Interview: How the artist behind 'Subnautica' creates aliens that could actually exist

We love plunging into the depths of Alex Ries' artistic mind.

According to his portfolio website, Alex Ries is a concept artist who works in film, television, and video games.

However, he can also be considered a speculative zoologist: someone that uses their knowledge of real-world biology to imagine alien life forms whose appearance, behavior, and even evolutionary trajectory appear as complex and convincing as those of the animals found on Earth.

Even if you do not know Ries by name, you have probably seen his artwork before. After helping design mechanical monsters for the recently produced Hong Kong science fiction film Warriors of the Future, he got in touch with Unknown Worlds Entertainment. After looking over his drawings, the San Francisco-based developer quickly asked him to join development of the highly anticipated sequel to their 2018 open-world survival horror game, Subnautica.

Like its critically acclaimed predecessor, Subnautica: Below Zero (which was released last year) is about an astronaut exploring the darkest depths of a distant, largely aquatic exoplanet teeming with extraterrestrial organisms. Some of these organisms, like the pengwing — a penguin-like critter with a magenta-colored coat, four sets of eyes, and an upright-facing beak — are cute and cuddly.

Others — like the highly aggressive, 11-meter-long apex predator known as the squidshark — remind us of the truck-sized apex behemoths that swam through our world’s oceans during the late Cretaceous period. Each and every alien in Below Zero serves as an analog to creatures that exist or have existed here on Earth, and each and every one of them was born from the wild but surprisingly methodical imagination of Alex himself.

Tim Brinkhof: When and why did you first develop an interest in drawing creatures that don’t really exist?

Alex Ries: Everything stretches back to my childhood. My schoolbook margins were filled with doodles of odd critters, imaginary monsters, and alien machines. I love nature and real-world science — so much so that, when I was younger, I actually wanted to become a marine biologist — but I was increasingly drawn to the realm of science fiction when I came across the original Star Wars and Star Trek films.

Pengwings in all their glory.Alex Ries, Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Both of these obsessions merged into a fascination with what might be out there lurking in deep space. Eventually, I discovered that art was the best, most natural way to express this fascination and allow me to communicate the wonder I felt to other people.

Tim: You have designed alien creatures for numerous films and video games. Was working on Subnautica: Below Zero any different from other projects?

Alex: When working on stories that classify as hard science fiction — a subgenre concerned with scientific accuracy — I try not to break away from principles of evolution, ecology, and even engineering. I have to make sure my creatures look and act in ways that seem plausible given what we know about these disciplines. This makes the creatures seem more realistic.

You just know people would find a way to eat squidsharks.Alex Ries, Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Subnautica, by contrast, is much more playful. Its creatures, while designed to be animals rather than monsters, often push the boundaries of what is physically possible. They become stranger, cuter, or more terrifying because this makes them more fun for players to interact with. I also took real-world concepts like bioelectricity or the brinicle phenomenon and dialed them up.

Tim: Which Subnautica creature was the most challenging to design?

Alex: The biggest challenge for me was the Shadow Leviathan, an arthropod-inspired sea monster. Being one of the largest creatures in the game, it needed to be a truly horrifying creature. However, I still wanted it to seem like an animal that could actually exist. I went through numerous iterations. At one point, it was meant to look like a dragon. Then someone suggested I add centipede-like limbs to it, which made me think of the invertebrate predators from the Cambrian.

“I am often compelled by strangeness.”

Tim: Countless writers, artists, and filmmakers have tried to imagine what alien life might look like. What, in your opinion, is the single most compelling representation that popular culture has given us so far?

Alex: I am often compelled by strangeness. The less a particular creature resembles a human or even a mammal, the more I am drawn to it. Typically, artists working in the horror movie genre have been a bit freer to explore such otherworldly designs as audiences need not be able to empathize with the flesh-eating monstrosities they come up with.

Now, admit it, the Leviathan is just sexy.Alex Ries, Unknown Worlds Entertainment

As far as specific creatures go — and keeping in mind what I just said about horror — the Bioraptors from David Twohy’s Pitch Black are as iconic as they are unforgettable, not only in terms of appearance but sound design as well. I also appreciate the Prawns from District 9 for achieving that strangeness aesthetic despite being portrayed by actors in mocap suits.

In terms of individual artists, Wayne Barlowe is rightly considered to be one of the greatest speculative zoologists of all time. His book, Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV (1990), was one of the first to apply principles of natural history to the creation of alien life. It remains one of my all-time favorites.

I could say the same about the work of Terryl Whitlatch, a scientifically trained illustrator who helped to breathe so much color into the Star Wars prequels. She also designed a peerless book called The Wildlife of Star Wars, which is a kind of field guide filled with small facts about various creatures from the cinematic universe.

