By Brandon Dennis
Photo by Kellie Churchman
“ Attention. Hull failure imminent. All personnel: abandon ship.” Announcesa faintly staticky robotic voice, vaguely British, quiet in comparison to the steadily blaring siren overthe dull base rumble of explosions. A third sound grows audible: your own ragged breath. You’re sliding down a ladder into a tiny pod of a room. You take no time to look around as you throw yourself with a grunt into a single chair attached to the wall. Before you’re even fully seated, your finger lands on the button on the armrest, causing a harness to lower over your shoulders and torso. The same voice, louder this time: “Launch in 3… 2… 1…” You brace yourself with the handles of your harness as the room rumbles. Gravity loses meaning. You peer up through the glass hatch from which your ladder descends just in time to see the brilliant flash of a detonation with a blast far louder than any previously heard. Your pod shakes from the proximity. A metal panel and a fire extinguisher are ripped from the wall as the red warning lights spin and a rapid high-pitched beeping fills the room. You have no time to react. The panel catches you squarely across the temple and everything goes black.
This is not the start to an odd, second person sci-fi novel, nor a written account of an eighties sci-fi movie: it’s the start of Unknown World’s survival horror, Subnautica, a game in which you collect resources and explore an alien ocean to find and construct a way home.
As you reawaken and emerge through the hatch above the ladder, you find yourself standing on a “lifepod,” a single floating spec of safety in a massive ocean. There’s nothing in any direction except ocean- nothing save the hulking mass of your spaceship, the Aurora, miles away and larger than a skyscraper, half submerged in the sea.
The plot is clear. A “fishbowl scenario,” as described by thriller author and essayist Benjamin Percy. You are on an unknown alien planet and the conflict doesn’t hide. You’re trapped. It is this lack of context that adds the “horror” to the description of this game. You are alone, and you know nothing. When addressing how much backstory to include in a story, Percy asks “How about none?” He reasons making inferences and filling in the blanks of the narrative is part of the pleasure of reading a story. The reader become a “coauthor.” As you eventually work up the courage to dive into the sea, this internal coauthor is firing on all cylinders. There could be anything beneath those waves.
Subnautica was designed to take advantage of that terror. As the game is played, you collect materials, build gadgets and tools to help you survive. In thevicinity of your little “lifepod” you learn to avoid sand sharks and barracuda-like stalkers. At first, they’re frightening, leaping out and ambushing you seemingly at random. But you learn. Sand sharks are only quick in bursts, stalkers can be distracted with an offering of fish. While the ocean is far from safe, you grow in confidence as you play. Eventually, you even manage to build yourself a personal submarine, and learn of blueprints for a rocket in the captain’s quarters of the Aurora: your way home.
It’s here the game borrows from literature what Percy calls “the reversal”.” It’s a subversion of expectations as, according to Percy, “We’re vulnerable to the terror because we don’t see it coming.” It’s no coincidence that the safest biome in the game, appropriately named the “safe shallows,” is set directly next to the hyper-dangerous “crash zone,” where the Aurora looms. The promise of escape and the murky waters around the Aurora hide the lurking leviathan. At least until it attacks, ripping apart your safe submarine and nearly devouring you. That instant transition from comfortable and familiar to frightening and unknown mirrors the sentence structure of a thriller suspense novel. If the game began immediately with you, the player, swimming desperately away from the hungry jaws of a “Reaper Leviathan,” the effect would be far weaker. Those hungry jaws don’t show up until you’re comfortable in the ocean, confident in your knowledge of the world around you and hopeful from the promise of escape.
By borrowing from literature, Subnautica is careful to provide you with just enough context to construct a narrative and reverse your expectations when you start to feel safe. With literary techniques, Unknown Worlds takes Subnautica from a forgettable gaming experience and transforms it into a sucker punch of terror.