Compared to free-form exploration, this aspect of Subnautica: sub zero is particularly systematic. I acquire blueprints which are essentially “craft recipes”, from which I draw the ingredients from the seabed. For a battery, which is needed to power my tools, I need two ribbon plants and a piece of copper, so I venture out into the ocean, returning to places where I know they exist. More sophisticated items require ingredients found in deeper, more dangerous waters, so I’m heading there too, only now in my huge Seatruck. Slowly but surely, the wonder I draw from the game’s environments is traded for transactional familiarity. The ocean, and it’s disheartening to write this, is starting to look like a gigantic, swaying grocery store. To collect the cluster of grape seeds I need for hydraulic fluid, I head to the kelp forest alley.
The game only occasionally brings my nautical consumerism to the fore, like when I drop items on the seabed because I need to make room for more resources. Sometimes I find my own garbage a few days later and still feel a sense of guilt despite it only be a video game. In the Seatruck, meanwhile, I am both protected and away from ocean dwellers. As I whirl through the organism-rich waters, tiny fish splash against the glass in foul-smelling yellow blooms, like insects pounding against a car windshield – ending in my own ostentatious presence.
What does not happen is some significant oceanic deterioration as resources are extracted from it. Indeed, this static state makes me wonder how a game could handle environmental degradation. In Floating point leviathan we have a taste, a first person underwater game about the harpooning of a beautiful blue whale. With each successful hit on the giant mammal, the game’s pastel-hued polygonal graphics glitch and artifact to the point that, in the end, the entire screen shakes – shattered to a nauseous degree. In 10 short minutes, Floating point leviathan highlights the extent to which human action can be destabilizing.
Because harpooning the whale disrupts the entire environment, it means that this unique action reverberates through the game’s small but interconnected, fishbowl-like world. Such dependencies are visually evoked in Subnautica: sub zero, but as far as I know, they do not express themselves otherwise. For a more symbiotic view of the ocean, players could also look to the 2020s. In other waters, a top-down marine adventure, which according to its creator, Gareth Damian Martin, is inspired by the pioneering work of Lynn margulis, a biologist who proposes that symbiosis, and not competition, is the force that drives evolution and adaptation. It contains a handful of beautiful moments where you witness firsthand the subtle interplay between marine life.
It may be a failure of my own imagination, but I can’t imagine a version of Subnautica: sub zero who explores such systems of symbiosis, or who takes the prospect of environmental degradation seriously. How would you really simulate such complex and ever-changing networks of mutualism and codependency in a game of this gigantic size? What it reflects is the imperfect relationship of the real world with resources, the natural world, and ideas of progress. Technology in Subnautica: sub zero allows me to peer into the deepest virtual abyss, to feel the terrifying vertigo of unfathomable depths. I reach these submerged panoramas from the hours I spend grinding, cultivating and consuming the ocean around me, only for its bounties to magically reappear a few hours later. I wish our real world oceans were as resilient as the fantasy presented by this game.
More WIRED stories