new at gaming, so it may be there’s a whole bunch of stuff out there that looks just as lovely as this, but I doubt it: I’m constantly amazed by the quality of the water effects, and, more, the quality of the light in this game. Sunbeams lancing into murky blue-green depths; the red light of sunset glowing in the shallows; the wobbly circle of white light on the sea-surface seen from underneath.
On my first dawn on the planet, I trod water in the shallows to watch the alien sun rise. It’s the kind of game that makes you want to do that.
That’s not to mention the things that live in the sea: the herbivorous leviathans with entire reefs on their backs; the tiny fish that glow with phosphorescence at night; the giant tube corals you can swim through.
It’s because of that lushness that everything is fucking terrifying in this game. There’s a fish called a Stalker that’s longer than your body and approximately fifty per cent teeth. Half the time you don’t know it’s chasing you till you turn around and see this sinuous body right next to you. There are underwater caves and bits of shipwreck that you know probably contain valuable resources but are also potential death traps (it’s amazing how claustrophobic a game can make you feel). The sound design is very, very detailed: every creature has its own noise, and when you’re in the depths of the ocean in the dark you can hear…things, and you have no idea what they are.
Let’s talk Themes, for I am an English student first and foremost and literally cannot resist an opportunity for cultural criticism. One of the really interesting things about Subnautica is that there are no weapons. (Well, there’s a survival knife, but I’ve not yet managed to gut a Stalker with it.) Instead, one of the items you can craft early in the game is a scanner, which you use to analyse plants, fish, bits of wreckage and other items for information that might help you survive.
This seemingly-innocuous piece of game furniture has some structurally fascinating effects, which I want to root in science fiction’s colonialist beginnings. Subnautica, for all its ultra-modern VR technology, belongs with early SF classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: it draws on typical late-Victorian SF themes of exploration and encounters with monstrous and semi-mythical nature – themes which are themselves based in racist and imperialist ideologies which cast non-Western countries and their inhabitants as Others to be subdued through force and categorisation. Subnautica just locates those themes on another planet, because all the exploring here on Earth has already been done. It gives us as players a blank slate, pristine nature, to explore and, by exploring, conquer.
(It’s telling that, in Subnautica, you’re automatically coded as male: there’s no option to pick a differently-coded body. It’s one of the few things that really irritates me about the game. But think about all those metaphors of male explorers penetrating mother nature’s secrets.)
The shift from attacking nature to collecting data about it updates the colonialist dynamic. Not having a weapon puts you on a superficially more level footing with the denizens of the planet’s ocean: you don’t have overwhelming firepower to blast them into submission, only your speed and your strength and your wits – and your knowledge. It’s a subtler, and in some ways purer form of SFnal colonialism: more than once I’ve found myself swimming directly at a predator, scanner held high, knowing that I’ll probably die but that it’s worth it – because when I respawn I’ll know a little more about the planet; I’ll be a little closer to understanding it, conquering it, living in it. The effort you make in this game is explicitly all about making this world habitable. You’re not trying to survive just long enough for a rescue team to come; you’re building a permanent complex for you to live in. You’re doing it with science instead of guns (although, the characters in the novels of Jules Verne and his contemporaries were scientists too), but in the end the drive and the result is the same.
I’m not sure the game is entirely unaware of this dynamic, to its credit: there’s a couple of slightly creepy mechanisms by which you seem to become aware of your short presence on the planet. The crashed starship is leaking radiation, and the radiation zone seems to be spreading – which, given that the life pod that serves as your first base is not that far from the starship, is a bit of a worry. Secondly, one of the readiest sources of food, certainly in the early game, is a seaweed called creepvine, which grows in long, waving columns in kelp forests. I’m trying to be careful – never cutting down a whole plant for food, and spreading my harvesting out over several different kelp forests. Still – I’m not entirely sure, but the forests near my base seem to be a little sparser than they used to be…
I guess my point is that Subnautica does occupy a similar cultural space to colonial SF; but it does so queasily, uneasily, the balance of power constantly swinging between you and nature and back again. I don’t know how this will change as I play through the game and learn more about the world – as mystery turns to knowledge. Will I still find it terrifying when I know what’s out there? Will I still find it beautiful?
I don’t know.