Electron Dance
26Nov/13Off

The Island

miasmata-10

“Much of it came from our camping adventures we took as kids. Every summer growing up, we’d travel to northern Minnesota with my Dad, uncle, brothers and cousins and spend a week in the wilderness. We’d spend the entire day hiking and portaging from camp site to camp site. It was really tough stuff, at least for us suburban kids. We injected a lot of the emotion and feeling of solitude from those trips into Miasmata.”

-- Miasmata developer Bob Johnson, interviewed at True PC Gaming

You’ve just got to play Toki Tori 2+. Go do that Dark Souls, it’s divine.

Click, click: how can I get excited about a this new release over here when there are so many other new releases?

Play 1000 Amps already. Whoa, Bionic Dues, dude.

Click, click: isn’t this exhausting for you as well?

At last, Deadly Premonition is out on PC and now you have no excuse! This is the best Twine I played this month, give it some minutes of your time. Your time. Give it--

Clunk, clunk: is this burnout? Is it boredom? I’m anaesthetised to the constant flow of new new things because I haven’t finished appraising the new things or even the old things. Don’t blink, you’ll miss this. Why would you stop to look? Why would you spend the hours? Nothing gets through the numbness...

...except when it does.

Kairo (Locked Door Puzzle, 2012) excited me. I saw a trailer and I knew, just knew. I bought into the alpha the same day. My gut was right; Kairo was special.

And then I read an unassuming piece on Tap-Repeatedly, last December:

If you like your first person games to be balls-out shooters, Miasmata isn’t for you. If meticulous exploration, flora-gathering, and looking for fresh water doesn’t appeal, Miasmata isn’t for you. It’s a slow, thoughtful game, one that reveals very little in terms of direction, and brings the realities of survival to the fore in a way rarely seen in the medium. Ultimately, Miasmata will resonate with a certain kind of player. I hope that there’s a large enough number of such players out there that IonFX reaps some rewards for risking such an off the beaten path design, because Miasmata is stunningly beautiful and an absolute feast of challenge.

I bought the game immediately. I knew, just knew. But it took me months to find the time to play it. Why would you spend the hours? Why would you? Maybe I was wrong. That’s not what I wanted to discover. When I played, I discovered that it was broken, damaged in transit. I discovered the fault lines in the code, its abrasive, rough edges.

I also discovered the island. Literally, inch by inch.

This is why Miasmata (IonFX, 2012) became the game that meant the most to me this year.     

I was out of consoles at the time GTA III (DMA Design, 2001) hit the shops, a game that sounded like a shooting-driving hybrid in some tiresome series. I think it was Warren Spector that got me to play it, although I can’t prove this. I think he said something in an interview about GTA III raising the bar in terms of making an open, nonlinear game.

I remember an unusual excitement when I started up GTA III for the first time, I had real no idea what lay within as I had avoided reviews and bought purely on Spector's word. The game started; one well-done cutscene later, I was on a damaged bridge being told to drive a car. I followed the game’s instructions to the letter during it’s tutorial mission “Give Me Liberty” but I was gripped already.

I was in Liberty City. It wasn’t a FPS game level honed for a linear firefight, but a sprawling location full of detail and life. Traffic lights at every crossroads. A waterfront. Car parks. Street lights. Park benches, phone booths, fire escapes, a subway system, shops, warehouses, docks, a construction site, a bus depot, a basketball court... I had chased experiences like this before, with Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen, 1985) the most notable example, but none had felt so complete as this. This was the game I had always wanted to play, the city I had always wanted to explore.

Since this revelation, I have become a little too familiar with the conventions of such worlds and when a game offers a different spin I become obsessed. Fuel (Asobo Studio, 2009) contained an open world of breathtaking size and three years ago I wrote about how much fun it was to abandon the game’s designed challenges and, instead, concentrate on roaming free. On a smaller scale, I found magic in the random cyberwastelands of Obsolete (Orihaus, 2012).

These games are not Miasmata. Each one of these games use the world as a backdrop, the set upon which the game plays out. Tourists, like myself, abandon the challenges and find satisfaction in wandering a foreign land. Miasmata is designed for the tourist, a game of cartography and navigation. Exploration is the challenge. There’s no map. There are no augmented reality markers highlighting the next mission waypoint. There’s the island. And a blank sheet of paper.

miasmata-blank-sheet

You start out near Outpost Draco with the tiniest scrap of the map filled in. Experiences in other games compel you to explore. After all, what could go wrong just walking around a bit? During my first ever day in the game, I made the mistake of spending too long inching around a lake to the west of the camp. As the sky slipped into twilight, I realised I should have been heading back, but returning wasn’t going to be a quick hike. Night fell and I was terrified. I could not see a single goddamn thing. I had a lighter which revealed that I was standing on ground but little else. By luck I found my way to another cabin and slept there until morning time.

I made sure to never, ever take risks at night like that again but I didn’t learn the real lesson. I still went wandering up hills and into woods without too much thought and this means one thing for the careless player: you’re going to get lost. After I met my nemesis, the beast, for the first time on one of these aimless travels, I realised I had to get serious. If I was to conquer the island, I had to start map-making.

Aside from the occasional map fragments the player finds, the only way to expand the map is to triangulate your position using known landmarks (huts or stone structures). Not all players grasp the vagaries of map making and it can seem obtuse and even gamey at times – all these landmarks look alike but somehow the protagonist can tell them apart. But develop the skill and it’s all-consuming. You'll constantly scan the horizon for landmarks and also look for higher ground - ascent is often a dangerous challenge in itself. In a way, Miasmata’s cartographic play is like the RPG grind, an artificial brake on progress. But this is what the game is and if you don’t like it, that’s just dandy because this was a game made for me.

