Come in from the cold, make a cup of tea, and listen to a piping hot episode of Hey Lesson. This time, we’re exploring the icy world of survival game Subnautica: Below Zero. And we’re doing so with one of its developers! David Kalina is project lead on the game and has dropped in to chat about Subnautica’s alien planet and the process of designing its world. As if that’s not enough, we also talk to polar expedition leader and wildlife photographer Françoise Gervais, who tells us what it is really like to trudge through the snowy landscape of the frozen north (and south) in search of the perfect shot.
Click “read more” for a full list of links and transcription.
Did you know David also does a podcast called Tennis Tragic? Podcasts are cool
Interview music is New Direction by Kevin MacLeod
SFX and ending music recorded from Subnautica: Below Zero
Françoise Gervais, photographer: I had like blizzard after blizzard…
Computer voice (soundbite): Dangerous weather approaching, seek shelter.
Françoise Gervais: Tents were flying away with all the gear in it. They were lasting two, three days at a time. So it was really scary and you have to stay there until it’s calmed down. Our tent broke probably three times, the pole completely broken. Backup is [the] major thing that will save you.
Brendan Caldwell, host: Hello, and welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people silly questions inspired by video games, but we often ask non-silly questions as well. The rules are one expert, one game, one guest speaker to tell us about that game. That’s all we need to underhandedly teach you things using video games as a sort of Trojan horse of information. Today we are talking about Subnautica Below Zero, a survival game about exploring the polar regions of an alien planet and trying to stay alive. Keep listening and you’ll hear from a real life polar expedition leader, someone who has visited the most freezing zones of our own planet in order to go cold water diving, but also to take photographs of the wildlife that exists on land there as well. Before any of that, however, let me introduce my guest this week, David… I’m actually gonna let you introduce yourself… can you tell the lessoners who you are and what it is you do?
David Kalina, developer: Sure. So my name is David Kalina. I’m currently the project lead on Subnautica Below Zero. Although we’re just about wrapping up, moving on to new adventures. I’ve been working in video games for over 20 years. I got my start at Ubisoft. I worked on Splinter Cell. I moved to Texas, worked on Deus Ex 2, Thief 3, started my own company. Did that for a bit and, yeah, found my way to Unknown Worlds and, yeah, I’m making Subnautica with the wonderful people there. That’s my job.
Brendan: And now you’re here.
David: And now I’m here on a podcast. Yeah. You know, it’s the end of the project. It’s time to do all the press and stuff. And I do love to talk about the game and various things and I love the concept of the podcast. So I was excited to join.
Brendan: Well, it’s exciting for me because normally we have other journalists or other streamers, people like that on, but you’re our first game developer guest, so…
David: Oh, wow. Cool.
Brendan: Before we get into the nitty-gritty, could you just explain for those who maybe don’t know, what is Subnautica Below Zero. What do you do in it as a player? What does it look like? You know, the basics.
David: So Subnautica Below Zero is a… it’s a sci-fi survival adventure game that takes place on an alien planet. The story of Below Zero is that you play as this Xenobiologist, Robin Ayou, whose sister died under mysterious circumstances on this planet, 4546B, while part of a research mission in this polar, Arctic environment part of the planet. And your character doesn’t really buy the company line for why your sister died. So at great personal risk, you decide to go to the planet by yourself and figure out what happened to your sister. And [you’re] mostly swimming around underwater, collecting resources, building tools, and habitats, and trying to survive in this very harsh environment.
Brendan: We’re gonna go with all deeper on the game itself and maybe ask some questions about the development of it and stuff like that. But before we go there for this episode, we wanted to know, how do you really survive at the North pole or the South pole? What kind of animals do you see there? And what’s it really like to dive below the ice in freezing conditions? So to find out, I spoke to Françoise Gervais who is a cold water diver, a wildlife photographer, and an expedition leader. In other words, she’s someone who knows all about hunkering down in a polar blizzard. So here’s what she had to tell us…
Computer voice (soundbite): Welcome to 4546B. Enjoy your stay… [explosion]
Brendan: Françoise. First of all, could you introduce yourself to our listeners?
Françoise Gervais: Yeah, so I’m Françoise Gervais and I’m an expedition leader in the polar region and also a wildlife photographer.
Brendan: Where do a lot of the expeditions that you take charge of take place?