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Birrin living like we probably will in a few years. But cooler looking.Alex Ries

Unlike most people, my introduction to Alex’s work did not come through his involvement with Subnautica: Below Zero but by way of his as of yet unpublished pet project and astonishing magnum opus. Alternately referred to as The World of the Birrin or The Chronicles of Chriirah by its online following, it’s basically Alex’s solo attempt to map out — in as much detail as possible — the evolution of an intelligent alien species.

Keeping with his aforementioned design philosophies, Alex conceived the species in question — called Birrin — to look as distinctly non-humanoid as possible. Having evolved from basket worm-like ancestors, the Birrin resemble a cross between our world’s horses, birds, and dolphins, complete with six long, lanky limbs, two vestigial wings, and beaked mouths that open up in four different directions.

Chriirah, the world of the Birrin.Alex Ries

While the Birrin’s ocean-engulfed planet of Chriirah might look familiar to Subnautica veterans, Alex is taking his own worldbuilding aspirations further than any game developer constrained by time and money ever could. From the Birrins’ unique physique, locomotion, and clothing, down to the way in which they organize their cities and cultivate their favorite crops, his artwork leaves no stone unturned.

Alex’s art portfolio is a rabbit hole you won’t want to climb out of. A Tolkien-esque map, complete with epistemologically consistent names for every sea and region, turns Chriirah from a loose collection of doodles into a living, breathing ecosystem. While far from complete, the Birrin world is already on its way to becoming one of the most comprehensive works of hard sci-fi ever created.

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Tim: When did your Birrin project start, and how has it evolved over time?

Alex: The earliest seeds for the Birrin project began sprouting back in 1998, when I was in high school. In hindsight, the original story was pretty similar to James Cameron’s Avatar with humans as the protagonists, following their discovery and colonization of Chriirah. While still strange-looking, the proto-Birrin were essentially fellow humanoids and remained so until 2005.

That year, I switched the narrative focus from humans to the Birrin, and gave them a more spider-like design, which I had originally created for a college art class. As I learned more about evolutionary biology and ecology, and my artistic tastes began to mature a little bit, my design for the species developed into what it is today.

Life on Chriirah, post-Fall.Alex Ries

Tim: As we just talked about, there is no shortage of artists out there who have imagined their own versions of alien life. What makes the Birrin so unique?

Alex: I wanted to design not just a species but an entire planet, a world that feels so real people could step right into it. I not only outlined the Birrin’s anatomy and evolutionary path, but I also developed their traditions and history. The Birrin are utterly non-humanoid, yet their civilization still possesses the same kind of social, cultural, and economic complexities as our own.

You won’t find this in the American midwest.Alex Ries

Whenever we see alien creatures in film or television, we learn next to nothing about the environments they come from. And even when we do, their societies are presented as small and homogenous. With the Birrin project, I wanted to explore an alien civilization that was actually diverse; not all Birrin live in the same communities, speak the same language or share the same beliefs.

Tim: How do academic disciplines like anatomy, natural history, zoology, and ecology inform the way you designed the Birrin world?

Alex: There are tons of artists who know more about human anatomy than I do. However, what I bring to the table is my familiarity with the anatomy of invertebrates — animals like octopuses, spiders, and lobsters, and other creatures that dominated the Precambrian oceans — as well as ecology, both of which I learned through reading textbooks and research papers.

“I bring to the table is my familiarity with the anatomy of invertebrates

I can use the chattertail — a small, non-intelligent flying creature distantly related to the Birrin — as an example. Anatomically, they use the same body plan as their common ancestor, meaning both species share six primary limbs with two dorsal wing-like appendages. In the Birrin, these wings have evolved to regulate heat and communicate with other Birrin.

In the chattertails, however, these appendages have evolved into true wings. I based their ecological niche — their place in the ecosystem and its corresponding food web — on the one occupied by ibis and sandpipers in our world. The chattertails have specialized forelimbs that serve the same purpose as bills do for these birds.

Tim: Over the years, you have been slowly working your way through the history of the Birrin. What chapter of their story are you writing now?

Alex: Right now I have written so much of their history as a species that I am trying to turn them into a book. Several books, in fact. The first starts off a thousand years after “The Fall,” a climate change catastrophe that triggered nuclear war and destroyed almost all the progress Birrin society had made up to that point.

“Life always finds a way.”

Compared to previous generations, the survivors were forced to live much simpler lives in their partially destroyed world. However, life always finds a way. The book, which I am imagining as a Lord of the Rings-like story set in my fictional world, follows two Birrin sisters living in a quiet, uneventful life in a desert oasis.

That life changes when they stumble across the Reclamation, an organization that aims to restore Birrin civilization back to its pre-Fall glory. Ideally, I’d love to turn this storyline into a trilogy. Perhaps turn it into a television series or a movie. I just want to invite people into this world I created in any way I can.