Subnautica's hands-off approach to storytelling is brilliant

Subnautica achieves a rare feat for survival games by weaving together the usual exploration and base building with an absorbing sci-fi story. Being the lone survivor of the Aurora, a spaceship that crashlands on a waterworld, there's a surprising amount of humanity in the abandoned audio files and diaries you find while scouring the ocean floor. 

About six hours into your adventure, however, Subnautica's story rises to an exciting—and very unexpected—crescendo. It's a singular moment that, for weeks, haunted those of us who have seen it. Last week, Pip, Andy, and I began talking about that moment, and what we discovered was that Subnautica's rare willingness to let us control our character during this pivotal moment each let us experience the story in dramatically different contexts. We each had our own perspective on what happened, and it wasn't until we got together to discuss them that we realized what actually happened.

To demonstrate how brilliant this single moment is, we're walking you through our version of events.

Beware, what follows is a complete spoiler for the first major plot twist in Subnautica. It's an incredible moment, so take the time to experience it for yourself first.

Did I do that? 

Steven: My first few days surviving in the deep oceans of Subnautica were suitably short-sighted. As the sun rose each day, I'd dive down into the shallows surrounding my life pod to scoop up any ores and minerals I could find while occasionally catching and eating fish to keep my stomach full.

It must've been a few days before I even realized that my floating escape pod had a radio transmitter that could receive broadcasts, and it was to my horror and shame that I discovered several old SOS messages from other crew members of the crashed Aurora. With the little gear I had, I set out to their last known locations only to find their empty, destroyed pods. Their bodies were now food for some monstrous fish, I presumed.

It was around this time that I also began receiving broadcasts from someone who was definitely still alive. The Sunbeam, a cargo ship passing through the system, picked up the Aurora's distress beacon and was coming to investigate. With no way to send them a message, it was nerve-wracking spending each day waiting for their next broadcast. They had no confirmation that anyone had survived, so how would they know to look for me?

Not wanting to hold out hope, I continued my daily routine of foraging for materials and slowly building tools and vehicles to help me better survive. As each day ticked by, I'd return to my pod to find a new message from the Sunbeam ensuring any survivors that they were coming. I was hopeful. 

One day I returned to find a message from the Sunbeam's captain, Avery Quinn, telling me they had finally plotted a course to the planet's watery surface. They shared a waypoint almost a kilometer away—much farther than I had dared venture before—and instructed me that I had 45 real-time minutes to get there for rescue.

Andy: I had the feeling something bad was going to happen, but I wasn’t sure what. When the captain of the Sunbeam tells you they’re on their way to rescue you, he talks about hoping the weather holds up. So I thought maybe the ship wouldn’t be able to land because of, I dunno, a space storm? I was only about six hours into the game at this point, which felt way too early for a successful rescue. Even so, I was totally unprepared for what happened.

Steven: I felt the same way. Was I really going to be rescued that quickly? Was Subnautica's story mode so brief? Uncertain and with a million questions in my mind, like what was behind the alien-looking constructs I had found nestled in an underwater cave, I decided to continue foraging and building. When the Sunbeam was just 10 minutes away, I loaded up in my Seamoth submarine with food and water and began the long voyage to the rally point.

Five minutes later, I saw something I had never expected to see: An island. Pulling up to shore in my Seamoth, I disembarked on a beach and wandered a few meters closer to find something equally unexpected. Jutting out of the island, an alien tower reached almost a kilometer into the sky. At its base, I found an entrance guarded by a forcefield. Two pieces of a broken tablet fit together in a nearby console and granted me access. With four minutes to kill, I decided to head inside.

I picked my way through the base, stopping to scan different pieces of technology and then read their descriptions in my PDA. By the time I reached the alien computer near the back of the main foyer, I had only 30 seconds before the Sunbeam would land. 

I had a million more questions. Did the Sunbeam captain intentionally choose this island as our rendezvous? If so, did they know about the alien base located there? Were they really just a cargo ship that happened to pick up the Aurora's distress beacon, or was there a more sinister motive at work here? With each second, I grew increasingly skeptical that my supposed saviors had other plans for me. I wished I had brought a weapon.

With 30 seconds remaining, I hastily pushed a button on the central alien console. My PDA instructed me that it had begun a data download, but I wouldn't have time to read it. Almost immediately after pushing the button, I heard an enormous groan come from the tower itself. Not having any time to think, I ran outside to meet the Sunbeam.

Back outside, I looked up to see a black dot in the sky growing steadily as it approached the surface. To my left, the alien tower continued to groan. Had pushing that button started some kind of process?

