Transcript — Fearful Beauty

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: youtu.be/rlj0JK-CDuQ

Occasionally, in Subnautica, something wonderful happens. The moon that orbits the planet will eclipse the sun. It’s not a rare event, but all the same, you’re very likely to miss it. This is a game in which you spend pretty much all your time diving underwater and you rarely pop your head above the surface for longer than the couple of seconds it takes for your oxygen supply to refresh. People have played for hundreds of hours without seeing the eclipse.

Because of how easy it is to miss, the first time you catch an eclipse in this game, it’s stunning. I saw my first one about half a dozen hours into my playthrough. I’d climbed up onto my pod for just a few moments, I can’t even remember why, and the world went dark. I looked up and… holy shit.

I’ve actually seen a solar eclipse in person. Eight years ago I took a trip to the north of Australia with some mates and we congregated on a beach to watch the world go dark. It was strange and eerie and I’ll never forget it. But what I also remember about that experience is that it was 6am and I was still kind of groggy and it was crowded and there was a dog which wouldn’t leave us alone for some reason and we had to wear those goofy goggles because you can’t really see an eclipse unless you’re OK with having your retinas burnt off. The eclipse in Subnautica was an entirely different feeling. What I remember is the isolation. I was stranded, alone, on a strange watery planet, watching an alien moon eclipse an alien sun. It was just the planets, the sea, and me.

It was beautiful. And it was terrifying.

The unique combination of awe and terror has a name: the Romantics called it the Sublime. Actually, we should talk about the Romantics. When I say Romantic here I don’t mean red roses and Jennifer Aniston movies, I mean Romanticism, a movement originating in Europe and spanning the 18th and 19th centuries. The Romantics celebrated feeling big feelings and they often turned to nature to inspire those feelings. They created art and music that stirred the passions, emotions such as nostalgia, fear, and, yes, romantic love.

But these passions also included emotions that were more complex and vastly more fascinating. Take the Sublime. The Sublime is the combination of awe and terror evoked by an encounter with the natural world. The concept had been described before the Romantic period, for example by men who had crossed the Alps, men like Joseph Addison who in 1699 described the experience as having “an agreeable kind of horror”.

But this concept didn’t really take off until the Romantics came along. Edmund Burke wrote an entire book on the Sublime which he also referred to as “astonishment”. “Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” [Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756]

The Sublime is being struck so hard by the power and vastness of nature that all thought is blasted away, and what’s left is pure emotion. The kind of pleasurable terror that erupts inside you when you watch footage of a violent storm or gaze into the cold infinity of space. It’s not the same thing as fear, which is caused by the imminent threat of death. It’s more of an existential horror conjured by the sudden awareness of your own insignificance in the face of something vast and unknown. The Sublime is this (Shadow of the Colossus) and this (Breath of the Wild blood moon) and this (world serpent appearance in God of War).

There are lots of moments in games that evoke the Sublime, but one genre in particular best represents what the Sublime is really about, and two games within that genre achieve it perfectly. I’m talking about survival games, and I’m talking specifically about Subnautica and The Long Dark. The set up for both games is very similar. In Subnautica, your spaceship crash lands on an alien planet covered in water, and in The Long Dark, a plane crash leaves you stranded deep in the Canadian wilderness. In both games, you are alone, you have only the barest essentials, and you need to scavenge food and tools to survive, all while trying not to get eaten by predators. It should be noted that The Long Dark has a story mode, but the way to play is survival mode, so that’s the experience I’ll be focusing on.

In the rest of this video, I’m going to talk about how Subnautica and The Long Dark are the closest that games have come to achieving the Romantic Sublime, and how they do this. Let’s start with an essential ingredient.

You are alone

In Subnautica, the first thing you see after you crash land is this (cut scene showing shipwreck. AI: “The Aurora suffered orbital hull failure. Cause: unknown. Zero human life signs detected”).

It’s hard to connect with the terrifying insignificance of your own existence when you’re with other people. There’s something about being in a group that bolsters you and makes you feel a bit more safe, something about the comforts we surround ours elves with in our daily lives that make it difficult to experience that profound sense of alienation. If you want the full experience, you have to go deep. You have to go wild. And you have to go… alone.

