War Stories: How Subnautica made players love being hunted by sea creatures


Directed by Sean Dacanay, edited by Jeremy Smolik. Transcript available shortly.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, game designer Charlie Cleveland had a goal: he wanted to make a game that wasn’t built around guns and combat. The underwater exploration game he and the folks at Unknown Worlds Entertainment eventually built is a sleeper masterpiece—a game that manages to evoke awe and wonder while also not really requiring you to kill anything.

But getting from prototype to release took years of iterating, including an Early Access period for pulling in lots of player feedback. Cleveland’s core idea was to build a game focused on what he calls “the thrill of the unknown”—created by giving players a seemingly depthless underwater world to explore and by filling that world with wonder and mysteries and “creatures” rather than “monsters.” Cleveland names fellow designer Jenova Chen (of Flower and Journey fame) as a source of inspiration for Subnautica’s emotionally driven design, and those influences are definitely visible in the way the game calmly and cooly reveals its secrets to players.

“It wasn’t missing combat—it was missing excitement

It seems perhaps a little silly to not have any guns in a survival/crafting game where the player is shipwrecked on an alien world (and, indeed, there are some gun-like tools that the player can eventually wield, including a stasis rifle that freezes creatures), but making it work required building an engaging world that gave players plenty to do. Being engaged turned out to be a lot more important than being engaged in combat, and so as the game iterated through design and Early Access, the developers came up with tons of extra bits to keep players busy.

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