Françoise Gervais: So most of the expeditions that I have been leading were on Baffin Island, so Canadian Arctic, but I have also been guiding in Greenland and in Svalbard in Norway and, more recently, also all the way down South. So in Antarctica.
Brendan: What does organizing a polar expedition typically involve, I’m guessing it’s more than just packing a warm jumper?
Françoise Gervais: Yeah, no, it is definitely… the journey starts right in the preparation. I will say that I would spend more time getting things ready than the length of the expedition sometimes.
Robin Ayou (soundbite): Well, Sam, I guess I might as well gather some tools and resources before starting my search.
Françoise Gervais: You know, I’m sure some of you have traveled where you’re like, “Oh, the worst case scenario, I can find one somewhere and buy it.” But in Arctic, that’s not how it works.
Brendan: No, you can’t just find new toothpaste somewhere out there.
Françoise Gervais: Some of the items, sometimes in small community, but if you have, let’s say a GPS and you need a certain type of battery or, like, any little piece that you would not have thought, could create a whole cancellation of the whole expedition. So it’s… you have to be really, really on it. And then you have to plan all your contingency plan, if something happened. I would say that most of the time, even if I know by heart all how it’s supposed to go, probably the first thing that happens is that my plan – I can throw it in the garbage and I have to improvise with the conditions I have. That’s what’s the most difficult, but also the most interesting. And if you’re someone that really panics, when a plan changes, polar region is not for you.
Robin Ayou (soundbite): Holy smokes, that did not go as planned.
Brendan: How long does a trip like that typically last?
Françoise Gervais: In my case sometimes, you know, six weeks at a time, but sometimes it’s, it’s shorter. It depends, you know, but I would say to see wildlife, six weeks, you will have one moment that… magic happens and you can really see amazing wildlife.
Brendan: Is that normally what you’d set out to do on an expedition? Is that your main goal, to see wildlife?
Françoise Gervais: Wildlife is only a part of it. I think just being immersed in an environment that you can do a 360 degree and you don’t see anything that has been directly changed by human, that’s pretty special. Like you don’t have a, let’s say, a trail made or a bridge. You just have to figure it out on your own. And sometimes I think it makes you feel a bit more alive and that’s a big component. And lots of my coworkers are Inuit. So when I work in Arctic there is so much to learn from them and their knowledge of the landscape and this in itself is always a big highlight for me. It’s not just the wildlife, there’s so much. It’s just… in a way, another world.
Robin Ayou (soundbite): Found the drop pod.
Brendan: You’re also a cold water diver as well. What is it like to dive under the surface of the water in such freezing conditions?
Françoise Gervais: Yeah, it’s quite incredible in a way, just the ice itself. I had always the question, you know, “what are we going to see”? And I was like “ice, but I swear it’s worth it”. It’s like if you had like a whole cathedral underwater, but it’s not human-made, it’s just nature. It makes you feel really small too, in this frozen world. Not only you’re underwater, but you’re also in really, really cold water. So you’re very vulnerable.
Brendan: How do you dive in a place like that without freezing to death? What’s stopping you from freezing?
Françoise Gervais: I guess you forget about the cold, because it’s so pretty. So you just focus on what you see. But of course there is a lot of preparation. We dive with a dry suit. So all the equipment for cold water that will allow you to go a little longer. And then you suffer [laughter]. When you escape and you realize that you don’t feel your face anymore, you don’t feel your hand anymore, you know it’s going to hurt. The exit is as important – if not more important – than the entry. Once you get out of the water, let’s say, if you don’t have full mobility in your hand, you know, you have to make sure that you have solution, like you have access to maybe warm water or a kettle, or, you know, things like that that will help you to get back to normal and find your functions.
Sam Ayou (soundbite): Have I told you how cold it is here?
Brendan: We’re playing a video game called Subnautica Below Zero, where the player does the same sort of thing. They dive underwater in a polar region of an alien planet. But the underwater world there, even in the ice, is filled with alien creatures. But you’re saying under the ice on earth, it seems pretty desolate. Have you seen any animals under the surface there or is it just quiet?
Françoise Gervais: No, actually, I saw animals and it’s always pretty special. I actually saw narwhals underwater. Very quickly, but it was still pretty special. And I saw… strangely, there’s one time I started to see lines of bubbles, but I couldn’t make sense of it. And I realized that it was actually King Eiders that were picking mussel on the sea floor and then going back, like little jets.
