The recent success of “Subnautica: Below Zero” shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Photo: A still from Subnautica. An underwater alien being with a hard back shell and translucent skin that exposes its organs hovers next to an imposing building. The scene’s framed by the outline of a scuba mask. Small air bubbles are peppered throughout the image.
Last May, Subnautica: Below Zero was released on the Nintendo Switch. The game had previously been released for other consoles at the start of 2019. The game’s arrival on the Switch briefly catapulted its predecessor, Subnautica, back into Nintendo’s best-sellers list. Colin Knueppel, the series’ lead animation designer, lives in Madison and is part of a rich, often-overlooked local game developer community. Knueppel co-founded Sky Ship Studios, which boasts a team that’s had their hands in everything from Minecraft to Space Quest.
Back in 2018, reporter Aaron R. Conklin did an alphabetical overview that tackled Madison’s gaming scene for Isthmus, Knueppel included. Benedict Fritz, another name on the list, helped develop the challenging balancing adventure Tumbleseed, which has garnered a reputation as one of the Switch’s hidden gems. (Fritz’s Madison connection may also help explain why a Tumbleseed was featured at an Indie Arcade event at the Black Locust Cafe back in 2017.)
Conklin’s list was one of the last meaningful looks at the video game industry—and community—in Madison. Since that piece was published, several of the developers named have pursued other projects outside of titles available to the Switch. Madison-area studio Flippfly, who released the endless runner cult classic Race The Sun, recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for their forthcoming Whisker Squadron (a direct sibling of the studio’s previously planned title, Cats Fly Helicopters). Initially, the goal set for that game was $30,000. As of today, the team has raised nearly double that amount.
In February, reporter Shelley K. Mesch offered a studio-focused overview of Madison developers for the Wisconsin State Journal. Raven (an arm of Activision), PerBlue, PUBG, Human Head (now Roundhouse), and newcomer Basementmode were all highlighted, calling attention to Madison’s ties to major titles like Call Of Duty, Star Wars, and Rune, as well as the city’s sizeable impact on mobile gaming. Make no mistake: Madison is becoming a hub for the video game industry.
Over the pandemic, the Switch became the item to own, aided in no small part by the popularity explosion of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. As UW-Madison’s Game Design program director pointed out to Six Feet Apart, video games like Animal Crossing became a lot of people’s chosen means of quarantined socialization. With the impending arrival of the next iteration of the Nintendo Switch and the Switch’s pandemic-based surge in popularity still netting results, now felt like a perfect time to take a brief dive into both the Subnautica series and Tumbleseed to measure a bit of Madison’s impact on the console’s offerings.
Tumbleseed rides a simple conceit to maddening heights: use the left and right joysticks to balance a ball on a solid horizontal line, navigating an ascending maze of foes, friends, and holes. Tilt the line by pointing either joystick up or down and pick up power-ups along the way, finding a route to survival. Whimsical and vibrant, the game’s chaotic tendencies are reflective of several identity markers that should be familiar to Madisonians. From the balancing act between measured twee sensibilities and an unwavering commitment to conventionalism to the colorful distractions peppered into the climb, there are moments where Tumbleseed doesn’t just feel analogous to the Madison experience but emblematic. There’s also the fact it was based on Ice Cold Beer, which further underscores some curiously implicit parallels.
Subnautica is a different beast entirely. A monstrously expansive open-world survival and resource management adventure that frequently toes the line of horror, Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero both succeed in simulating isolation, claustrophobia, and fear. In their own way, they’re also somewhat reflective of certain Wisconsin hallmarks (Below Zero‘s harsh, snowy landscapes are strangely familiar, even when taking the sci-fi surrealism into account).
While Tumbleseed has quietly gained praise and enthusiastic fans, Subnautica has managed to enshrine itself in the realms of cult favorites, particularly among the speedrunning community. Head to YouTube and there are innumerable reaction videos, first attempts, instructional guides, and modification showcases. The reaction to the game wound up being enthusiastic enough to warrant a DLC (downloadable content) expansion pack, which, in turn, developed into Subnautica: Below Zero.
Both games in the series never seem to stop unfurling and each takes clear care when it comes to rewarding investment; each time something clicks into place, the game’s appeal grows exponentially. Whether it’s constructing artifacts from the inventory system, the finer points of mineral foraging, or exploring advanced alien technology, the Subnautica series excels in gradually—and strategically—unearthing new reasons to feel compelled to return.
Tumbleseed and Subnautica‘s differences highlight the breadth of creativity that Madison developers are offering to the gaming industry. Mobile gaming developers and studios may still have made the most visible mark in this arena, but the early imprint Madison’s been able to make on the Switch highlights the promise of growth.