The ruined vessel spits fire and embers into the sky. I am stranded on an alien planet, underequipped and on the verge of death. The outlook is grim, but, in spite of everything, I feel relaxed.
You see, Subnautica has become my go-to game to get lost in. In it, you control the survivor of a spaceship that has crash landed on an ocean planet. You craft items, locate resources, and explore the murky depths, staving off hunger, thirst, and hostile wildlife. I admit that it may not sound like one of the most relaxing games, but stay with me.
One reason for Subnautica’s soothing nature is the wide range of difficulty settings on offer. There are four categories: freedom, survival, hardcore, and creative. These adjust the number of threats you have to worry about, with freedom removing the hunger and thirst bars, while the creative mode makes you outright invincible. Three of the four modes allow you to take matters at a sedate pace, then – jump scares and real peril are reserved for hardcore mode.
This is because progression through the story relies entirely on you, the game never forcing you out of your depth – pardon the pun – or into scripted events, which allows you to explore rather than complete objectives.
At the start game, for example, I was tasked with locating a nearby signal, but instead spent my time upgrading my oxygen tank and crafting a rebreather. The robust toolset allowed me to explore the first couple of areas without much worry. I spent ages hunting for resources and using them to build new tools.
Of these, the scanner is the most interesting. It lets you scan the local fish and the wreckage of ships, yielding useful information about the world, including data logs and new blueprints to build. Early in the game, this helped me to better understand the surrounding environment and gave me locations and treasures to seek out, without even touching the main quest.
That was not the only pastime I took part in. I built new habitats for myself with the variety of prefabs available, creating safe havens and customising them with signs, vending machines, and small aquariums. None of this involved encountering the undersea terrors, or fighting off hostile fish with a knife – it was an entirely calming experience, with enough variety and intrigue to keep me occupied.
Subnautica’s sound design and music also play a part in letting you relax within its waters. Early on, you will hear the gorgeous whale song of the Reefback, and the playful whinny of the Gasopods, contributing to a soothing underwater opera. The faux-natural sounds are helped along by the music from composer Simon Chylinski, who weaves shimmering synths in and out of the hypnotic backdrop, occasionally injecting trippy beats and ethereal vocals to build the mood of each different biome.
It is perhaps this soundtrack that encouraged me to push the game’s dangers out of my mind and to instead take time to appreciate the gorgeous underwater visuals. Alone in the depths, a peaceful tranquillity often came over me. In these moments, I stopped to watch the schools of fish swimming in their colourful formations. Once, I even found myself gazing upon the knotted kelp that dances between the luminous coral.
Subnautica can be relaxing or terrifying depending on how you approach it, then. It depicts the ocean – and by extension nature – as both beautiful and deadly. As long as you respect it and recognise your own limits, you can have fun and relax while wallowing in its shallower areas, where the sunlight pushes its beams through the ocean surface. Take your time with Subnautica and you will find it is a game in which you can fully soak, drinking in its aquatic paradise.