Zero Punctuation on Subnautica.
Lord, save me from all these fucking survival games! (There's an ironic joke in there, somewhere.) They always start sensible, with combining rock with stick to create stick-with-a-rock-on-the-end, but sooner or later, you end up mashing together two mushrooms and a piece of discarded tin foil to create a magazine-fed 5.56mm Colt AR-15, which you then rub on a small pile of turds for a second to add the optional holographic sights.
Still, I understand why they appeal: where most games revolve entirely around the player, waiting giggling just over the horizon for you to step into the designated minotaur area so it can leap out staff-flinging minotaurs, it's refreshing to play a game whose world feels like it couldn't give a shit about you, that its environment and lifeforms could muddle along perfectly well by themselves and which will kill you stone-dead if you go twenty minutes without sucking any hydration from the tear ducts of a passing sparrow. Anyway, we've done crafting survival games in most of the standard Mario level biomes - Grasslands, Desert, Jungle, Ice World - so until they bring out a crafting survival game set in Food World, where we have to make spears out of Twiglets, here's a crafting survival game set in an Ocean level: Subnautica.
You are Rex Handsome, faceless mute space adventurer with the superhuman ability to not go all wrinkly when they stay underwater too long. Sadly, he got this power by trading in his ability to prevent spaceships from exploding, and his spaceship explodes over an ocean planet with only three survivors: him, one escape pod, and the Mars Bar in the glove compartment. Now our hero must find a way off the planet, but in the meantime, do the usual survival crafting game stuff: build a base, find food and water, explore, and remember to breathe every now and again, you dozy git.
Subnautica is the kind of game that probably could have gotten away with procedurally generating the map and having no further plot beyond "see how long you can last and maybe find yourself a nice crafting project, like building a castle with a fire-breathing effigy of the Allman Brothers on the top", so I was surprised to see that it didn't do that; the world map is fixed, and astonishingly, there's a plot, with an actual ending, where you get to leave the planet, tearfully waving goodbye to the Allman Brothers as you go. Ho yes, that spaceship disaster wasn't just a contrived setup; the massive wreckage is your principal navigation point for the whole game, and your first challenge is figuring out how you're going to loot it while it's on fire and pissing radiation like an incontinent dog from the Bikini Atoll.
The core mechanics of Subnautica are exploring and crafting so that you can expand the area of map you can explore and craft things from without running out of air, food, water, or contraceptives; craft flippers and a larger oxygen tank so you can dive further and find the rarer elements so you can craft rocket flippers and an oxygen tank the size of a fridge, and so on. The crafting is very much in "I Created a Nuclear Pogo Stick by Rubbing Together Two Leaves and Something I Scraped Off a Wall" Land, but we're using a Star Trek replicator right off the bat, so I guess we'll let it slide. Progress was a bit stop-and-start because you're supposed to figure everything out by exploring, and every now and again, I'd swim into a big underwater wall because I couldn't find the one thing that would open up the next important branch of the progress tree and would have to alt-tab out to find the wiki, which is as good for immersion as a herring in a sock.
For example, one of the early crafting items you need for the utterly vital Repair Tool is Cave Sulfur, which I just couldn't track down. "Okay", said the wiki. "You know that thing that you've been running into in caves that aggressively swims towards you and explodes and kills you dead? Well, Cave Sulfur is the thing that that thing was sitting on." Oh, right. Forgive me; I was kind of getting the impression that I wasn't welcome in that dude's house, rooting around in his toilet bowl. What about Kyanite? Where do I find that? "Oh, yeah! Search the entire fucking map for the one cave that keeps going down and down and down until you're in the planet's fucking molten core; it'll be a six-week expedition and you'll probably die, but if you pull it off, you'll get a depth upgrade for your Prawn Suit, so chin up."
And yet, there was something about Subnautica that made me keep alt-tabbing back to it. Underwater exploration is an inherently appealing concept: this whole new world rolling away before you, made all the more beautiful by its utter hostility. I remember the sheer wonder I felt when I first breached the lava zone in my protective suit, descending into a cavern big enough for a cathedral, rivers of glowing orange snaking along the floor like the arteries of some giant protean god, whereupon one of those cocking psychic monsters came along, teleported me out of my suit, and made me boil to death, and it was a different kind of wonder I experienced then. I "wonder" if those psychic monsters possessed bollocks; I "wonder" what they would taste like after I put them through the Breville sandwich toaster, preferably without having removed them from the rest of the body!
I came damn close to rage-quitting after that setback; I only recovered by painstakingly working my submarine through the caverns leading up to the lava zone like a kitten trawling down a hosepipe and stocking myself up with enough health kits to reach my abandoned Prawn Suit before I turned into a service-station pre-cooked Cornish pasty. It wasn't the only time I considered quitting, but Subnautica always found a way to worm back into my interest pipes. I told myself I wasn't going to stick around long enough to want to mess around with the base-building element much; I'd just build one scanning room to show me where the nearest 7-Elevens are, and that needs power, so solar panel, but wait, what if I wake up in the middle of the night wanting a disgusting cupcake? Better have a bio-matter reactor as well, and now we'll need a little terrarium to feed it with. This is taking a lot of stuff; better add some storage. Ooh, there's a volcanic vent down there; I could probably extend the base far enough to build a thermal reactor, and if we're doing that, might as well add some more rooms. "Hey, Yahtz, you still playing that game?" Who dares trespass upon Fortress Ocelot Alpha?!
In the end, I'm glad I stuck with Subnautica. It is a little unintuitive and not a little buggy; I had an alarming tendency to sink through the floor of my submarine and end up outside, at which point, the engine would temporarily forget how water works and I'd plummet to my death on the rocky ocean floor. But the story ended up being pretty good; it's a light presence for most of the game, set up largely through lengthy documents and pieces of scan data, and you're a more dedicated man than I if you could be arsed to do more than skim most of it, but there's still a competently-structured beginning, middle, and end, with a small handful of important events spaced out between the free exploring to mark the switch from one act to the next. The ending is surprisingly elaborate, as you reach the lair of a godlike beast and learn that your struggle to fill a succession of increasingly-elaborate shopping lists is finally at an end... just as soon as you fill out this extremely-elaborate shopping list!
And then, as I stepped aboard my escape rocket, I couldn't help looking back with a sentimental pang at this world that had become so familiar: at the wrecked ship where it had all started; the now-deserted Fortress Ocelot Alpha; my submarine that I had, of course, painted bright yellow and renamed the Yoko Oh No. I was going to paint it pink and call it the Blake Edwards, but I didn't think anyone would get that.
- Sub human: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- If you find any time capsules knocking around the game, mine is the one with the hilarious limerick
- What was it with Blake Edwards and pink, anyway