Subnautica: Below Zero and beyond | A peek into Unknown Worlds as the studio turns 20 years old… or thereabouts
Karan PradhanMay 29, 2021 07:52:58 IST
What’s the best way to play Subnautica: Below Zero?
“In a bathtub, or on a submarine,” says David Kalina, its project lead.
Launching to rave reviews three years ago, San Francisco-based Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s open world survival and action-adventure game Subnautica redefined, in many ways, what has long been a very hit or miss setting for video games: Underwater. Atmospheric, frightening and visually spellbinding all at once, this was as unsettling an experience as it was unforgettable.
But Subnautica was far from being the only game that sent players underwater. In fact, the likes of Bioshock, Abzû, Endless Ocean and Beyond Blue are just some of the games that have over the years made that environment their own. Meanwhile, such games as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (most notably), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and a slew of first-person shooters have greatly struggled with levels that send you through that terrain. Around a couple of weeks ago, Subnautica: Below Zero (referred to henceforth as simply Below Zero), the sequel to the 2018 title, became the latest game to enter the watery arena.
The premise of both Subnautica games is simple enough: Oriented in a first-person perspective, you find yourself on an alien world comprised largely of water, and have to work out just what is going on. Along the way, you’ll engage in resource-gathering, crafting (food, water, tools and useful materials), base-building, lots of exploration and a bit of combat — a large chunk of which takes place underwater, where aside from keeping an eye on your health bar, you have to track your hydration and oxygen levels, and deftly manage those. Good times!
So just what is it about throwing players into the drink that is so appealing to game developers?
“The water is naturally terrifying,” explains David, adding, “It is a place where you can’t breathe. The fear of drowning is primal and universal, all of which makes it perfect for a survival game with a terrifying edge.” That said, he continues, “Underwater environments are familiar, and beautiful — look at the passion people have for snorkelling or scuba-diving.”
This juxtaposition of beauty and fear are at the forefront of the Subnautica games and particularly the sequel (the publisher was kind enough to provide a review code for PlayStation 5), the release of which coincided with it being 20 years since the seeds for what would become Unknown Worlds were sown.
“Back [in 2001] it wasn’t even a studio,” recalls Charlie Cleveland, director of the first Subnautica game and co-founder of Unknown Worlds, “It was just my friend Cory Strader and I working on a game.” It was in May 2001, that he left Stainless Steel Studios to start writing Natural Selection (more on this later).
Having recently played Subnautica (which was one of the indie games offered up gratis in March/April by Sony as part of its Play at Home initiative), I had some idea of what to expect going into Below Zero. Sure, the general look and feel has undergone an upgrade and the soundscape feels richer, but these are improvements you would expect on a next current generation console.
According to various reports, Below Zero started out as a DLC, before turning into a standalone title. But can it be considered a full-fledged sequel or is it more of a standalone expansion? Think Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony. “Below Zero is a sequel,” affirms David, adding, “We built an entirely new world, new storyline, a slew of new tools and vehicles, an entirely new cast of alien creatures and characters to discover.”
“It’s built on top of some of the core gameplay of the first game, but it truly stands alone,” he continues. Sure enough, there are a great deal of similarities, particularly when it comes to gameplay. But there’s a marked difference in the approach this time around.
The 2018 title threw you into the middle of an ocean with nary a clue about your whereabouts or purpose, leaving you to dig around and discover both for yourself. This time around, the story takes centre stage and the narrative guides you through your exploration, crafting and base-building. Furthermore, there are a bunch of sections of the game that take place on the ground, which bring with it the need to be alert for land-based threats, manage body temperature, craft appropriate gear and avoid hypothermia.
This is a good point at which to revisit the question from the very start of this piece: What’s the best way to play Subnautica? “Okay, seriously, if you’re a player who hasn’t played either game?” asks David, “If you like a little bit more of a story-driven adventure, start with Below Zero. If feeling the terror of being stranded alone on an alien planet is more your thing, start with Subnautica. Neither one requires the other to play.”
“Below Zero is certainly more ‘story-forward’. It features a speaking protagonist who comes to Planet 4546B to try and discover what happened to her sister, who died on a previous research mission in this arctic region of the planet,” he offers. This is already much more information than you are given in the first couple of hours or so of the first game.
