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Imagination and Longing in Subnautica

Periodically I take one of my girls on “Daddy Daughter Adventures.” There is only one rule but it’s important: I will not tell them where we are going. They are free to make suggestions but I warn them that doing so will likely make me pick another place to ensure the element of surprise. We’ve gone to state parks, splash pads, and museums. Most adventures end with a popsicle or ice cream. I love watching them explore and soak in worlds that are much bigger in their minds than they are in mine—observing their experience is the closest analog I can think of to my experience in Subnautica.

I’ve recently argued that some of the most compelling moments in videogames are those when the player feels most free to explore and test the limits of what’s possible, moments when their worlds feel big and mysterious. The world is so much smaller today for me than it once was and open world survival exploration games like Subnautica give me the closest thing to a sense of childlike wonder.

Subnautica is an open world survival game where the players finds themselves crash landed on a mysterious alien planet covered in water where they must manage their oxygen levels, scavenge for food and water, and learn to navigate life on a strange aquatic planet. Exploration unpacks some of the planet’s mysteries and information about how your character ended up there. Exploring also rewards players with new materials and blueprints for improving their ability to survive via underwater structures and vehicles that empower deeper dives.  However, the most potent reward in Subnautica is the sense of discovery your excursions provide: realizing you can dive deeper than you thought you could, finding mushroom forests and massive underwater mountain ranges and mysterious creatures.

These types of game experiences are the closest thing, this side of eternity, to the sense of discovery that I experienced as a kid when my dad would take me hiking in the Rocky Mountains. It reminds me of what I can only imagine is going through my daughters’ minds on our adventures. I suppose the biggest difference is that Subnautica’s world is quite harrowing; in fact the deeper I delve, the more unsettling creatures I find, some of which are downright chilling. I suppose, however, knowing it’s a game provides a sense of security somewhat similar to my girls’ experience when I convince them, under my protection, to do something new and different like riding down a big water slide.

I am not completely comfortable with the degree to which Subnautica’s world has engaged my imagination. Similar to my experience with Minecraft, I began playing later and later into the night and found myself thinking often of Subnautica when I wasn’t playing. At the peak of my enthrallment, I went on a business trip and left the game behind. When I returned, the spell had been broken completely. I haven’t played the game since. What I have done, however, is take my oldest daughter on an adventure. This time to a local waterpark where we swam laps around the lazy river, pretending its waterfalls were much bigger and its rapids were carrying us off to some unknown destination.

As we swam, I couldn’t help but think of Subnautica. While I was content in that moment not to be playing, I was grateful for gift of games like Subnautica that stoke my imagination. As we drove home from our adventure and I reflected on the day, I recalled this quote from C.S. Lewis’ autobiography:

Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did. It made me aware of nature-not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant….As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called “the Green Hills”; that is, the low line of Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing . . . . If aesthetic experiences were rare, religious experiences did not occur at all.


Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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