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Subnautica and Mankind’s Deepest Fear

Subnautica and Mankind's Deepest Fear

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Trying to survive in the middle of the wilderness seems to be the most commonly used setting when talking about survival genre video games. Few of them try to do different things to provide a more unique and fresh experience, such as the indie game Subnautica for example, which raises the scenario of what if we are stranded alone on an alien planet.

This game by developer Unknown Entertainment first entered Early Access in 2014 with a quality that is arguably far from good. However, over time until its release in 2018, the game, which carries the exploration of the deep oceans on an alien planet, has successfully become one of the best survival games today.

In short, Subnautica takes you stranded in the middle of the ocean on an alien planet after the colony ship you live in is shot down. The lack of land makes you have to survive by utilizing the natural resources available in the oceans. You have to explore to find a way to get home. And the further you explore, the more dangerous the threats you will have to face.

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At first glance, it sounds like a generic survival game with a different environmental twist, but one thing that is special is how the developer team packs the terror aspect in Subnautica that triggers psychological and emotional responses related to humanity’s deepest fears.

To quote the words of Howard Phillip Lovecraft – the writer who also popularized the Lovecraftian universe genre;

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
H.P. LOVECRAFT, SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE (1973)

the above quotation is easy to understand as; since time immemorial, mankind’s deepest feeling has been fear, and mankind’s deepest fear has been the fear of ignorance. This concept is the main main idea in the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Broadly speaking, the characteristics in games or other entertainment mediums with the Lovecraftian theme are the presence of entities that we have never met in the real world, as well as mysterious phenomena that do not enter the logic of our world. This genre is also often confused with cosmic horror, which unites elements such as extraterrestrials or other dimensions, forbidden knowledge, religion and belief, destiny, terror, madness, and is wrapped in a gloomy atmosphere.

Although it is indeed quoted from works of fiction, psychologically we are afraid of ignorance in our daily life. A study defines fear of ignorance as a person’s tendency to feel afraid when facing a situation that is difficult to predict how the outcome will be. This tendency then creates fear, deep anxiety, panic, phobias, and can even affect the health of the body and mentality.

One example that is commonly encountered is when someone is asked to make a speech but is not good at speaking in public, for example. Of course, there will be anxieties such as fear of speaking wrongly or thinking too much about how the audience will respond.

Back to talking about Subnautica, visually this survival game in the deep ocean does not seem like it can be called a Lovecraftian, besides some creepy creature designs in it. However, it is clear that the essence of fear of ignorance is one of the main aspects of terror that deserves to be called a survival game that is more horror than horror games.

Not just horror, but terror as well

Before going further, let us briefly distinguish between horror and terror. Simply put, horror is understood as a reaction to a scary phenomenon, while terror is the thought or feeling of horror in anticipating a phenomenon that is unknown but is expected to be very terrible.

Not a few horror games utilize the concept of being afraid of ignorance and the aspect of terror only briefly or repeatedly, so that the players themselves can be said to quickly adapt to it. In Subnautica, there are several game elements that keep us feeling terror throughout the game; the lack of furniture to fight against, limited visibility, solitude, the atmosphere that surrounds the world and what most fascinates me, the sound design that is presented in the game.

Many horror games tend to encourage you to dare to defeat various enemies, ghosts or monsters that are hunting you. In Subnautica, we are not really given the ability or equipment to fight back. You can make knives to hunt small fish or chop marine plants, but it will take a long time of course if you are trying to beat up a fish or a larger creature. This of course forces you to run away or find another way and be smart in maneuvering if you want to venture into an area where there are dangerous creatures around it.

When the sun is shining, of course you can still see clearly even though the objects in the distance look faint. Arriving at night, you are completely unable to see even at close range. Flashlights can be a support tool, but believe me that illuminating the darkness in the ocean really feels terrible. This lack of visibility also adds to the terror aspect for players when they see a large, faint creature in the distance, or at night where you will see mysterious lights that you don’t know whether it is a plant or a dangerous creature.

As explained earlier, you need to find a way out of the planet. One way is to try to communicate with other survivors. Every few hours (in-game time) you will get a message via radio along with the location of the radio signal coming from. Maybe you feel relieved that there are other NPCs that we might be able to meet. But as you follow in the footsteps of those who haven’t met, in the end you will realize that radio messages are just an illusion or a distraction pinned as part of the aspect of terror. And when the reality kicks in, you realize that you are the only human who has survived on this alien planet.

We know the appearance of the contents of the ocean as shown as in documentary programs; teeming with marine animals and wrecks that look charming, then occasionally expose sharks as one of the biggest threats in them. But at the same time, we never really know what it’s like to be directly in the ocean. Subnautica tries to present this sentiment by bringing us to a world that looks so beautiful and full of peace, but at the same time feels full of lurking threats.

When you first start the game, you will be placed in a shallow sea with all the flora and fauna that look so beautiful. The more you explore, you will find a variety of different biomes that each have their own atmosphere of beauty and horror. The shallow ocean like where you start the game certainly gives off a safe impression, while the dark deep ocean where the sun doesn’t reach will certainly give off a threatening impression. However, this game often provides a false sense of securities, where a biome that looks calm and quiet could have a danger that we never thought possible.

One thing that makes me fall in love with Subnautica is the design and sound effects that make the atmosphere of life in the game really feel more beautiful and scary. Some of the sounds in between were produced by large creatures that you could hear in the distance. But in general, the overall sound is designed in such a way that we really feel like we are in the sea. One of the terrible moments that I remember until now is when the soundtrack suddenly stopped while I was exploring a biome that was so quiet and calm, then there was a terrifying roar and suddenly a large creature appeared swimming not far from my side.

The voices in Subnautica remind me of Muto’s voice from the movie Godzilla (2014) which also fascinated me (with his voice).

It is difficult to explain the terror aspect of Subnautica in a writing. But it seems that this short snippet from YouTuber JackSepticEye might give a little idea of the horror of the world of Subnautica.

If you think the video above seems ordinary or too excessive, then I suggest trying the game directly with the Subnautica version which has been polished to be much more “beautiful”.

In fact, the mysterious sea that is presented in the Subnautica game is not much different from the oceans on our own earth. Until now, humanity has only explored 5% of the ocean. Technological limitations and changing natural conditions make it difficult for us to know what is in the deep oceans there. So even though Subnautica presents a sea of ​​fiction, the aspect of terror or the concept of fear of ignorance still applies to our oceans in this world.

At the end of the story, this (unclear) analysis is merely my amazement how a survival game that is not made with a non-horror mindset is able to provide a more terrifying terror than horror games in general. If you are interested, this game is sold on Steam for only USD 10, and I guarantee you will get a much more interesting playing experience than most AAA games today. Or if you have a PS4, Subnautica is also part of Sony’s Play At Home campaign which you can download for free without PlayStation Plus.

If I could turn back the clock, one of the things I wanted to do was definitely experience Subnautica for the first time. And I’m sure other players agree on this one sentiment.

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