Friday, 24 August 2018

Announcement & Details: Subnautica: Below Zero

It hasn't been a secret that we've been working on an expansion for Subnautica since January this year, with a release date sometime next year. Today we opened up the Trello Board to the public (warning: spoilers), and in concert with that I publish here some background on the project and the story I'm developing for it.

I will avoid in this post plot spoilers of anything but the starting scenario (ie not really a spoiler), but if you do want to come at the story absolutely clean then please consider not reading this post and not playing the early access when it arrives. This post does feature Subnautica 1.0 spoilers.

Objective Project Overview

Below Zero will feature a smaller game world than the original, and offer a 10+ hour experience with the same Subnautica gameplay you know and love, with new story and content. That content includes a whole new map, new biomes, creatures, vehicles, characters and equipment, in addition to a revamped temperature system that we are still tinkering with. We are of course also trying to efficiently reuse assets from the base game where appropriate. You can probably expect an ice peeper.

So this is a standalone expansion set some months after the events of the original game. Ryley Robinson has escaped 4546B and made it back to Federation space, and Alterra has now sent the Vesper - an orbital research station - to the planet, where they maintain a small contractor presence on the surface. Ostensibly they are here to salvage the Aurora and prospect for resources. Alterra being Alterra, this may not be the whole truth.

Since January we have blocked out the world map, planned the story, and begun work on content. The LDs are churning out new biomes, vehicles are coming along, and the barebones of the story are implemented (ie we can play the game start to finish, but it's still very work in progress). I'm currently about halfway through the full first draft.


We did consider adding content to the base scenario instead of creating an entirely new one, but I argued against it from a story perspective, and I am glad we are doing something standalone. The original story has been told. For me to be excited about working on the expansion, and for you to be excited to play it, I wanted a new character with a new set of conflicts which let us further explore the world we created, not just a bolt-on. It's the same approach we took to the expansion to The Talos Principle, and I'm happy with how that worked out.

You will play as one of Alterra's contractors, a zoologist of alien life stationed in a frozen area of the planet, tasked with investigating the alien ruins. Of course, a complication will arise that throws everything upside down and forces you to dive deeper in search of answers.

We hope this scenario gives us a neat twist on the original. You are still on the planet, fending for yourself and surviving against the elements; but now you're in touch with the Vesper in the skies above, which completely changes the context of your actions, and puts the story and character dialog more front and centre. We think of it like the shift from Alien to Aliens - EXCEPT it is in context only, not in gameplay. We are not turning our slow survival game into an action shooter!


For this expansion to be worth the price of entry it has to maintain what made SN1 wonderful, while delivering all new surprises. So we asked ourselves: What is Subnautica?

I think Subnautica is adventure. It's mystery, peril, excitement and wonder. It's life, basically. But can we keep amazing you by building bigger sea-creatures? Can we further scare you by adding bigger teeth? Perhaps... perhaps... But we need to go further. When you play Subnautica the first time, part of that experience is not knowing what the game is capable of. It's a basic survival game, then the Aurora explodes, then you find ancient alien ruins, then you have a telepathic conversation with a sea monster, and so on. How can we pull the same trick twice when this time you know what to expect?

The simple answer is that the more I tell you now, the more difficult it's going to be! But I'll outline one of our ideas, so you get the gist.

In Below Zero you're still going to be exploring an open world, finding abandoned bases, audio diaries, scanning creatures and following clues to the Next Big Surprise. You're still going to be piecing the story together as you go. That story is still going to turn around human interaction with the natural (and alien) world.

BUT. I am trying to tell the story in a way that is more character-driven. In the base game your character has no onscreen personality. They're an avatar. The character's motivations are always a sort of reduction of natural human motivations: you must survive, and everything you do in the game can be read as a means to that end (if you are so inclined as a player). No one can argue with that, but it's also a huge restriction to the kinds of stories your character can be involved in. In the base game there is a disconnect between what happens in the survivor stories, and what happens in the core alien mystery plot. The core story is in the past tense: you discover what happened before, but nothing much changes in the present (with some exceptions, eg the Sunbeam). In the expansion, I would like dialog and core plot to be more intertwined.

To achieve that end we are experimenting with using a speaking player character. This is a controversial decision, even within the team. To my mind it carries two risks: 1. It may create a disconnect between player motivation and character motivation; 2. Too much protagonist voice may take away from the feeling of isolated survival. I hope I can mitigate these with solid writing and lots of playtesting and revisions (that's where you guys come in!); but I accept that the decision in itself will be anathema for some (I hope) small minority. I bite that bullet, because playing it safe as a creative is just never a good option. If we fail, we may as well fail spectacularly.

What I hope this gives us is a much greater variety of stories that we can tell. Different ways we can surprise you. Character relationships which actually develop as you progress in the game, and which contextualise your actions and discoveries. An ending that is about more than survival.

A beating emotional heart instead of (or perhaps in addition to) cold scientific analyses.

These things may be very different. But they surely go together.