'Subnautica: Below Zero' director on making the ocean feel even more alien
“If you go to certain places underwater, it's almost not recognizable as Earth.”
- David Kalina, Project Lead
According to some scientists, humanity has yet to explore 95 percent of the ocean.
Considering that 71 percent of the world is water, there’s an entire world out there that remains undiscovered. We don’t really know what’s down there; it may as well be an alien planet. In fact, it might be. A recently leaked Navy video shows some kind of unidentified flying object plunging into the ocean.
Developer Unknown Worlds sees mysteries like that as a call to adventure. It launched Subnautica into early access back in 2014, a survival game where players explore the ocean depths on an alien planet.
Late in Subnautica’s development, the team began working on an icy expansion called Below Zero that evolved into something much grander: a full sequel helmed by David Kalina.
While the original is aptly described as “Minecraft but underwater,” Below Zero is a bold step forward for the budding franchise. It adds a narrative throughline, land sections, and other gameplay elements. It even has a grand mystery about an ancient alien race called the Precursors.
“A Subnautica story needs a frontier that hasn't been explored,” Kalina tells Inverse. “First and foremost, It's about exploration and discovery. Everything is in support of those goals.”
With so much to explore in Below Zero, interviewing Kalina had to become a two-man job. Inverse’s Giovanni Colantonio and Just Lunning forged a small explorer’s duo to ask Kalina about Below Zero and who he considered to be the Lady Dimitrescu of Subnautica.
Just: How do you make the ocean feel otherworldly?
Aliens definitely helped.
There's some magic in Subnautica that is specifically about taking something that's really familiar and easing you in with something that feels very naturalistic and uncomfortable. Unless you're just terrified of the water. And then kind of teasing you to bring you to deeper, more exotic, scarier locations.
Giovanni: And how did you achieve that for the new on-land sections?
There's a lot of really exotic-looking, icy Arctic-type environments to draw inspiration from, stuff that looks like it's from alien planets. I think that's also part of the secret with the underwater vibe being otherworldly. If you go to certain places underwater, it's almost not recognizable as Earth. A similar thing kind of happened on the surface, where we're just taking inspiration from really exotic geological formations and very remote places, starting with something familiar and twisting it in the right directions.
Just: Have you considered making a game that takes place in outer space?
Yeah, absolutely. We've done the exercise of trying to imagine a Subnautica-like game in other environments, whether it's an above-ground aerial game or a space game. Taking some of the same fundamental design principles and applying them to a different open-world space. There's kind of a lean towards sci-fi in the company in general.
The thing I always come back to with deep space is just how much of it there is and how not dense it is. It's mostly really open and cold and inorganic. Things don't really live there. I think it presents a different set of problems and generally is gonna lend itself to something a little colder. Subnautica benefits from a certain kind of warmth.
Just: What are the narrative tenets of a Subnautica story that would remain if the setting changed?
We talked about setting it inside the human body or doing inner space-style exploration. A Subnautica story needs a frontier that hasn't been explored. First and foremost, it's about exploration and discovery. Everything is in support of those goals.
When we think about building a world, we try to design something that's inherently joyful to traverse. We like trusting the player with enough agency and tools to figure out what's interesting to them, making the experience unique. Our players are always discovering the world, and they're enticed by something just out of sight. That’s one of the magical things that happens in Subnautica.
But then you notice a story thread, and that's attracting your attention. Subnautica doesn’t need to provide players explicit goals. Without those, it naturally becomes the player’s experience.
We could do similar things in other games. They don’t even need to even be open-world as long as the setting is interesting.
Giovanni: Much of that narrative is told through an alien NPC that travels with you throughout the game. How did that help you include more of the “magical” thematic elements?
Most of Below Zero’s themes are about loss, disconnection, and reconnection that are maybe mostly on the narrative layer. Trying to put an upfront narrative into this game that's really about exploration and letting players drive the experience is difficult to balance.
It's difficult. We really don't want to explicitly tell you what to do, ever. But of course, we do give you signals.
We’ll never be as explicit as saying, “You bring me here, it will unlock this next thing.” We're always trying to direct you to interesting places along the way. You're more likely to find something surprising if you don’t just stick to a single narrative thread.
Just: What was the design philosophy when it came to designing aliens?
In Subnautica, most things have a real natural world ancestor. We're rarely in the space of total wackadoodle made-up aliens, but the Precursors might qualify. We intentionally drew lines to make the Precursors distinct.
I was just talking to Subnautica’s Art Director, Cory [Strader], about specifically Precursor architecture. He was largely influenced by brutalist architecture, dominating shapes that project these really core silhouettes into the scene. The thinking there was that this is clearly not part of the natural world but feels organic and familiar.
When talking about creature design, it usually starts with concept artists riffing off natural creatures and putting their own spin on them.
Just: Are there alien things in this game that are really just straight-up ocean things with a different name?
Probably! Small fish tend to be pretty closely related. We have sharks, we have jellyfish. Right at the last minute, we renamed our jellyfish “eye jellies” to kind of give them a little bit of a weird flavor. I don't know who fictionally is naming the creatures! It's usually just starting from something real. The animators will take specific behaviors like the way jellyfish swim around and start with that.
Giovanni: Playing this game is like watching a David Attenborough documentary. Is that part of the inspiration here?
Yeah, for sure. I was never a big nerd about those types of documentaries, but for the first game’s release party, we went to the Monterey Aquarium out in California. And I was just like, “Oh, this is where some of that stuff came from!” I went snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef and just was like, “Yes, this is the mood, the feeling, the sound, and the environment.” The way coral looks and feels, the way kelp behaves and moves. There's a lot of stuff that's very grounding and probably could have been pushed in weirder directions. But it's intentional that it's familiar.
Just: Have you been keeping up with the new Resident Evil?
I saw that there’s a new Resident Evil game and I was like, why is it called Village? And somebody's like, well...
Just: There’s a very large character in the game called Lady Dimitrescu. Have you seen her?
No? What's her deal? Is there a link?
Giovanni: She’s basically a nine-foot-tall vampire woman that the internet has obsessed over in a ridiculous way, and it has become the full marketing of this game.
Just: I’ll put a link to her wiki in the Zoom chat.
Okay, “Alcina Dimitrescu.”
Just: She's a very tall woman. She's scary but also fun. With that in mind, who do you think the Lady D of your ocean is?
She's got some like Freddy claws here. Never seen that before.
Maybe it's the Ice Worm? You know, just the sheer scope and scale? Its whole reason to exist is to like jump out of the ground and freak you out.