“And along the way to uncovering the secrets surrounding her sister’s death, she meets a couple of other characters, including an ancient Architect alien whose intelligence was locked away in cold storage,” he explains. But that doesn’t mean the exploration aspect is gone. Far from it.
Explore at your own pace
Most of your time is spent swimming around and feasting your eyes on the variety of flora and fauna 4546B — yes, it’s the same planet from the first game, but you find yourself in a different part of it — has to offer. And due warning: You may completely lose track of what you had originally set out to do, before you started chasing that strange-looking fish and ended up admiring coral formations.
“In spite of the more involved story, we still tried to stay true to the exploration-driven formula of the first game,” clarifies the Below Zero project lead, “We want players to feel ownership over the experience. We never give you explicit missions or objectives; instead, we trust you to discover the world and follow the story threads at your own pace, in whatever order you like.”
And while there are some gamers who, for better or worse, enjoy a more streamlined and objectives-driven experience (possibly due to time constraints, personal preference or a whole variety of reasons), Below Zero, like Subnautica before it, is decidedly not that sort of game. While it is possible to rush through with minimal exploration, you’d be missing out on most of what the game has to offer.
Moving on, there are considerably more land sections to tackle in Below Zero, which at first sight, might seem to go against the spirit of Subnautica. David explains, “Since we decided to make a game in an arctic part of 4546B, we knew we wanted to introduce more significant surface survival gameplay elements.”
“This,” he continues, “would require new creatures — like the Ice Worm and Snow Stalkers, a new land vehicle — the Snowfox hoverbike, a dynamic weather system, and a new survival system for the player based on body temperature. Stay exposed to the cold for too long, and you’ll go hypothermic!”
As you explore 4546B, you’ll doubtless encounter a whole variety of moments, visuals and moods that feel like they could’ve jumped right out of a film or documentary. What inspired the look and feel of the original and its sequel? “For the original, James Cameron’s The Abyss, the animated film Finding Nemo, Brutalist architecture and the natural beauty of our own planet,” says David, “And with Below Zero, we looked again to the natural world. There are remote, frozen landscapes on Earth that look like they are from somewhere else, entirely.”
“We started by building on top of the core gameplay loop from the first game: Survival, crafting, and exploration,” recalls David when asked about how the team approached Below Zero in its nascent stages. “The core loop is super solid,” he adds, “And building on top of it with some new ingredients and a shift in focus felt like a good direction to explore.”
And then, there’s the story.
“And then there’s the story,” agrees David, “From the beginning, we set out to expand our narrative ambition and move beyond a story mostly told through lore and find a more personal, emotional tale with living characters.”
Stitching together a narrative through codices, audio recordings and the like is quite a literary undertaking that can be quite powerful and moving, if executed properly. If not, it can result in a hollow experience replete either with exposition dumps or non-cohesive and unlinked drips of information. For its part, while Subnautica managed the task of telling a story through lore admirably, it did feel a bit cold and impersonal.
And now, by introducing, as David puts it, ‘living characters’, the overall experience is far more vivid and memorable. Somewhat unsurprisingly, and given the foundation laid for Below Zero by its predecessor, nailing down the narrative was the trickiest part for the Unknown Worlds team. As David explains, “Our biggest challenge was trying to get the story right. It took a couple of full reboots, a variety of talented writers, and a lot of time and attention to make everything work together.”
Unknown Worlds and making games their own way
Two whole decades before Below Zero, Unknown Worlds’ raison d’etre, as co-founder Charlie tells it, was to create a game that all his friends could play together. “I had some friends who wanted to play Quake and others who wanted to play Starcraft, but we didn’t have a game we could all play together,” he explains, “What I really wanted was a shooter with real strategic depth and that’s where Natural Selection came from.”
For the uninitiated, Natural Selection is a mod for the legendary and revolutionary first-person shooter Half-Life. Natural Selection was launched in 2002 and such was the degree of its success that it even went on to spawn a sequel 10 years later. “Half-Life was phenomenal and blew my mind. The atmosphere and environments blew me away. It was the most cinematic game I had ever played, and it left a great impression on me,” gushes Charlie.