Brendan: What type of birds?
Françoise Gervais: King Eiders, they’re really wild. They have super colorful heads and are really fast, like little torpedo on top of the surface, really nice. But then I had to explain to my buddy, my dive buddy, that I saw birds, but I was under water and it was making little signs of birds but he couldn’t understand my signs at all [laughter]. But it was quite amazing to see, like they were really comfortable underwater, more than we were, and it’s birds. So it’s really impressive.
Sam Ayou (soundbite): My peng-wings found something… something big.
Françoise Gervais: One of the most amazing dive I had, it was very shallow. And just looking at the ice, I was really amazed. And then suddenly I realized all these sea angels were everywhere, there was probably an upwelling current or something that made that condition. But I mean, they were all over. And it’s kind of those little translucent molluscs that have little wings and you can see through their body. It’s super wow. And then you’ll have comb jelly. And it’s this little jelly where if you put your flashlight, you see all the ray of colors. So if you’re a Pink Floyd fan, you know, that album cover, that’s what you see underwater. And it’s, I couldn’t believe that this was real. It looks like, you know, you’re really on another planet for sure.
Computer voice (soundbite): New creature discovered
Brendan: In the video game, when you dive underneath the ice, or even when you’re just diving in general, it’s very easy to become disoriented and get lost. Have you ever had that happen to you under the blocks of ice in real life?
Françoise Gervais: Actually this is a good point. We were always tethered. So, we had a rope attached to us, but it is another component to think of when you enter, for example, some sort of cave… that your rope, if you don’t come back the same way, your rope might be tangled. And that can be really dangerous because you lose communication with the person that is on the surface, because the way of communicating is pulling once, twice or three times. Or many times – that means “pull me out”. But if it’s tangled somewhere, then you pull, the person doesn’t feel it on the surface. So in a way it can be disorienting to work with a rope if you haven’t ever done it. I remember being… guiding a group where, because I was the guide I had a longer rope, and we approached a wall of ice and I was swimming and it was beautiful and I wanted to touch it. And I was like, wow, this is amazing. And I looked at them and they… I realized they were trying to swim, but they were at the end of their rope. So we came back on the surface and they were like, “Wow, there was a lot of current!” and I didn’t say anything because I think actually the rope… they were like little mosquito stuck in a spiderweb.
Lillian (soundbite): The Samantha Ayou I met was many things – kind, clever, devoted to her work, but never negligent.
Françoise Gervais: It’s also, as I was saying, there is one time that I got into kind of a scary situation myself, where I was snorkeling only, not even diving, but there was lots of floating ice around me. And I was looking under water and I didn’t really pay too much attention. I got really focused on looking at amazing stuff and I didn’t think the ice was moving, but that’s one of the big things that I learned in Arctic is that since it’s so vast, you don’t really have a landmark to make you realize how much things are moving. And like suddenly I’ve caught myself kind of surrounded by ice. And it was closing up on me. Which… I had to swim back to the Zodiac, the inflatable boat. And luckily there was still… one of the ice [floes] hasn’t closed and I quickly swim out of it. But that was big lesson. It’s kind of vicious. You don’t really see it moving. I really learned to be paying way more attention.
Sam Ayou (soundbite): My project is on the line, my job, my safety.
Brendan: You say you would go on an expedition for like six weeks. Where do you stay? Do you stay in a research station or a tent? Do you build the shelter when you go out there and take it down when you leave? Or is it always there? What’s the…
Françoise Gervais: It all depends. But in summertime, for example, the diving expedition, we set up a camp on the ice. So yeah, I was in tents and that’s a really hard part of the expedition, to get the camp up and running. And it’s not easy to bring all the equipment on the ice. And during the day when we go closer to open water, then we usually carry a little temporary shelter. And like, you cannot really even sleep in it, but it’s… to cut you out of the wind.
Brendan: This is if the wind picks up or something and you have to take emergency shelter? How long does that last? Like, how long?
Françoise Gervais: Well, it’s the arctic. And I learned the hard way one year where I had blizzard after blizzard and they were lasting two, three days at a time. So at least we were in our… bigger camp, but tents were flying away with all the gear in it. It was really scary. And what happened in that time is that it’s so windy that you cannot even leave. You have to stay there until it’s calmed down. And after the big one, I was like, okay, it’s done now, we’re fine. And we kept going. And then there was a second one and it was really, really hard. Our tent broke probably three times, the pole completely broken. Of course, backup is major thing that we’ll save you.
