Why Does Subnautica’s Terrifying Alien Ocean Calm My Anxiety?

Like many people, I find the idea of the deep ocean terrifying. Unfathomable depths, strange, alien creatures — everything that makes Thalassophobia tick. So here’s a strange thing: the most calming game I’ve played in ages is a game about those unfathomable depths and alien creatures.

Subnautica isn’t a gentle game. It starts with a catastrophic disaster. Your spaceship crash lands on a planet that’s mostly ocean. You survive in dire straits, with a single lifepod and emergency supplies that won’t last long. Your main goal is to keep surviving, but the threat of death is always present. In Subnautica, you can die by running out of oxygen, by starving, by thirst, or by large, terrifying monsters slithering out from the deep to devour you. My heart is always pounding when I play — each run out from the safety of my lifepod is a risk, and that risk is often the unknown.

With all that in mind, what makes it so soothing for me? Over at Rock Paper Shotgun, John Walker says exactly what I’ve been thinking. He calls Subnautica “the ultimate gaming safe place” for him, and that’s true for me, too.

What Subnautica gets right from the absolute first moment is the sense of safety amongst this danger. Your pod is home, and is one hundred percent safe. No matter what peculiar sea monsters you might eventually discover outside, in here you can find no harm. It’s tiny, but it’s home. You can venture outside, swim amongst the shallow reefs and dive into glowing caves, start to fall in love with this wonderful aquatic space, but the moment you see something snarling and snapping and wanting to eat your bits, frenziedly dart for home, climb inside, and know everything’s OK.

Subnautica takes you further and further from the initial safety of your lifepod, but it’s always there (or always has been in the dozen hours I’ve played, at least). If you go too deep, get attacked, or otherwise fail to keep surviving, you’ll respawn back in the safety of your lifepod. You keep the tools of survival and you can always fabricate more, so failure is never permanent.

As a result, taking a small risk doesn’t feel so bad. I can push against the boundaries of my anxiety a little bit at a time, like you might in immersion therapy or exposure therapy. In a dozen hours, I’ve gone from someone who won’t go more than 200 meters from the safety of my lifepod to someone who’s built a home hundreds of meters under the ocean’s surface, someone who will explore deep, dark caves where unknown horrors lurk. Sure, my heart is pounding and I can barely breathe, but I know in the end, it’s going to be OK. That’s an oddly empowering experience.

Walker digs into the exact design choices that make Subnautica feel so perfectly safe for him, so head on over to read the full article.

While you’re at it, hit us up on Twitter to let us know where you find your safe places in games. Is it a cabin full of cabbages in Skyrim? Floating over Hyrule in Breathe of the Wild? Where do you go to feel calm? What games encourage you to push safely past your boundaries?

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