The significance of Subnautica's cascading failures

I lost the keys to my apartment mailbox the other week. I wasn’t really concerned at first. How often do I get physical mail? But as the days went on without the key turning up, my worries mounted. 

I’d switched health insurance plans just last month and was waiting for a letter from my new provider. If I couldn’t find the key, I couldn’t get the letter. If I couldn’t get the letter, I’d have to have an awkward conversation with my landlord about making a duplicate. How much would that cost? Would it happen before I missed the deadline to reply to my provider? How expensive, or how frustrating, would that screw-up be? 

Little problems cascade into big ones. Life doesn’t pause for you to rectify them. It’s how people get their cars towed, miss work, and then can’t make the money to pay to get the vehicle back. Or how someone causes a state-wide apocalyptic panic with a mis-click. 

Survival games like Don’t Starve and DayZ fuel and feed on similar cascades of drama. Hunger and thirst meters stand in for worries about rent or your health insurance bill. They push you to brave zombie- and monster-infested wastes for supplies. Then those foes push you towards other necessities, like bullets, health packs, or upgrades.

Subnautica, my personal favorite survival game, shares some of those fantastical problems. There are sea monsters lurking beneath the waves of Planet 4556B (the ocean world where the game takes place), but they keep to their territory if I keep to mine. I’m free to tend to my undersea garden—to collect my in-game nutrition from an ever-replenishing aquarium and do the daily chore of making sure my habitat, submarines, and ore-drilling mech suit are powered up in case I need them. 

By the time I was halfway to my destination I was starving. My titanium transport was mostly out of juice.

It’s an agrarian dream, a damp Stardew Valley. The low-stress subsistence of Subnautica is the fantasy of life in a less complicated world, free from any needs or wants but my own. The world is alien enough to let me dissociate from reality, but the escapism is rooted in a real-world desire for things to be simple.

I could spend hundreds of hours like this, as some players I know have done, or as others do with Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon. But Subnautica is different. It has a plot with a beginning, middle, and end, unlike many survival games. And for better or worse, I’m the kind of person who has to see a game’s #content all the way through.

So I revved up a submarine the size of a double-decker bus and set off for the deepest point in Subnautica as you are supposed to. But I didn’t make it there. I’d forgotten to pack spare food, water, health packs, and fresh power cells, you see. By the time I was halfway to my destination I was starving and my titanium transport was mostly out of juice.

It was a simple mistake, but as in real life it had cascading consequences. When you "die" in Subnautica you’re sent back to the last safe harbor you stood in, minus whatever raw materials you had in your inventory. But partway to the trench that would push the game’s story forward, I had collected glittering rubies and pulsing radioactive material I’d never seen before. 

I wasn’t about to give up those. So I did my best undersea sprint—a mix of breathless swimming and Spider-Man swinging with my mech’s grappling hook—to get back to base before death claimed my precious rare goods.

In Subnautica, I collect my mushrooms to fuel a bioreactor and expect to have a salted Reginald around for easy eating.

The local monsters didn’t appreciate the panicked racket I made. EMP-burping crab creatures, jellyfish people that could warp me out of my vehicle, and man-faced squids that shook my equipment all waded between me and the safe mundanity I had made under the sea. 

For want of a water bottle, I earned these creatures’ tentacled wrath. Because of their interference, it became even harder to return to my kelp beds and aquarium before keeling over. It was the avalanche of stress over losing my key all over again.

And that relatability is exactly what made my escape so terrifying. Some genetic instinct tells my squishy human body that being chased by sea monsters is upsetting, but barring bad luck and a shark attack I’ll probably never know that fear first-hand. Forgetting to gas up before taking a long and lonely drive through unfamiliar territory, though? That’s a drama past experience lets me wrap my mind around.

None of that is possible without Subnautica’s early, gentle monotony. By definition drama is unexpected, and nothing is more unexpected than a break in the routines that we set for ourselves. In real life, I go up the block to buy bagels on Wednesdays and expect my mailbox key to be where I left it. In Subnautica, I collect my mushrooms to fuel a bioreactor and expect to have a salted Reginald around for easy eating. The idea that this will always be the case is a myth I make for myself. 

Building up and breaking down that kind of fiction in a safe environment like videogames isn’t just fun, it’s a useful form of self-examination. It makes me look at the flaws in my own routine. How quickly could everyday life come crumbling down, just because I do something the same way, every day, because it’s comfortable? What else about the world around me is broken, wrong, or unfair because someone decided it was more comfortable for them this way?

Subnautica has its alien sea monsters, but maybe they’re not so unfathomable as they seem. The real world is certainly full of predators—from payday loans to rent-hiking landlords and con artists phishing for your credit card number over the phone—just waiting to take advantage of any crack in our fragile routines. 

Subnautica lets me swim or sail away from my problems, but reality isn’t so straightforward. My key did turn up eventually (someone found and hung it above my mailbox, which was pretty nice of them). Next time I might not be so lucky, and my underwater adventures have made me think harder about where I keep it.