Sam Ayou (soundbite): I can’t even get my wash-and-go dry before the wind freezes the moisturizer in my hair.
Brendan: In the video game, you build your own little habitat and it becomes a kind of cozy little nook of safety and warmth. You know, you can make a coffee machine, for example,
Françoise Gervais: Ooh!
Brendan: You can make yourself a big double bed. What is a real expedition shelter like? I’m guessing there’s no coffee and you don’t sleep in a big bed.
Françoise Gervais: Oh, well we have actually a tent where it’s like the kitchen tent. You can actually cook in the tent and everything. So when you stay for six weeks, it’s really nice to have a tent that you can actually stand in and you’re not always, you know, crawling in it. That’s a big luxury when you get those. This is really nice. But at the same time, when the wind hit, those big tents are really hard to hold because they are higher. So there is always a factor that you have to think of. If you want more comfort, then it probably brings more risk.
Computer voice (soundbite): New blueprints synthesized.
Brendan: You’re a photographer as well. And one of your shots was commanded in the wildlife photographer of the year, the annual event, but the Natural History Museum.
Françoise Gervais: Yes.
Brendan: And it’s a really striking photo of a polar bear standing on, I think it’s Baffin Island. I’ll put a link to it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. How do you go about finding a polar bear in the wild?
Françoise Gervais: I would answer how one of my colleagues told me – he said: “you look.” It sounds a silly answer, but patience is the key. And you know, people think that polar bear are wandering on the flat ice, and it’s all the same habitat. But when you spend enough time up there, you realize that it’s not all the same. And they will really prefer some type of ice. And knowing their life cycle is really helpful too, because what they do in the spring versus the fall versus, you know… it’s totally different. But it takes also a long time to really see it. It might be three days of just sitting there waiting, even more. Sometimes it’s like a week just waiting. This is really challenging if you’re a very active person, but more than anything, my passion is to photograph behaviors. So if I can catch an amazing behavior of a Crow, I would be sometimes as enthusiastic as photographing polar bear.
Lillian (soundbite): You might be in a better position to look into things than I am.
Brendan: In the game. You can become quite close with some of the wildlife as well. Of all the animals in the real world that you’ve had encounters with. Which one do you feel the closest to in spirit?
Françoise Gervais: That’s a tough one, but I would say that the Arctic Fox is… There are two things, but the Arctic Fox is definitely the fearless animal that I saw. It’s just this little guy that is so fast that he doesn’t really have true predator in the Arctic. You constantly see them around polar bear. They don’t really care. They’re not scared because… they wait for scavenging on the hunt of the polar bear. But I saw a polar bear sleeping and then a Fox not far from the polar bear, like, just sleeping too. And I was like, I can’t believe that little guy is just… they’re not scared of human either. And they’re super curious. Even in the old, you know, Arctic expeditions, like the sailors talking about the Arctic Fox, like they were taking them as pets on the ship. I don’t it was the right thing to do, but it’s to say how they were really fearless.
Soundbite: [blizzard noises, bubbles]
Françoise Gervais: But I would say that in Antarctica, since hunting hasn’t happened… now it’s forbidden for so many years… The species are really… they don’t fear human. Penguins don’t fear human. And also there is no land predator, like, so there is no polar bear in Antarctica or there’s no Fox. So what the predator comes from is either from the water or from the sky. So human, we’re just not seen as predator, which is almost disorienting or it’s… it’s really mesmerising. First you’re like, “Wow, is he coming just towards me?” And he looks at you, like, “Can you move out of the way?” And then you step aside and then he kept going. It’s so incredible. And it makes you feel good. You’re like… we don’t have to be always seen as, you know, the scariest animal on the planet. And even the whales will come, just curious to see your boat. And they’ve been, you know, hunted almost to extinction, some of them. And in this part of the world, they seem to have… their memory is now changing. And they are curious to come close to boats.
Brendan: They’ve forgiven us.
Françoise Gervais: Yeah. In a way.
Brendan: Okay. Françoise, thank you very much for talking to us.
Françoise Gervais: No problem.
