Building a Stairway…Off This Island

I’ve spent a lot of time in Astroneer and Subnautica, which revealed various similarities. Both games restrict free movement, with Astroneer requiring oxygen tethers for each new planet and Subnautica being almost entirely underwater. It creates this repeatable loop that motivates slowing down and backtracking the same few areas. There exists a pleasantness with this repetition and routine, but beyond that, memorization of landmarks and settings is key to developing a mental map. Like a true adventurer, knowing the names of resources and locations is important. In summary, most of the game is going somewhere new, finding a new resource, bringing it back to base to build something different to make these earlier tasks easier, then repeat. Subnautica’s biomes or Astroneer’s planets have names and at one point, I even had them memorized. While playing, I would look at what an item blueprint required and say out loud “well, rubies are located in the Grand Reef, and thankfully I have a beacon close by.” or “Hematite is found on Novus and Glacio. Probably should go to Glacio because then I can also pick up some Titanite.”. It was like listing grocery items while reading a recipe for some rock filled space cake.


I don’t remember this planet’s name but I do remember it’s tube TV looking cave structures.

Friends have described aspects of exploration in these games as having a “sense of urgency or an artificial timeline or time limit”. If done incorrectly, like I’ve experienced before, you could end up stranded. A big stranding example was when I abandoned my dead sub, the Santa Sangre, in a ditch by the Lava Castle because it ran out of energy (batteries are a big deal in these kinds of games). The Lava Castle is multiple levels underground in the Inactive Lava Zone, so I had to huff it all the way back to my base on the surface with my Prawn, which is my mech suit called Getter Robo 3 (the underwater specialist version of the best mech ever, Getter Robo). That was a time-consuming decision, but one that was necessary.

Base-making brings a creative side to resource management games. Astroneer’s is more based on functionality, but Subnautica provides a space to make these winding collections of tubes and undersea glass doors. I personally tried to build as above the ocean surface as possible, but I heard that the game starts to get buggy if buildings go too high. A goofy thing I started doing was reinforcing and tearing down the base tunnels to store and collect resources. Subnautica has this great mechanic where base items are built with this habitation device which allows for items to be unbuilt, returning all spent resources. There would be times where a recipe required Lithium, often used in wall reinforcement. The absurdity but practicality of literally weakening the structure of my underwater home to build a ship upgrade leaves a lasting impression. Sometimes, these games are just about making your own fun. A friend has discussed playing chicken with Leviathans, the first dangerous undersea creature in Subnautica, in their Sea Moth, a motorcycle-sized mini sub.

Punching the face of God with a ship named after an Italian Star Wars rip-off movie that like five people have seen.

A different experience is playing resource management games with other people. The Survivalists is plural, because playing the game single-player is not recommended. Taken from experience, the first and second play session involves everyone just running off in different directions. Thus, nothing gets done. Often someone dies on one of The Survivalists’ various procedurally generated tropical islands (also see Stranded Deep and Raft for how this subgenre is far too thematically attached to tropical islands). Then they die again. At a certain point, structure needs to be created, usually in the form of tasks. I spent an entire night building a wood bedroom, which really sucked. But with the power of teamwork, it was super quick and felt like an accomplishment instead of a chore. There exists this collaborative environment that can be developed; this resource tag team of “Anyone have any rope?” “Yeah boss, coming right up.” or “Anyone got any metal ingot?” “There is some in the chest.”.

Went against my usual aesthetic and actually painted a wall a color beyond black.

Two different types of players branch off in resource management games: base maintainers and explorers. Personally, I’m the person who makes plans and gives instructions, so I’m a base maintainer. The base maintainer is also in charge of outlining steps that need to be taken to both improve the base and progress through the game. The Survivalists has a terrible inventory system, especially at the beginning of the game, where the only things  available are these tiny boxes. At one point, the base had nine identical chests, and it was impossible to tell what was inside any of them without opening them up, one at a time. I decided that designated spaces need to be made for work benches and chests. It was time consuming, but it improved productivity. Most of this paragraph means everything to maybe half of those reading it.

That Pink Floyd college dorm poster of the naked women at the indoor bath, but its just this instead.

The other half, who don’t find their nose bleeding, would be explorers. The explorer is a person who wants to accomplish one goal that session and that is it. Usually, it’s general exploration and filling out the map, but I’ve had a friend who preferred spending all their time in Astroneer mining as deep as possible. I had another who spent almost an entire night in The Survivalists building a particular sword. When asked  if they gained something from this sole focus, the friend said, “I get to be the worker bee, which I prefer”. From a base maintainer perspective, an explorer’s plus is that they can often find resources for tools and furniture that the base maintainer just discovered.

Look at all these handsome monkeys. Oh, the crew looks fine, I guess.

Stepping back, a draw with these games is a return to the now mostly gone genre of 3D adventure games. Building towards a goal that opens the next level of exploration, like moving the tree trunks in Lost in Blue to access the mountains or building the first ship in Astroneer to get off the first planet. I feel like I’m the only person who liked Star Fox Adventures, but that’s an adventure game that comes to mind. What’s impressive is how these games took one of the two more tired gameplay mechanics commonly found in indie games on Steam, crafting (obviously the other one is rogue-like) and got to make a semi return to adventure games. And like the adventure games before them, resource management games all have terrible vehicle controls.

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