Subnautica Below Zero: The Problem With Survival Sequels

So there’s this funny little quirk with survival stories where they often have trouble writing a sequel. Usually, the premise of the survival story is that something’s gone wrong and someone’s been accidentally stranded. When it comes to writing a sequel, the writer has to figure out how to get their protagonist back into trouble in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. That’s not always done very well. For example, in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, a boy gets lost in a forest with nothing but his titular hatchet. He’s on a plane and the pilot has a heart attack and crashes into the woods, and the boy has to run around on his own and do cool survival shit. For the sequel, Hatchet: The Return, the same kid is sent back into the forest by the military, who find his survival tactics really impressive, and want to study him. That’s obviously a bit of a strained premise.

From a broader perspective, this issue isn’t strictly limited to the survival genre. Every sequel has to grapple with it. You can’t have a sequel to The Hunger Games that doesn’t have any Hunger Gaming – you have to get Katniss back in there. So you introduce political machinations, masking the plot construction by making the contrivance a narrative beat. Does it seem contrived that Katniss has to play through another Hunger Games? Well, it is – it’s her enemies, see, they’re out to get her. Hatchet essentially tries to use this same approach, but it relies too much on both extreme coincidence (a lightning strike destroys their radio, so they can’t call for help) and the wild negligence of a bunch of soldiers who’re way too willing to put a kid in harm’s way. There’s something about the survival genre in particular that just doesn’t lend itself to smooth, believable sequels – possibly that it relies so much on disastrous coincidence in the first place.

So it was with some curiosity that I approached the sequel to Subnautica. If you’re not familiar, the premise of Subnautica is that the player is shot down over a mysterious planet. Upon investigation, they learn that an ancient people had quarantined the planet due to infection, and that they now can’t leave because of that same heavily militarized quarantine. It bears all the hallmarks of our standard survival story. The main character falls into the plot through a series of strange, unfortunate events, without any foreknowledge of the environment they’re entering into. There’s no way to get help, and they have to survive on their own. Given all of that, the standard question applies: how do you write the sequel? The answer is similar to the Hunger Games gambit – but instead of a contrived return to the arena, it’s an intentional return into isolating conditions. Subnautica: Below Zero starts with a woman investigating the death of her sister, who was working in a research facility on a distant, uncolonized planet. She sneaks onto the planet illegally, knowing she doesn’t have a ride out. The accidental, unintended arrival of the original is replaced with deliberate infiltration, matching the shifting mindset of the audience. That is, players originally went into the first game more or less blind, like the original protagonist. We didn’t know what the game was going to be like, or what the story would be. But with Below Zero, we know what we’re getting into. We don’t know the specifics of the story, but we understand basic details like the mechanics and game progression. Like the new protagonist, we’re arriving with some basic information and expectations, but not the full picture. There are some little differences here – it’s technically a different planet to the one explored in the original game, and it’s a different protagonist – but I don’t think those details matter hugely. The point is that in each game, the way that the protagonist gets to the wilderness reflects something of the player experience. The second game knows that it’s a sequel, and adapts its behaviour accordingly.

For example, in the first game, you have this particular plant called a creepvine. They can be harvested for some key resources, and they’re also the home of a particular type of animal, called a Stalker. They sort of look like purple crocodiles, I guess – they have elongated snouts, and – anyway. Despite the ominous name, Stalkers are pretty endearing animals. Sure, they’ll take a bite out of you if you get too close, but they’re probably the game’s least threatening predators. They drop some useful items that you need later on, and from what I’ve seen, the minor threat that they do pose eventually fades into the background – lots of people end up treating them as basically just cute, cheeky pets. Below Zero works with that context in how it depicts its own creepvine areas. When you first spot creepvine, you start looking around for the substitute Stalkers. It’s a different planet, so you don’t expect to see the exact same wildlife, but you kinda have the vibe of, you know, some sort of mildly dangerous creature that’ll cycle down to a cute nuisance by the late game. What you find is a creature called a sea monkey (also in the image above, and in the header image). They won’t attack you, but if you have a tool in your hand, they’ll swim up to you, steal it, and then fuck off. It’s a really neat way of taking the basic expectation that you’ve associated with the creepvine area, and adapting it for new circumstances. It’s still a startling discovery, in the sense that you’ve never seen that sort of behaviour in the previous Subnautica, but it remains consistent with your expectations about the type of creature you’d encounter in that environment. It’s familiar, yet surprising. That’s a tricky line for a sequel to walk – let alone a survival sequel, with all of its other attendant difficulties. Currently, Below Zero is in early access. It’s still being built out into a fully fleshed game. But based on what they have so far – they obviously understand how sequels work, and that alone is an encouraging sign.

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