Brendan: That was Françoise Gervais, wildlife photographer and polar expedition leader. If you want to hear an uncut version of that chat with Françoise, in which he talks a little more about life in the polar extremes and about the conservation efforts that need to be made there, you can become a supporter of the show for $2 a month. You get access to all the unabridged interviews that we do with our experts. And more importantly, you’ll be helping the podcast to stay afloat because we don’t do any ads. We have none of that sweet Curiosity Stream money, you know. If that sounds good, just go to Patreon.com/heylesson to become a supporter of the show or click the link in the episode description below. David, considering Subnautica: Below Zero is set at the pole of an alien planet, what’s the standout thing that Françoise spoke about. Was there anything that made you think, “Oh wow, that’s just like our game.”
David Kalina: Well, I think she takes polar survival a fair bit more seriously than we do. You know, I think we had, early in development, we consulted with somebody who did work similar to Françoise working in the Antarctic. They shared a survival guide with us and we tried to consider all of that when adapting it in inventing this survival situation. What did she say that I really liked? I mean, so one thing that was very immediate, she talked about how, in order to survive in that sort of environment, you have to plan for things going wrong. And so one thing we tried to do with Below Zero, and I think maybe it’s… a little bit mixed success, you know, [is] implement this weather system where it’s an alien planet and the weather can be really extreme and very dangerous and, you know, can change at a minute’s notice. We tried to make all these different weather states, interesting things that you would have to kind of adapt to on the fly. Like, all of a sudden, you know, like these giant hailstones are coming down and they’re dangerous and you need to like go find a cave and take cover, or there’s a whiteout blizzard and you can’t see anywhere in front of you. And I think that’s something that actually, that is a realistic scenario in this type of environment where you can… your visibility goes to almost zero. So we did, we tried to model a lot of these things in the game and build gameplay experiences out of them. But in some cases they just weren’t very much fun. Like not being able to see anything isn’t actually a great game experience by itself. So there’s sort of a challenge and trying to find the sweet spot, make it feel like a real dangerous survival scenario, but then also give the player some agency and have it feel like something that they’re engaged with, as opposed to just hunkering down in a tent on the surface for days, which is, I think something she also talked about.
Brendan: Yeah. It wouldn’t be exactly exciting if that lasted in-game days.
David: Yeah, exactly. Like, you’re just basically… “I can’t play the game until a storm is over.” Yeah. I like to call that sandwich gameplay. It’s like, “Oh, I’m just going to sit here and leave the controller. I’m going to go into the other room and make a sandwich and come back.”
Brendan: Why, why did the studio decide to go with the polar regions as a setting? Why not like a river system or an alien lake or something like that?
David: I think it was pretty art driven. I think it was just an environment that the art team, the art director Corey, got excited about and felt like enough of a variation from the first game that it had its own appeal. I think also Arctic environments imply a survival situation. So it’s a good natural fit in that way. But yeah, you could definitely imagine other types of underwater environments that have their own shape and structure and wildlife. And you know, maybe in the future we’ll be visiting some different types of underwater scenarios…
David: That’s a teaser.
Brendan: It is a teaser. Because I know Unknown Worlds is looking ahead to new games, aren’t you?
David: Yes. Yeah. We’re just starting that process. I think though, we’re not likely to make more Subnautica this year. You know, I think… there are some people on my team who’ve been working on it for eight or nine years and they’re ready for a break… Creatively, I think it’s really important that we go explore different worlds completely. So yeah, we’re in a very open space where we can imagine anything. It’s sort of the dream game development scenario. I think when people imagine making games, they think like, “Oh, you just get to make things up!” Most of the time that’s not true. But that’s actually what we’re doing right now, which is kind of fun.
Brendan: So the team just wants to get out of the water, out of the cold. They’re done with it.
David: Yeah. Some people, if they see one more alien fish, they’re going to lose their minds, you know.
Brendan: In the first Subnautica, you swim around this vast ocean and it often feels like it’s walking this line between wonder and dread, you know, there’s wonder at the natural habitat and dread at what might lurk within it. Is that something that continues in Below Zero, or did you try to lean more one way than the other?
