Sub Log: Gun Control

This is something of a very special episode of my ongoing Subnautica play commentary. My play narrative (last ep before this and starting ep) is something to distract me while I’m fretting about real world issues. But this is a topic I’ve discussed before, and I don’t (yet) need to go too deep into the real-world issues.

At the point I printed a survival knife, the PDA gave me the message Weapons were removed from standard survival blueprints following the massacre on Obraxis Prime. As an essential survival tool for 2.5 million years, the knife remains the only exception. Sorry about that. It’s the mutiny problem, which I thought was a great explanation for why the game was forcing me to hunt down weapon construction blueprints on the field.

This was before I read that Charlie Cleveland (the game director for Subnautica) intends (or intended) Subnautica to be a gun-free game. This is to say he wants problems and challenges to be confronted creatively and nonviolently, avoiding the shoot-it-in-the-face solution that is (often solely) offered in many other games. As the story goes Cleveland was profoundly affected by the Sandy Hook massacre and in response, was determined to make a game that didn’t add more guns to the world, even virtual ones. (This came with a disclaimer that Cleveland doesn’t wish to imply by his position that he believes games with guns increase real-world violence)

I’ve already expressed some of my opinions orbiting the Sandy Hook Elementary School incident and other responses to it. But while I may not agree with the reasons why Mr. Cleveland made his design choices, I do approve of the choices themselves. As Charlie observes, we already have plenty of games about shooting people in the face, some of which do that thing really well. I talked before about first-person games that discourage confrontational approaches, or at least present to the player non-confrontational options alongside open hostility.*

That said, Subnautica has gun enough to count. In its most literal form, a chunk of lead can be loaded into the Propulsion Cannon and then catapulted at a target at lethal velocity. Most typically, I grab the target itself and propel it at nearby terrain. To quote Sancho Panza, It doesn’t matter whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s going to be very bad for the pitcher.

Subnautica for whatever its intentions (and with no complaint at all from me) features a lot of conflict and confrontation. Subnautica requires constantly going into inhabited territory where dangerous predators must be managed, even if that means hiding in a can or Knocking those predators into next week. When enemies are aggressive and persistent, then combat happens, whether or not guns are available. And if guns (or cannon, or explosives) can be improvised, they will be. Bleeders and Biters are tenacious, and before I had the Propulsion and Repulsion weapons to dispatch them, I became proficient at stabbing them or ramming them with the Seamoth. Combat happened. Violence prevailed.

By comparison, The Long Dark is a game about survival in the freezing Yukon (I think of TLD as To Build A Fire, the game.) TLD features an actual rifle which is useful (sometimes) against deer or wolves. (Rabid wolves? uncharacteristically aggressive wolves and admittedly so.) But since ammo is rare, and situations where a rifle is effective are rarer TLD features very little actual gunplay. There are times when one has to ponder if carrying the rifle is worth the encumbrance. Certainly it is less gun than Subnautica.

And to be fair, having predators chomping at me (some of them of substantial size) gives me some perspective on the little Peepers and even Ol’ Reginald who I gleefully catch, cook and chomp away at for subsistence. This, too, is violence. In the law of the jungle (or in this case the law of the sea) tools are the human superpower. We gave up speed (though not endurance), keen senses and useful thermal fur for strong social values and an evolved ability to throw. Firearms are merely our tendency for tossing refined into a very specialized tool. The propulsion cannon, then, is merely a more advanced (and fictionalized) device in the same family.**

But that said, while Subnautica includes combat, it isn’t about combat. Most of the time, I’m exploring places. I’m gathering fish and resources by which to eat and breathe, I’m building tech to extend the breadth of my exploratory reach. I’m building a home. Outside of my occasional fishing expeditions, which I do for sustenance, I am only rarely confronting hostile life head-on, and the rest of the time I am engaged in plenty of exploring and gathering and building and having a ton of fun doing it.

And regardless of whether there are guns in the game, this thing — that I don’t need guns much in Subnautica — is the way we show that games can be more than shooting enemies in the face. And this is how we demonstrate to the world that guns, while they certainly have their place in human exploration and survival, are not needed much once we have tamed the land and civilized ourselves. this is how we move towards a society with fewer guns, or more precisely, a society with fewer causes to take our guns down from the mantle for use.

* The Thief titles present as first person shooters. (Sword-play and standard pointy arrows are available, if not particularly useful.) But it implies that shooting is only one means to a goal (accomplishing the parameters of a mission, or getting to the end of a level), and not a very good one at that.

Thief focuses on building on building paths to goals, with tools to douse lights and soften clanky floors or provide climbable ropes to ascend or descend.

Contrast Dishonored and Hitman which focus on discovering access to the goal, providing tools to evade (or neutralize) obstacles rather than create a path that can be safely traversed.

** Subnautica’s Propulsion Cannon is an expy of the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2. It is possibly the most useful device in gaming (alongside the Portal Gun and the Large, heavy, edgeless Companion Cube), which allows the player to engage in basic physics (pick up object, put down object, throw object) on a larger scale. HL2 was one of the earlier titles to include robust physics simulation, so it featured more than its share of (simulated) heavy lifting. In Subnautica, the Cannon is used (by me) most often to fish or to facilitate gathering resources, and dispatch small threats, rarely to clear debris from pathways in wreckage.

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