"Aurora survivor, we have your PDA signature," Quinn said. "I don't know how you walked away from that wreck let alone survived since then. We'll be happy to bring you on board." Seconds passed, and I watched the alien tower with rapidly growing horror. It was rotating and angling itself. It no longer looked like a tower, but a cannon. Oh shit.

As the Sunbeam finally came close enough that I could make out the shape of its hull, the alien tower began glowing green. "What is that?" Quinn said to a crewmate. "—from the planet?" A lance of green energy erupted from the tower and the Sunbeam exploded. Pieces of its nearly vaporized hull sprinkled across the ocean before me.

I stood there, on the beach, in utter shock. Replaying the events in my mind, the only thing I could focus on was how, like an idiot, I had gone pushing buttons inside the base without knowing what they did. My stomach was in knots. Without knowing what I was doing, I had just accidentally murdered everyone on the Sunbeam.

Survivor's guilt 

Andy: I stood on the beach with five minutes on the timer and minimized the game. Then, shortly before the five minutes were up, I heard a metal grinding sound. I flipped back to the game and saw what I previously thought was an alien skyscraper suddenly transform into a giant cannon. And it was then that I knew the Sunbeam was done for. I looked on in horror as it was blown out of the sky, although I must admit I was thinking “If that crashes I might be able to scavenge some cool stuff out of the wreckage.” But, alas, it was totally vaporized.

Steven: Hearing Andy's story totally confused me. How had the alien cannon fired if he hadn't first turned it on? Something wasn't adding up, but it wasn't until I spoke with Pip that we realized what actually had happened.

Pip: Unlike Steven and Andy, I was really far into my current playthrough when I encountered the Sunbeam broadcasts. I’d actually ignored the radio signals (and even the Aurora itself) for ages as I was perfectly content to explore and build on my own. By the time the Sunbeam storyline began, I’d already found the Mountain Island it leads you to by myself. I’d thoroughly explored its caves and waters, and I’d collected the resources needed to access the alien facility which extends from the beach. 

Because I wasn't pressed for time like Steven, I was able to read each of the data logs I recovered from scanning the alien technology. One of the data points in the facility offers up the following:

“This device houses energy equivalent to a 100MT nuclear detonation, which can be channeled through the facility and directed at vessels overhead, or bent around the planet's gravitational pull to strike targets in orbit. Power is routed via the attached terminal, allowing for the device to be deactivated if necessary. It is currently operating without parameters, suggesting it will target any ship within range.”

Knowing that and then hearing the Sunbeam communication that told me that craft was going to come down to the surface to fetch me was such a strong moment of powerlessness. I spent the full countdown bumbling around the island and the alien facility trying to figure out if I had any ability to alter the Sunbeam’s fate. It is maybe possible, but that's a part of Subnautica's much bigger story. 

I tried to find anything in my PDA which might suggest a radio modification to allow me to send rather than just receiving messages, but no dice. I ended up just standing there helplessly. The only thing left in my power was to pay the Sunbeam’s crew the courtesy of witnessing their demise. 

Breathing room 

It's rare that a game—let alone a survival game—has such confidence in its story that it doesn't force you to pay attention to one of its most dramatic moments.

Steven: Talking to Pip and Andy about this moment, we were all shocked to find that each of us had a very different take on what happened. I thought I had turned the gun on and murdered everyone, Andy had to endure the horrific confusion of seeing it all unfold without knowing why, and Pip had to suffer with the knowledge of what was going to happen but no way of averting the disaster.

Andy: I’m surprised by how good the storytelling in Subnautica is, and how much freedom you’re given to experience it. I love that we all have different stories about a moment they could’ve easily just made a passive cutscene, but instead Subnautica gives you full control of your character during the entirety of those events. You don’t even have to be there to witness the ship being shot down. I did not expect a survival game to tell a compelling story, but here we are. The Sunbeam moment weirdly reminds me of The Shining, when (spoiler alert) Hallorann arrives at the Overlook after a long, treacherous journey to rescue Wendy and Danny, and is almost immediately killed by an axe-wielding Jack. A real gut punch.

Steven: Exactly. The whole setup for this moment is brilliant because the countdown timer builds so much anticipation that players respond to in different ways. Some might go immediately, similar to Pip, to scope the rendezvous point out. I wish I had done that because it might've given me a chance to read some of the alien data logs and understand what the facility was ahead of time. I had rushed through exploring it, so I was fully under the impression that I had destroyed the Sunbeam by mucking around with the alien computer inside the tower. It was all just a huge coincidence that I pushed that button the moment the tower came to life.

It's rare that a game—let alone a survival game—has such confidence in its story that it doesn't force you to pay attention to one of its most dramatic moments. Letting you move freely during the Sunbeam rescue attempt is brilliant because it lets you be an actor in the scene and, if you're like me, draw some terrible (and misinformed) conclusions.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.