David: Yeah, I think that’s pretty fundamental to what Subnautica is. I think one of the reasons Subnautica works as a fantasy is that being underwater is both beautiful and terrifying just naturally. And the human brain can understand that. So even though it’s an alien world, there’s this familiarity, you know, it feels like I’m just swimming around a coral reef and these plants seem very familiar. Even without the aliens that want to bite you, just going deep and having a limited supply of oxygen is really… it’s a real existential threat and our brain kind of gets that and it’s scary with nothing else. So then we introduce, you know, scary aliens and so, yeah, I think that’s all pretty fundamental to Subnautica and part of the formula.
Brendan: Yeah. Françoise was talking about being under the water as sometimes being very empty. Like people will ask her “what am I going to see under there?” And she’ll just reply: “ice”.
Brendan: Below Zero is, I’m guessing, a little less tranquil than that, or more crowded in terms of wildlife.
David: Yeah, it’s true. We want the world to feel alive, especially underwater. So in most of the underwater environments, there tends to be a fair bit of life. Something Françoise talked about also that stuck out to me was the idea that there aren’t very many land predators in that kind of environment, there’s mostly underwater or airborne creatures. And I feel like that’s a place where we, you know… we have a couple of landborne… creatures that move around on the land in our environment, and there’s a little bit more life on the surface than there would be in reality. And I think this is because our underwater world, it’s easier for us to make that a teaming lush underwater environment. And our surface felt really dead in comparison. Like, if there was nothing living and there were no plants and no animals, it would just feel like a bunch of rocks. And because it’s a video game and we want people to feel engaged and connected, we put more life in there than maybe would be realistic.
Brendan: What’s involved in the design of that…? How do those animals, get made in a Subnautica game?
David: Like many things, I think it’s largely art driven. We work with some concept artists who are really good at imagining alien creatures. And I think they largely start with real-world creatures or plants and start to just imagine ways that they might be different. You know, it’s almost like they’re mutating creatures, you know, like, “Oh, what if we take a polar bear and then cross it with a crocodile?”
Brendan: Oh my God.
David: And you know, and then you end up with something like the snowstalker. So there’s just a fair bit of invention there. And I think the Subnautica lifeforms have a sort of style that the artists are trying to adhere to. And then from those images, we end up kind of having to design the behavior and the world around the concepts.
Brendan: Françoise was talking about the transparent angel fish, for example, that she saw underwater, or a fish that you can shine your light through. And it produces a rainbow of colors and stuff. And that already feels quite alien, right?
Brendan: So I’m guessing your art team doesn’t have to push too far into strange territory to make aquatic life in the video game seem alien.
David: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. The actual natural world of earth is teaming with life that feels exotic and strange because we don’t see it every day, because it’s deep underwater because… it’s just not present in our lives. And for the first game, when we finished, we had our release party at the Monterey aquarium in California. And I was kinda new to the team, I wasn’t around for the conception of the game or the creatures or anything, but I was struck by how familiar so many things were, you know, like… “Oh, this fish kind of looks familiar.”
Brendan: Any fish running towards the glass threatening to explode?
David: Yeah. Right. The crash fish, yeah, has maybe a little bit more of an invention for gameplay reasons. I don’t know if there’s a real world analog of a self-destructive or, like, suicidal creature. For all I know there could be, but I think in that case it might just be more video game logic.
Brendan: What I think of whenever I think of Below Zero is the… Peng-wings, I think they’re called. They’re the penguin-like creatures, but their heads are a little differently shaped. Could you just tell the listener, maybe who hasn’t seen one of these creatures, a bit about those?
David: Yeah. Peng-wings and Peng-lings. I mean they are, yeah… They’re basically alien penguins with very sharp beaks and teeth. The Peng-wing thing is, apparently it’s a Benedict Cumberbatch joke. Apparently that man can’t say the word “penguin”, he says “peng-wing”. So, um… you know, one of the behaviors I like is if you pick up a baby Peng-ling, the adults Peng-wings will start to look at you funny and then come attack you. Otherwise they’re completely indifferent to your presence, but if you mess with their babies, they don’t take too kindly to that.
Brendan: I find the first Subnautica to have quite a strong ecological message, or maybe just the feeling of one, because you’re often taking stuff from the environment to survive, yes. But ultimately you’re trying to remove yourself from the environment, you’re trying to get off the planet in that first scheme, right. There is a sort of theme of pollution and sickness among the aquatic life. Is that something that continues in Below Zero?
