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.


  1. Really excited for this! (Especially a more developed character, I only really like self inserts when it's an RPG) Just a quick question, will we see at least one new carnivore leviathan?

  2. The voiced protagonist is interesting : A "call to action" moment often produces a disconnection moment in such a free flowing game. The first time I played after hearing the we are hunting you recording at night : I never knew I had a fear of open water until that moment. It may be an over simplification but conversations for complex plot development with lots of communication on the Vesper is fine : Until late game communication in the field if any is one way, you can never respond or when you send a message there is a delay. The idea communication is not as useful as a tool in directing personal actions. It's a respond OR response tool at one time. When in direct "missions" {player.enter_alienbase} a more direct plot would then feel more natural hopefully aligning with current player action. I want to play this game now <3

  3. My honest feedback would be that this all sounds awesome. My only concern would be with a voiced character. In SN I felt like it was ME down there. I think that added to some of my own emotional connection with the game. My concern is that with someone else's voice I might feel like I'm someone else, treading their path with less personal connection .Maybe it won't turn out that way, but that's my two cents. Otherwise, good job guys - these games are honestly incredible and so engaging.

    1. You're right. I wouldn't like my char to talk

  4. I do worry that the plot for the expansion will feel shoe-horned in, that it won't fit and feel forced.
    The world has been saved, bases found, the Sea Empress's kids released, and you've gone home. What more is there to do that will rise to the same level of interest?
    Another gun system found and you have to stop it from firing on the Vesper? Precursors in stasis? Signs of a previous civilization that predates the Precursor's arrive?
    I can't think of anything interesting, but then I never thought of a virus killing all life on the planet or the Sea Empress so... I'll leave it to the pro's to come up with interesting stuff and hope it doesn't disappoint.

    1. Oh by the way, please DON'T put a bunch of SJW/feminist nonsense in the game. That stuff is ruining the gaming industry because most players are not mindless SJW robots so please don't insult are intelligence. Keep real world politics out of the game and just tell a good adventure story! Thank you.

    2. "don't insult are intelligence"

      Oh the irony. But then using 'SJW' unironically kind of says it all. Funny, I always thought it was corporate greed and the homogenised trend-chasing of the AAA publishers that was killing gaming, rather than writers and developers adjusting to and reflecting organic changes in wider society - but hey, I'm sure pandering to a noisy clique of seething incels is the path to success. You listening, Tom?

    3. You guys I'm just writing my story. I've no desire to pander to nor exclude any particular group.

  5. ok, I would love for, if you go back to federation space in the end to show you going downstairs, doors open and light poors in screen goes white then black then dark and then the subnautica logo comes on, or not but still I would think this would look good, (I am a school student so that is why my email is so strange)

  6. I'd hate a voiced protagonist as well... Please don't do where the player should fuse with his charecter to experience the game depth should never ever add a voice to the charecter or else this connection will break! Take fallout 4 for of the most hated things was the voice!! Don't do it guys! Please

    1. Please consider this my humble attempt to test your hypothesis.

  7. Avoiding the spoilers in the most recent post, hence commenting here :)

    So did Ryley Robinson (dat name tho) manage to pay off their incurred debt to Alterra? I detect a callback somewhere on that one. I guess you can canon-ise the protag from SN as there were no customisation options for sex and race, which was kind of a shame as far as being a reduction of immersion - no pun intended.

    Not sure how I feel about the voiced protag for SN:BZ. Some of the voicings in the audiologs in SN were somewhat... *stiff*. Normally when that happens I search for the option to enable English subtitles with audio in a language I don't speak, so the flat line readings don't take me out of the experience as I can't understand them. Voiced protags do enable more narrative flexibility, but they take away the player's projection onto their character. Best example: the late Gordon Freeman, where adding him talking would have detracted from the experience. Worst example: Isaac Clarke in Dead Space (silent) to Dead Space 2 (voiced) - in the latter game he went from silent enigma with possible psychiatric problems to bellowing meathead with zero character nuance. I still wonder whether that was due to the script or the voice direction. It's always dismaying when you hear actors who seemingly can't emote convincingly, or empathise with their character as written, but if a director isn't giving them enough hooks to hang their performance on, then "sod it, this'll do" seems to be the final result. I have faith in Unknown Worlds to avoid any Audio Atrocities contenders, but V/O seems to still be the unloved child in the family when it comes to creating a memorable experience. Imagine if Sander Cohen had been played by Tommy Wiseau then tell me convincing performances don't matter....

  8. I have to agree with the others. Story, ESPECIALLY voiced story, was definitely the weak point in the first game. The most awkward, stiff, unfunny dialogue in the original was the "relationship management meeting" found in the Aurora.

    I bought in to the Early Access for Below Zero and it's like you made an entire game based on that type of humor.

    I have to emphasize: The best thing about subnautica was immersive, quiet, solo, exploration--believeing that the player IS the player character. There is way too much dialogue, way too many npcs, way too much story in Below Zero - It just feels like a TV show that the player is passively watching rather than the amazing sense of player AGENCY in the original game. The story doesn't even have the player surviving on their own!

    Anyways, I still loved all the animals and landscapes and sounds etc, that stuff is still wonderful.