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Among the video games that has characterized the month of May for many players is Subnautica: Below Zero, an open-world underwater adventure set on a frozen planet. From San Francisco-based developer Unknown Worlds, the game takes a different approach to its 2018 predecessor, Subnautica, with a more expansive story and a smaller map.
“The change in narrative focus was something from the very beginning that we opted into,” says game director David Kalina. “The first game had this narrative that was told mostly through audio logs left on the bottom of the ocean by people you’ll never meet, it’s kind of more passive.” Your player character has no voice, kind of an anonymous ‘every person,’ survivor of a crashed landing and it’s very clear what your imperative is: to survive.”
For Subnautica: Below Zero, Kalina shares some of the team’s new approach. “We decided to switch it up and try our hand at a little bit more of a story-forward experience. That started with having a protagonist with a voice and a personality.” The protagonist he’s speaking of is named Robin, a xenologist who travels to this deserted, dangerous planet to investigate the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death. Along the way she must stay alive in the deep sea by cooking and curing fish in the fabricator and crafting essential tools.
“I think one of the biggest challenges anytime you give voice to a player character, maybe more so in first-person games, is that there’s just inherently a potential conflict between what I’m thinking as the player and what the player character thinks and is telling me about the experience they’re having,” says Kalina.
On that note, he explains that the idea was to create a character who has her own motivations and is there for a very specific reason. “Sometimes there’s some dissonance there because maybe the character expresses an emotion that the player isn’t experiencing. You also don’t want to emotionally neuter your characters. It’s a little bit of a balancing act where we’re trying to let the character have their moment and their response to the things happening in the world, but also not get in the way.”
Kalina, who grew up with game systems in his house from five years old and summons the open-world fantasy Ultima series as one of the most formative to his eventual career choice, explains that while Subnautica: Below Zero is about the “thrill” of survival and discovery, a key element is also what players themselves make of it. “That one is the more subtle one where we’re trying to remember not to be prescriptive and to give players space to interpret the experience in the way they want.” Something they focused on is making the alien sounds strange and unfamiliar — the goal was never to scare people directly, but to encourage them to wonder where a certain sound came from.
The world of Subnautica: Below Zero is vast and beautiful, with coral and deep sea life in every corner — which you, as the player, are free to explore, until you run out of oxygen and have to sprint to the surface, or enter a pod or sea truck. “Our level design team wanted to make a world that was more dense, more lush — [and] that didn’t have these open expanses with not a lot happening.” Some of the inspirations for the visual aesthetics came from James Cameron’s The Abyss, while Pixar’s Finding Nemo also comes in, Kalina says, referencing the “colorful, lively feeling” to the environment. “It’s an alien planet, but it’s also very familiar and you could even say it feels friendly in places.”
On the other side of that are the harsher elements, of which brutalist architecture came into play. “We use these rough shapes and they cut big silhouettes and it’s a real contrast to the rest of the world.” Much of the arctic environment was simply inspired by the expanse of Earth — “when we look at some of the most remote corners of our planet, they can look almost alien.”
While Kalina himself does not claim to be particularly into hardcore survival movies, he did watch AMC’s The Terror, which is based on the Dan Simmons novel and follows a group of explorers who get stuck in the Arctic and have to resort to cannibalism. “There were certain influences we took visually, looking at the atmosphere of this really extreme cold weather environment and people trying to survive in it, what the weather looked like, what the underwater color palette looked like.”
Like many developers, Kalina acknowledges that it’s s little bit hard for him to “sit back” and enjoy the gameplay of Subnautica: Below Zero, or any video game for that matter, being so close to the experience, yet he is proud of the way an emotional story — one that explores themes of connection and loss — was built into the established world.
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