David: At the heart of this Below Zero story… the bacterium that is present throughout the planet in the first game makes a sort of reappearance. It’s sort of threatening… the corporation Alterra, that came and was working in the region, discovers a variant of the Kharra bacterium and is seeking to exploit it. And I don’t know if this is too spoiler-y but…
Brendan: Classic corporations.
David: Yeah. It is a little bit, it is almost a cliche aspect to it. You know, the corporation’s thinking about profit motive and they think they’ve got it under control, but your sister sees it differently and is concerned about the impact and starts to question it. And that creates a conflict between her and the corporation. And so I think the player in exploring Below Zero is in position to kind of confront that idea and think about it a little bit more deeply. You know, should we be messing with this sort of thing? Should we be messing with biology in this way? Is it worth the cost? And we’ve had interesting pushback from certain people in the community who I think generally will say they dislike the story, but they… they’re asking themselves “Wait, but the corporation, they do have it under control. And maybe your sister acted as a terrorist and is working against these corporate interests. And shouldn’t it be okay for the corporation to do this sort of thing?” And I disagree with that perspective, but I love that the fiction has enough for people to take that perspective.
Brendan: That’s like siding with Weyland Yutani in the Alien franchise.
David: Yeah, totally. And you know there are people who do that just to be contrarian… Like, I kinda like the Dark Side in Star Wars, you know. Let’s be honest, the good guys are a little too, you know, lawful good for my taste.
Brendan: Before working at Unknown Worlds, you worked on a game Waking Mars, which is about growing alien plants on Mars.
Brendan: And a game called Spider, which is a game about being a spider.
Brendan: Are you, are you personally drawn to these types of games that have like flora and fauna at their core?
David: Yes, I am. I mean, just in terms of science fiction. So Waking Mars was a game that I made with my creative partner, Randy Smith. We had a company called Tiger Style. And from the very beginning, we gravitated towards nonviolent game concepts. We wanted to make things that were more imaginative and ask the player to perform actions that didn’t involve killing. And once we got onto a sci-fi train of thought we started asking ourselves, why is it that most sci-fi games are putting you in conflict? You know… all the problems are being solved through combat. And I’m like, what if we just imagined what it was like to meet aliens and the aliens weren’t necessarily humanoids, you know? So in Waking Mars, it’s the plant life that is the intelligence and you play the role of sort of a cosmic gardener bringing the planet back to life. So, yeah. So even though I wasn’t involved in the conception of Subnautica, there’s a clear spiritual link there.
Brendan: You mentioned earlier that the studio actually hired a consultant at one point to talk to the team of like cold climate environment, somebody a bit like Françoise who we spoke to. How did that pan out though? Did the team create anything inspired by or informed by that? Or did you have to disregard a lot of the ideas because in a video game that just don’t work?
David: Well, we didn’t hire this person. They were a fan who volunteered to speak to us. Our writer at the time, Tom, had a long conversation with this person and they passed along all this information, you know, an actual Arctic or Antarctic survival guide field manual type thing. I don’t know if anything really made it in. You know, we talked about ideas like Françoise talked about, the basic habitat that they would construct. And we talked about doing something like that, a really cheap mobile habitat that you could… if a storm came, you could put it down and take shelter in it. But… ultimately, we didn’t build that because we thought like, well, the gameplay there is basically you just sit in a room until the storm passes. Oh, I have an example that did inform us. And Françoise kind of talked about it a little bit. She told the story of how she got caught underneath these ice floes and the ice floes had moved in around her. And it was harder for her to navigate. One thing, as development happened, we started to introduce more iceberg type shapes or ice floes that actually block your ability to surface. So when you’re swimming around normally in Subnautica, you feel like you’re always safe because you can just go up, you go up to the surface and you can breathe again. But in Below Zero, it’s sometimes the case, depending on where you are, that you might have a big block of ice above you. And that introduces a new… moment of terror where you’re trying to surface and you’re like, “Oh, no… there’s something in the way… how do I find my way to oxygen?”
Brendan: I speak to a lot of experts on different topics for the show, but is this something that a lot of game development studios do as well, as a common practice? I know you guys didn’t hire a consultant, but…
David: We could’ve, yeah. I do think… I think it’s common. I think smart designers do that sort of work. You know… when my company was making Waking Mars, I know Randy found some serious geologists to speak to and really got interested in different types of rock formation. And what would caves beneath the surface of Mars be like. I think having your designs grounded in some kind of authentic truth is important to making them… just pure invention, it’s harder to sell. You know, I think it’s important to have, if you’re presenting new ideas to people or imagined things to people, having some kind of grounding for it is important to making that work.