This is why the Romantics… romanticised… being alone in nature. Rousseau’s ‘Reveries of a Solitary Walker’. Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. The brooding Byronic hero cast out from society. To tap into the Sublime, you have to strip yourself of all your comforting worldly pleasures and make yourself as vulnerable as possible. In his writings on the Sublime, Edmund Burke described this sense of deprivation in four words: “Vacuity, darkness, solitude, and silence”.

Survival games are, first and foremost, about isolation and vulnerability. You might find the ghostly traces of other survivors, now long gone, but you are utterly alone out here. Now that we’ve established the critical sense of isolation, let’s move on to another aspect of the Sublime.

You are tiny

On my 3rd day on planet 4546B, I had the thought that every player will have soon enough. What if I just … swam and didn’t stop? How far could I get? What’s all the way out there? So I started swimming. I quickly got to 1000 metres away from my pod, then 1500 metres…. Here, the water turns the most intoxicating unnatural shade of purple. And then I started hearing strange noises… and then I turned around and — oh SH*T what the F*CK is that? Sh*t sh*t sh*t no no NO NO-

But if you want a game that makes you feel small, that makes you scamper and cower before the wrath of nature, that game might just be The Long Dark. As you wander the frozen wasteland, it’s only a matter of time before you get caught in a blizzard or you catch hypothermia and your body temperature starts plummeting and panic takes over as you desperately scramble to the nearest hidey-hole to start a fire so you can stave off death for a little longer.

In Immanuel Kant’s description of the Sublime, he states: “The sublime is that in comparison with which everything else is small.” [The Critique of Judgment, 1790]

Only when we feel infinitesimally small can we experience that blissful annihilation in the face of something wonderfully, terribly vast. Subnautica and The Long Dark constantly remind you of how pathetically tiny you are. In Subnautica, it’s the endless expanse of water, the bottomless sea floor and the terrifying leviathans of the deep. In The Long Dark, it’s the icy wastes, the stifling darkness and the fury of nature. We now have the perfect set-up for that magical combination of feelings…

You are awed…and terrified

If the Sublime is a feeling of simultaneous awe and terror, It’s no wonder that the sea and the wilderness are recurring images in Romantic poetry and art. What better manifestations of both the beauty and the horror of the natural world?

Let’s talk about beauty for a moment because Subnautica and The Long Dark are beautiful games.

In Subnautica, the sea is almost another character. The water changes colour as you glide between biomes. The sea life is rendered in rich reds and purples during the day, and sparkling phosphorescence at night. Close to the surface, sunbeams illuminate the water and at the bottom, the black sea floor beckons knowingly.

In The Long Dark, even the frigid desolate landscape comes alive in vivid shades of blue and white. The sunrises and sunsets are an explosion of colour, and occasionally, you might be treated to a light show as the aurora borealis dances across the sky.

But let’s not forget that Edmund Burke called terror “the ruling principle of the sublime”. And it’s there in both games.

There’s something that happens in Subnautica when I dive really deep, so deep I can’t see the surface any more. I stop knowing I really shouldn’t be here, and I start feeling it. In my gut. As I look around and realise I have no idea which way is up, my stomach wrenches just a little. The beautiful wall of blue all around me starts feeling like it’s closing in. Diving deep is a discomforting feeling, a thrilling kind of horror.

I get that same feeling in The Long Dark. The game has a permadeath mechanic, so when you die, you’re dead. You can’t reload a previous checkpoint. Your journey is over. There’s a real feeling of dread constantly hovering just behind those picturesque mountain vistas. Because when night falls, there’s that gut feeling again — the walls closing in. To be left wandering blind in the freezing pitch black is — well, there’s a reason this game is titled as it is. It will make you afraid of the dark again. There was a moment in my playthrough that epitomised Sublime terror — a storm took me completely off-guard and, as darkness started to fall, I managed to find a little cave that would offer me just enough protection from the wind and snow. I built myself a fire and I prayed I had enough firewood in my pack to last the night.

