We didn’t set out to make a scary game when we started developing Subnautica five years ago. We wanted to make an open-world underwater game where you didn’t kill creatures. Yet, some of our biggest fans tell us we “accidentally made a horror game.” How did this happen?
It turns out, there are a lot of primal psychological fears at play in the game. We didn’t have to work too hard to trigger a lot of adrenaline and chills in Subnautica. Some of it happens unintentionally due to innate fears that many of us have. Once we saw these psychological factors at work, we focused on them to create thrills.
This is an “intense and persistent fear of the sea or of sea travel.” This includes fear of being in large bodies of water and being far from land, both of which are a mainstay of the game. You start in your deployed escape pod, but you’ll spend a lot of your time diving for resources and navigating coral and the seabed, gently sloping down into the depths.
This is the fear of large things underwater. We have your incredibly massive and still-burning half-submerged spaceship Aurora, giant underwater mushroom forests and serpents thicker and longer larger than a sunken school bus.
This is the irrational fear of man made objects underwater. Submarines, statues and wrecks all fill some with dread. We delivered this one in spades, as we have both procedural wrecks to explore for loot as well as some ancient alien structures. These are also really big, which doubly triggers megalohydrothalassophobia as well.
This is fear of heights. When you’re swimming around a beautiful sunny ocean reef and the ocean floor suddenly drops off into an abyss, it can feel like you’re about to fall. Or when you’re swimming at the surface and you duck your head beneath the waves and you see nothing below you can trigger the same feeling.
Nyctophobia, Claustrophobia & More
The game also captures the fear of the dark (when it’s night and you’re at the surface, or you go down deep), fear of being in closed spaces (diving in caves) and running out of oxygen (a common occurrence), and quite a few more.
One fear to rule them all
But possibly the biggest or most fundamental fear is the fear of the unknown, which Subnautica strives to portray at all times. Creating the feeling of unknown and discovery is so important to our company that it’s in our company name (“Unknown Worlds”). We strive to preserve the feeling that you never know when you’ve seen everything, been everywhere or have truly “completed” the game. Doing so would break that intoxicating shiver of the unknown.
So why would anyone want to play a game that could trigger all these fears? It’s the same reason people ride roller-coasters, go sky-diving and watch horror movies. It’s a huge thrill, and excites and stimulates as much as it scares.
We’ve received many messages from players that started off with one or more of these phobias but who then conquered them after 5-10 hours of playing. Some of them have even gone on to get their scuba certification and have fallen in love with the underwater world, which is quite gratifying for the dev team.
But besides all these phobias, above all we’ve tried to create a game that really captures the imaginations of players. The game doesn’t tell the player what to do with quests or goals, but instead leaves a trail of breadcrumbs off into the fog, tempting you to discover for yourself what lies beyond. Is that a big creature in the distance? Will it eat me? Is it actually friendly and beautiful? More often than not, those shapes in the murky depths are beautiful and helpful, like fertile kelp plants, as big as redwoods, or harmless creatures as big as UFOs, with gardens on their backs.
But not always…
-The Subnautica Dev Team