Brendan: A lot of people, when they think of this genre, survival games, they think of online games like Rust or Ark or Valheim. A lot of people are playing Valheim now, the Viking themed, survival game. But both the Subnautica games so far have been purely single player. It’s just you more or less alone on a planet. Is that something that’s essential for the feeling of Subnautica? Why does the studio prefer to work with single player?
David: It’s a great question. I don’t think it’s a preference that we… I don’t think it’s necessarily just a design preference to go single player. It’s a real technical challenge to make multiplayer work and it would change the design significantly. And that… The roots of the studio are in multiplayer, the studio made the Natural Selection games before Subnautica. And so I think people would like to do it. We just kind of went down a different path and in Subnautica’s case, I think isolation is part of the fantasy, especially the first game where you’re literally a crash-landing survivor. And you think there are other people out there because you get these radio messages and then you… you try to find these people, and they’re not there anymore. They didn’t survive. And that’s part of the fantasy… that you really are alone, you gotta figure it all out yourself. But I don’t know [if] that’s incompatible with multiplayer. I think you could be alone with other people. I think that’s viable. You could get a similar feeling. Because in my mind, Subnautica is more about exploration than it is about survival. Obviously survival’s at the core of the systems and it’s a lot of what you do, but also a lot of what you do is you explore, you’re, you’re pushing outwards. You’re trying to go deeper. You’re trying to see what’s hidden. What else is out there? What surprises are in store? So, I think doing that with other people around you would be pretty interesting. I mean, game design doesn’t always scale… but I think in a game like Subnautica, because it’s not a game about like powering up and getting really good at something like, “Oh, I have to like build up my stats so I can fight the boss and actually beat the boss this time.” And suddenly if you have two people who are doing the same thing, it’s like, “Oh, do we scale the difficulty? Like how do the systems work?” I think it’s… Subnautica’s systems aren’t really about that so much. Like, “Oh, if I had another person with me, we’d probably build more interesting bases, we’d be able to collect materials faster.” And, to me, that’s really core gameplay stuff. Like I break a rock and pick up the resource and bring it back to my base and sort it in lockers and everything. And I don’t find that, all that interesting, all that low-level stuff. And I think if we had multiple players, it would just accelerate all of that and make it more collaborative and fun. But it’s non-trivial. I think a lot of our fans think we could just tick the multiplayer box and it would work. It’s very complicated to do technically, and so we’re not really set up for it right now, but maybe in the future.
Brendan: Oh, maybe for the next one.
David: Maybe for the next one.
Brendan: Cool. All right. On that tantalizing note. I think we’ll leave it there. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan Caldwell, and this week’s guest David Kalina. David, thank you very much for joining us.
David: Thank you, Brendan, it was a lot of fun.
Brendan: Subnautica: Below Zero is on early access now, but it’s actually leaving early access very soon. Right?
David: Right. Our proper release date was announced. We’re going to be on all platforms. PC, Switch, Xbox, PS4, PS5, on May the 14th, 2021.
Brendan: Well, if you have enjoyed this episode of Hey Lesson, please think about supporting us. Supporters can get monthly bonus episodes, behind the scenes updates, and they get those longer interviews that I mentioned earlier as well. If you can’t support us long-term we also have a little Ko-fi tip jar that you can drop a few pennies into. If that works for you. You won’t get a bonus episodes or anything like that, but you also don’t get tied down to a subscription. I will put links to those in the episode description. For now, let me say one last thank you to some special supporters. Thank you to Bok Choy. Thank you to Horrendomonas. And thank you to Milk Is Gross And Bad For You. They are… [laughter] that name, every time… They are our trio of helpful porpoises. And I say porpoises, David, because we give our supporters different animal titles.
Brendan: I’m not sponsored by literal Marine mammals.
David: I see.
Brendan: It’s just a silly naming convention we use. Anyway, thank you once again, David, for being our first guest developer.
David: My pleasure.
Brendan: Best of luck finishing up the game. Thanks so much finally, to all of you out there. Thank you for lessoning. Goodbye.