Terror vs Horror: A Review of Unknown Worlds’ Subnautica


Have you ever wanted to explore the deepest depths of the ocean? Do you like thrilling adventures and an engaging storyline? Have you ever had even the slightest interest in exploring a vast ocean filled with beauty and wonder? Then you should play the video game Subnautica.

Fully released in late 2018, Subnautica is an open-world survival game set on the fictional alien ocean planet 4546B. Covered in one continuous ocean, this planet is home to diverse and plentiful species of flora and fauna. The game starts off with the player, named Ryley Robinson, waking up in an escape pod from the exploration vessel the Aurora after it was suddenly attacked by a mysterious energy pulse. Using the local resources to survive, the player explores deeper into the beautiful and mysterious ocean of 4546B.

What’s so special about this game? At first glance, it seems more or less like any other indie survival game. However, in my opinion, this game successfully employs two brilliant game design strategies that make it one of the best survival games in history. 

First, the game neither tells nor requires anything from the player. Many survival and story games are filled with mandatory missions or obligatory side quests that can take the player on long-winded tangents from the main storyline. In Subnautica, however, the player is free to explore and discover as they so choose, without the constraint of a questbook telling them exactly what to do. This design feature highlights what many games these days lack: allowing players to play how they desire.

Second, and where I believe the game truly hits its mark, Subnautica leaves a lasting impact on the player by how it uses terror rather than horror. Terror and horror are, in fact, not the same thing. In a video on the topic, Adam Millard, a popular YouTube video game reviewer, says that “Terror is all about the suspense and the threat of danger, horror is all about actually scaring you and/or grossing you out.” Horror is simply the thrill or act of being scared. It’s that feeling you get when a zombie jumps at you in a haunted house, or when the creepy vampire in a horror game finally gets you. Terror, on the other hand, is more the psychological effect in your head when processing fear. Terror is the feeling of dread you get when you strap yourself into a rollercoaster, or when you look over the high dive before jumping. 

 With horror, the momentary thrill of getting spooked fades away after a short time, and it can be difficult to reach that level of thrill with the same scare. Terror, however, is always in your mind at every second and will keep you on the edge of your seat for the full duration of the game. Subnautica leaves its lasting impact on the player with a brilliant use of terror. Sure, the jumps and spooks of the sea creatures are scary. But hearing the screeching roar of the Reaper Leviathan will leave you stunned and shaking in your chair. The best part is, you haven’t even seen this creature yet. But your mind, terrified of the prospect of this mysterious and tyrannical deep-sea creature, begins to wonder what exactly this creature is. If you would like to dive deeper (pun intended) on this, check out this video.

This game features one of the most diverse and beautiful environments I’ve ever seen in my gaming experience. Clocking in with 89 species of Flora, and 52 species of Fauna, you will constantly find yourself encountering new creatures and plants as you explore the world. Each species comes with a unique appearance and evolutionary history that makes sense within the world, within similar species having similar evolutionary backgrounds and features. With a map size of over 6 square kilometers, and cave systems reaching almost 1400 meters deep, you’ll find it difficult to run out of places to discover.

It’s rare to have a survival game set entirely in the ocean. Sure, survival games do include some ocean exploration, but never to the degree of Subnautica. It’s something new and engaging, which is another reason why I believe Subnautica reaches a new level.

While the progression in the game can seem a bit slow, the narrative you follow always develops into something original and interesting. For example, the player might find themselves far away from home in an unknown location, only to discover the story fits into the world. Additionally, the objectives throughout the game are simple and straightforward. While the game may not necessarily tell you where or how to complete them, the player can understand why they must be completed.

The resource gathering can be a bit overwhelming for some. Sometimes I would find myself traversing through the entire map to find the resource I need. I don’t find this too challenging; it makes the player explore deeper and farther in the world. However, some might find it a nuisance to travel a kilometer or two just to get a specific resource. 

The crafting system is not too complicated. The crafting interface tells you what you’re building, what it does, what you have, and what you need to complete it.

The menu system is solid. Nothing to brag about, but it does its job well.

Subnautica is a very well-crafted survival game that does something new and is rarely seen in its genre. It features a fantastic storyline, and great game mechanics that keep the player engaged with the amazing environment in which they find themselves. If you’re looking for a thrilling and scary survival adventure game, or just to have some fun and build an underwater base, then Subnautica should be the next game on your wishlist.