Subnautica: Below Zero, a sequel to the original underwater survival game, is strikingly beautiful at times. The art style pops and the colors are vibrant. Surfacing for air occasionally means being dazzled by an aurora borealis or witnessing the rise of Planet 4546B’s closer – and very much larger – of two moons. Bioluminescent schools of fish swirl around the player, and the shallow coral reefs can even feel welcoming despite the game’s survival aspects. However, Subnautica: Below Zero is also punctuated by occasional moments of pure, thalassophobic terror.
This may not sound surprising, but it’s not just the threat of drowning or the prowling submerged predators. Below Zero begins inconspicuously enough; the player character crash lands on 4546B during a very brief opening cutscene, and a short walk later has dove into the ocean to rendezvous with their drop pod, which will serve as a base of operations. Even for people not particularly fond of the open ocean, the interesting flora and fauna, and relative lack of danger in the first part of Below Zero‘s aquatic setting are enough to encourage some exploration.
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Below Zero lulls the player into a moderate sense of security. The drop pod is in an area with no predators, and even the mischievous sea monkeys nearby do nothing more than steal equipment. The alien planet is utterly fascinating, and it’s hard to be afraid when engrossed in Below Zero‘s new gameplay, face down in the sea floor combing for resources or swimming after schools of fish for sustenance. Life in the ocean of Planet 4546B is actually quite serene – until it suddenly isn’t.
Fear Comes Unexpectedly in Subnautica: Below Zero
Thalassophobia, the fear of deep and large bodies of water, can manifest in different ways. There’s nothing particularly terrifying about swimming through a coral reef in Subnautica: Below Zero that’s only 20 or 30 feet below the surface, but surfacing for air and suddenly only being able to see a few feet ahead because of thick fog, with no points of reference except for the undulating water directly in front, is panic-inducing. The ocean is teeming with life, but the surface is not, and it’s easy to move away from recognizable landmarks when hunting for a specific item on the sea floor. Suddenly being faced with seemingly endless waves is not a comforting occurrence.
The same sort of sudden panic occurs in other innocuous situations – trying to surface for air and being underneath a vast iceberg; being deep in a cave and not remembering where the entrance is; seeing the ocean floor quickly recede into the dark depths when emerging from a dense reef. Subnautica: Below Zero‘s setting is clearly meant to terrify with its open waters and dangerous predators, but it’s the organically occurring bouts of thalassophobia during the chilling adventure that truly move the game toward horror.
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