But it wasn’t the base game that appealed to him most, it was also the modding scene. “When I saw Counter-Strike rocket out of nowhere, I wanted to jump onboard,” he says. But there was a major hurdle: The prohibitively expensive world of game engines in the pre-open source era. “I certainly didn’t have $300,000 (I believe that was the price for the Half-Life engine) to license one to make a game. But to make a mod and release it to everyone — that was free.”
Back then, mods piggy-backed on the Half-Life instal base and websites like Planet Half-Life promoted them. Reiterating that it was more the modding scene than Half-Life itself that captivated him, Charlie states, “I knew this was the best way for me to make a game and release it to many thousands of players.”
On the topic of key influences when Unknown Worlds was starting out, he names Counter-Strike, Tribes and Age of Empires, and reflects, “I don’t remember thinking that it might turn into a company — I just knew that I had a burning desire to make my own game, my own way. It was more of a feeling than a thought.”
‘A positive force’
High atop the mission statement for Charlie and Unknown Worlds was a desire to make ‘games that were a positive force’ in the world and those that would bring people together. “I didn’t know much more than that, and once I started making Natural Selection, I fell in love with making games and couldn’t stop,” he says and adds, “Nowadays, I’ve tried to restrain myself a bit and think more about my life and the wider world outside of video games.”
This quest has taken Charlie into other creative fields including the creation and publishing of his first board game — Vampire the Masquerade: Vendetta. “Our goals with the company have become much more cross-platform and non-conflict oriented, starting with Subnautica. We want to reach a much wider cross section of humanity.”
Appealing to a wider cross section of humanity is a noble goal, but what does this mean at a more grassroots level? “Games should be intrinsically rewarding,” David jumps back in, outlining his gaming philosophy, and elaborating, “So that means avoiding achievement- or checklist-motivated gameplay and building games that people want to explore on their own merits.”
“Players feel greater ownership of the experience when you trust and empower them to explore your games,” he adds, “And this is more personal for me, but always avoid using violent conflict to solve problems.” Clearly, it’s not just in terms of game design and storytelling that Unknown Worlds has moved on from its humble beginnings and Natural Selection.
In this day and age of publishers shipping broken games after painting a completely different picture beforehand, it’s fairly refreshing to see a developer/publisher willing to pull back the curtain and give gamers access to games during their development phase. Below Zero, for instance, went on early access via the Epic Games Store and Steam back in January 2019.
That said, isn’t the constant barrage of opinion a bit of a constraint at best and problematic at worst? Particularly considering how overly empowered fans are in any case these days. Justice League’s Snyder Cut anyone? “Dealing with the constancy of feedback is a challenge,” concedes David, “We have some team members — like our ace community manager Donya Abramo — who spend a tonne of time talking to our fans and taking in all their feedback.”
Explaining that it takes a certain level of skill to be able to take in everybody’s individual complaint and know how to filter it into something useful, he adds, “[The barrage of opinion] can compromise our creative process only if we let it. Our philosophy is that we make better games out in the open and involving our fans results in stronger, more resonant material.”
Highs, lows and what’s next
“Ooh boy, there are a few [lows] to mention,” reminisces Charlie, “There were the times we almost went out of business — a couple times while making Natural Selection 2 and perhaps once while making Subnautica.” On the topic, David chips in, “During Subnautica, it was [most challenging] trying to find the gameplay, while the studio was on the brink of going out of business.”
“We had some real creative difficulties with Subnautica that were quite difficult and caused a lot of soul-searching,” agrees Charlie, “But our highs have been pretty incredible too. Those include meeting some of our team members for the first time in person when we launched Natural Selection 2, then seeing it reach Number 1 on Steam, launching Subnautica at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and our team retreats in sun-drenched locales with the team from around the world.”
Additionally, it’s the letters and drawings from kids who played Subnautica and now want to study marine biology that stand out for Charlie.
Finally, what does the future hold for the studio? “We have another project that is led by Charlie — that was started shortly after the end of Subnautica’s development. Hopefully, we’ll have more to share about that in the coming months,” says David, adding, “Beyond that, it’s an open world for us to discover. Some of us are seeking new game concepts; others are continuing to support Subnautica and Below Zero. As for bigger and better Subnautica sequels, well, I’m sure we’ll dive back into an alien ocean again… someday.”
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