Subnautica

A Series of Unfortunate Decisions

Subnautica 3 - A Series of Unfortunate Decisions
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I've been following the development of Subnautica Below Zero since it was first available and as a passionate fan of the original I was very hopeful about any DLC or sequel. I've been amazed and confused by the direction now chosen and I feel a strong need to carefully write down why I think the current process and approach will result in an inferior product and experience.

1) Setting

With the release of Subnautica the creators not only built a convincing and lush world you felt compelled to explore, they kick-started a novel way of giving players a sense of being in both a comfortable as well as hostile environment at the same time. This push-pull effect is one of the major contributions Subnautica made to gaming. I think it's safe to say the way the world was presented felt completely new and the apparent contradictory approach (friendly/hostile) worked on many levels to suck players into a brand new kind of experience. When players were done with the game they unanimously thought: I want to know more about what can be done with an underwater world on an alien planet.

Now with the release of Below Zero the design team has essentially said to fans: sure you want to know more about what can be done with an underwater world, but instead we're going to work on a more traditional above-ground ice world setting. Surprisingly after the major story reboot the company didn't decide to go back to the original premise and expand, but even further elaborated their focus on a setting that never worked and never felt connected to the original Subnautica experience.

2) Story

The story was good. It wasn't perfect. It also wasn't finished. You could tell that the story as it was had great mechanisms and hooks, built specifically for later completion. Players reacted negatively to this unfinished piece of writing and the designers decided to pull the plug and start from scratch. That's like pulling the foundations from under a mansion because you don't like the color of a roof that's not there yet.

I'm convinced that had the writer been allowed to finish, the story would be on par with the quality of the original or better. Having said that, why was the story pulled? My guess is that the setup reminded players too much of many other games where an outside character guides the player through the story. It worked really well for Bioshock but it had overstayed its welcome. Or did it? The premise within Below Zero wasn't yet another character that manipulated you in going along with the narrative, instead the writer rightfully opted to lay all cards of the alien Al-An on the table and by doing so set up a battle of will and wits between you the player and an all powerful alien. That's the same difference and same daring forward push that made the original Subnautica work so well. It's the reason so many players have urged the designers to keep the Al-An character (As well as the Maeda character). If only they understood that that comes with a smart move to keep the writer, who might have more great ideas up his sleeve.

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3) Characters

In the very first version, the main character you play was portrayed by an overly cutesy childish character who reacted to everything as if it was just the most gleefully amazing experience ever. In the next major update, which now had a lot of plot and narrative, the character and voice were replaced by a mature woman who was clearly suited and chosen for the task of exploring an alien habitat. Players reacted negatively to that choice with the main feedback being that the reactions were inappropriate or weren't strong enough. Although the intensity of the reactions and acting were appropriate for this character I do agree that they sometimes felt flat. But instead of re-doing the voice acting and tweaking the lines, the team decided to go back to the manic pixie voice. So now we're stuck as players, experiencing the world from the perspective of a 5 year old who has to make decisions as if she's 35. And all of this because of the current trend that demands that female voice acting and character acting is mainly done through immature voices. The immature nature of the main character seems to have spilled over into the narrative because the new opening sequence has her trail a planet-bound comet, which promptly explodes in her face. At least the character is consistent.

4) Gameplay

I'm not going to say much about the gameplay because it seems to be one of the pieces in constant steady motion forward. The only thing I will say about it is that, like with the story, there are some pieces missing, which I'm sure will be put in in due time and had already been planned. People are tripping over the lack of those features because it halts the forward momentum of the story experience.

The main example is the lack of guidance towards the player as what to do next and where to go. To me this is simply a technical/content question that depends on the finishing of the story, game-mechanics and not any deeper course change. As a developer you want to push changes that depend on core choices further down the line so that you don't keep redoing them.

From the versions now released it's clear that the gameplay feedback is taken with a more measured approach than the rest of the game. Small tweaks are made to quality of life decisions and other such changes are slowly integrated and evaluated. My guess is that we will see some overhauls of the sea truck mechanism.

5) Conclusion

In conclusion I think Below Zero suffers from trend seeking. Sometimes as a design team you have to take risks and play it all out instead of keeping the public with you inside the shop at all times. I hope ultimately this game works itself out but as it stands I won't be playing it as-is.

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