Subnautica: Below Zero has changed a lot since it first became available via Steam early access in January 2019. Initially conceived as DLC for the original Subnautica, Below Zero has since grown into a fully-voiced sequel with a greater emphasis on character-driven narrative than its predecessor, inspired by sci-fi like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Stainslaw Lern’s Solaris. Developer Unknown Worlds Entertainment is a tremendous proponent of open development, incorporating feedback from fans in real-time, and this already-challenging approach to making a game was further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced team members to collaborate from home.
While the original Subnautica did not achieve the same sensational success as other indie darlings like Minecraft, Stardew Valley, and Hades, it established a dedicated following that encompasses fans of sci-fi, base building, and survival games. Originally nicknamed “Don’t Drown” by the community, Subnuatica stranded players on an alien-rich ocean planet where thorough investigation and clever crafting are the keys to survival. Below Zero promises more of the same, albeit with fresh, frigid challenges, based on a recent press conference that Geisha411 attended (virtually).
With Below Zero scheduled to exit early access in spring 2021, the title serves as an interesting mirror for an era where everyone’s voice can be heard, but essential work practices and strategies, like meeting with colleagues in-person, can no longer be taken for granted. Below Zero‘s Project Lead, David Kalina, opened up about what it is like to develop hand-in-hand with fans while being far apart from their teammates.
The most pronounced difference between Subnautica and Below Zero is the way the game handles narrative. The original game features an intrepid, mute protagonist with a simple goal: survive and escape the ocean planet of 4546B. Other characters exist in the world, fellow passengers from the wreck of the Aurora space craft and prior researchers from the evil Alterra Corporation, but the narrative is not really character-driven. In Below Zero, relationships are front and center from the start.
Players assume the role of Robin Ayou; a xenobiologist on a quest to investigate the disappearance of her older sister, Sam Ayou. The evil Alterra Corporation is a common link between both titles, and it’s greed-blind, profit-at-any-cost characterization is more pronounced with the voiced cast of characters weighing in. However, the primary stakes here are interpersonal and emotional, as well as conceptual and existential. A few hours into the game, players will encounter another entity who also acts as a companion to Sam, though saying more would spoil the surprise.
When asked about influences, Kalina said that the narrative was inspired by classic books, specifically science-fiction that seriously grapples with alien entities. Kalina cited both The Left Hand of Darkness, and Solaris, and their influence is immediately evident to those familiar with these classic novels. The former is set on a freezing world that is strongly reminiscent of Below Zero‘s new, arctic overland areas, while Solaris details explorers’ attempts to communicate with an oceanic entity spanning an entire planet.
“We are nothing without our fans, but sometimes we choose to go in a different direction.”
This is what Kalina said when asked about the impact open development has had on Below Zero. The responsibility to respect fans’ desires while focusing on a polished final product weighs heavily on the team, leading to some difficult creative decisions. Below Zero has changed voice actors several times, as well as significantly reworking the narrative to make it less linear than it was in early drafts. The challenge Kalina noted is that certain players get attached to very specific parts of the game that need to be cut for the good of the overall project.
It is a testament to Unknown Worlds that there is very little of the typically-pervasive online toxicity on Subnautica and Below Zero‘s community pages, despite the tremendous changes the game has gone through. This is all part, seemingly, of this type of connection between developer and player. Unknown Worlds Entertainment knew that many players enjoyed Subnautica’s base-building, and Below Zero caters to that desire with numerous new cosmetic items, as well as a juke box. In turn, creative players have contributed their own fan-made tracks to the game, which are now officially featured songs in the game. And one of Below Zero‘s most compelling new gadgets—the Spy Pengling—was based on a concept contributed by the community. It’s a rare, example of what a healthy, symbiotic relationship looks like in game development, and a wholesome reminder of what gamers can accomplish together.
When asked about the hardest thing about developing the game during the pandemic, Kalina had one poignant comment:
We have new teammates we haven’t met in-person yet.”
Kalina also stated that having to cancel retreats was very hard on the developer, both in terms of logistics and inspiration. Simple tasks that could be laid to rest with a walk down the hall now required long-distance solutions. Scheduling voice-acting sessions was the team’s single greatest difficulty, as many of the actors did not have access to studio-grade recording equipment in their homes.
But Unknown Worlds Entertainment is fast approaching the finish line for Below Zero, and the developer is pleased with what it has accomplished. In addition to the fresh story and new tech tree entries (like the reagent-finding mineral detector and the seatruck vehicle), the developer has added full controller support and a host of accessibility options to make engaging with the underwater world of Subnautica easier. And like the original game, Below Zero doubtlessly possesses numerous secret abilities and Easter Eggs to discover as well. Now, as the early access exit date draws near, the team is focusing on applying an additional level of polish for consoles.
In closing, Kalina said that Unknown Worlds Entertainment would be heading in a new direction after Below Zero, and that it had another game in development that it cannot talk about yet. But he was also quick state that Below Zero would likely not be the end of Subnautica.
Subnautica: Below Zero is available now for PC. The game will exit early access and arrive on consoles including the Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One this spring.