In these games, encounters with the natural world aren’t just gorgeous — they’re scary. And not in the standard “I’m being attacked and I’m about to die” way, although there is that too, but the more grand, deep horror that characterises the Sublime. In these moments, you can feel yourself hovering on the edge of oblivion, with just the slightest sliver of distance between you and certain death, just enough distance to be able to linger there and feel that pleasurable horror, the thrilling sense of being just a hair’s breadth away from annihilation. You could almost reach out and touch the void.

You are you

Who would you be if you had everything stripped away from you? Would you cower in fear? Would you be brave? Would you adapt quickly, or fail to? What’s left after we take away everything we think makes us who we are? Almost nothing. But the Romantics believed that the pursuit of that state was desirable, noble even. Because there’s something…well, romantic… about this. You may be just a speck on the landscape, but isn’t there something freeing about that?

In nature, the Romantics found a place to re-connect with themselves and meditate on their place in the world. From Rousseau to Wordsworth, Romantic thinkers immersed themselves in countrysides and rugged landscapes and emerged with newfound insights: a renewed appreciation of simple pleasures, a rejection of greed and egotism, a reckoning with past mistakes and regrets, a realisation that everything is connected and it’s the little things in life that matter. And in these games, it is the little things that make up your entire existence: a useful tool, a simple bed, a warm fire.

Out here in nature, away from the corrupting distractions of society, you could re-discover yourself, your real, authentic self. You could face the terror of death and realise how alive you are. You could look around you and see that life is nothing but the next decision, the next moment, the next feeling.

Right now, right after watching this, what will you do? Watch another video? Browse the socials? Go back to work? Don’t bother, it’s a trap. When’s the last time you were struck cold by the wonder and terror of the universe? Why not take a minute now? Pause this video — right now, pause it — step outside, and look up. Peel back the curtain and let yourself peek into that beautiful, terrible vastness. And if, like a lot of people, you’re stuck in the city right now and can’t go for a Romantic stroll in the countryside, go ahead and boot up Subnautica or The Long Dark. You won’t get a hero’s journey or an epic quest, just a small story about the now, about everyday decisions right here, in the shadow of all that brilliant, terrifying unknown. Because what else is there but right now?

Games have an incredible potential to evoke the Sublime, and many games have featured this kind of unsettling grandiosity. But ultimately, they fall short of capturing the full experience of the Sublime because many of these games still function primarily as power fantasies.

In her book ‘The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction’, Barbara Freeman criticises some of the Romantics for using the Sublime experience to emphasise the centrality of man. Take Kant, for example. A key part of his writing on the Sublime is his argument that the Sublime experience involves the realisation that human reason is superior to nature: “Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in anything of nature, but only in our mind, in so far as we can become conscious that we are superior to nature”.

In other words, yeah, nature’s great and all, but the real hero is my own big brain.

Unlike this very masculine desire to dominate the Sublime object, Freeman stated that, instead, a ‘feminine Sublime’ involves full acceptance of one’s powerlessness in the face of nature, a true embrace of the terrifying other-ness of the great unknown, without trying to master or control it. And I would argue that this is the real spirit of the Sublime.

I think this point is directly applicable to games too. Insofar as games evoke the Sublime by placing you, the player, in a position of powerlessness, it’s only temporary — so you can experience just how powerful your enemy is before you defeat it. Even when faced with the impossibly daunting, the implicit promise is still there: you will destroy the gods, you will defeat the Eldritch demons, you will slay the colossi. These games may feature moments of fearful beauty, but they still retain elements of the power fantasy — and there’s nothing wrong with that. It just means that very few games fully capture the spirit of the Sublime. The Romantic Sublime isn’t about conquering nature and slaying monsters, it’s about clinging to the sides of a boat in a storm and desperately hoping it doesn’t capsize.

Games like Subnautica and The Long Dark are an exciting step towards what games might become if more of them decided to stray from the power fantasy and towards other, less explored emotions — powerlessness, co-existence with nature, awe and respect for forces that are entirely outside of our control. The feminine Sublime. Survival games have the potential to really immerse us in the beautiful horror of the realisation that, before nature, we are nothing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a story to tell. And it doesn’t take away the terrifying majesty of what we see when we look up.

Youtube: https://youtu.be/8yvbapBECpY

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I (Kat) have a PhD in psychology but I’ve decided I would rather rant excitedly about games instead. I make video essays and write blog posts and articles. ​