The joy of gradually filling in the map and marking the location of tents and cabins is wonderful, becoming its own sort of meditation. Some areas are fiercely difficult to map because you can’t figure out how to triangulate your position, but that’s the challenge. You might shut down the game for the night, but the job remains. This huge island.

Miasmata was built on a smaller budget than GTA III had so we see more procedural generation and less hand-crafting but it doesn’t take away any of its power. It’s populated with flora and fauna, alive in a different sense to Liberty City. You’ll still get a feeling for certain areas like the dense woods, the tropical region or the grand ruins. Maybe you’ll stop to enjoy the view as the sun sets, or a swarm of insects in a swamp.

Charting the uncharted is a tense experience, though, because you never know when the beast will make an appearance. The beast is not essential to the game, but adds a little zing. Everyone remembers the beast, but everyone should remember that the beast is not the game.

Miasmata has problems, though, and if I spent paragraphs here cataloguing all of them, you might get the wrong impression. You might think, that’s a long list of problems you have there. You might think, that sounds a bit more trouble than it’s worth. I’m not going to write about them because none of them destroyed the game, none of them broke its heart and soul.

The island expects much of you, but gives generously in return.

miasmata-9

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Comments (13) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Owned but not played. I do love reading about Miasmata, though.

    JOEL DO YOU HAVE AN XBOX ONE YET

  2. Shaun I do not have even one xbox in our household.

    We’ll see if Miasmata does better this time around add the previous piece was not too popular. If this does better we might do a podcast on January on Miasmata.

  3. The ‘problem’ with Dialogue Tree is a good one: if I’ve not yet played through the games you discuss, I do not listen to the podcast.

    (Okay, I did listen to the one about Papers Please, because I have played 1/4 of that game.)

  4. And perversely, we’re probably going to keep focusing on games for the Counterweights as they seem to be doing better traffic wise versus the previous “random topic” ones. The “Papers, Please” episode has done better than most of the previous Counterweights.

  5. I can hardly argue with that. Glad they’re doing well!

  6. “Everyone remembers the beast, but everyone should remember that the beast is not the game.”

    It’s the beast that made me stop playing the game. I’ve not even encountered it yet, but from reading about it I got the feeling that it will just appear at some point and almost certainly kill me, and so nullify everything I’ve done up to that point. Which is not what I from a game like this.

  7. Andy, what do you mean nullify everything you’ve done? Miasmata is not a permadeath game although you can lose progress.

  8. It’s not permadeath? For some reason I was certain it was. What happens when you die then, the game just loads from the last place you slept?

    In that case, I guess I can deal with the monster.

  9. The game does not make it clear – which is fine, or doesn’t make a lot of things clear – but yes, you go back to the last save point ie sleep point. You will lose any map progress or flowers you were carrying of course so there are still reasons not to die! It’s why being lost can get especially tense because you have no idea where the nearest safe place night be.

  10. Ever since you wrote about your experiences with the beast I’ve been looking forward to the follow-on installment.

    It would be fun to interview the Brothers Johnson from angles (presumably) more oblique than typical. We know their impetus for the creation, we know about the engine and the “stuff” of the game, but I still think about your Obsolete article sometimes, and took advantage of the parallel here to reread it again. Your experience on the outer rim makes me weirdly, maudlinly, unconstructively philosophical. Far out in all that blackness, Harbour Master found another game in Obsolete. It wasn’t a game its designers had created or put in, though. It wasn’t a bug. It wasn’t all in Harbour Master’s imagination – it filled in gaps, sure, but the elements were real as anything. So what does that mean? Would I find the same game in my copy of Obsolete? Would I find a different game? Would the effort and foreknowledge of my search nullify the possibilities of finding?

    I didn’t finish Miasmata. Of all the games I drift from – that’s most – I usually only chide myself for a few, and it’s one of them. More than many other games with much more complex narratives, I’d really like to know how Miasmata ends, and I sense it’s one of those experiences where you really HAVE TO come to the ending on your own if it’s to have any meaning.

    Even without finishing I saw the potential layers of metagame in there. It’s as if each element of the game – flora gathering, exploration, beast avoidance, etc – are stacked on top of each other but not glued together, so you have lots of freedom in how, when, where, and why you tackle them. Just walking around the island was quite evocative, simply because this is basically the only game ever in all of ever forever where personal mass is a major factor. Walking has weight, making it more meaningful. Of course, it’s not meant to be a pure sandbox so you can’t just wander endlessly. You’re sick. You’ll dry up or fall or succumb to fever or the beast will eat you. Thus it’s a game that’s not coy about what it expects from you, but doesn’t care how you make payments.

    Since you’ve surely put in many more hours than I did maybe you can answer, HM – as you progressed, did you feel like the world-immersion aspects were intentionally designed into the system, or did it feel more like a quality that presented itself naturally, without a guiding hand? If I were a betting man I’d speculate that the latter is true, just because a two-person studio with limited funds would have a lot of trouble implementing such a nebulous mechanics set.

    How would you document it? “You can do stuff. But you also have to do stuff. And the game can do stuff. At times, some of the stuff you do will change the way you experience other stuff (like hiking too far at twilight). Then you’ll learn still different stuff, but secretly there’s more stuff on top of that (the true lesson of wandering in trackless wild that wasn’t obvious at first), which will in turn elevate or lower stuff’s importance. Meanwhile some stuff – large, snarling stuff – seems to mean one thing but maybe it means another…” you can see the challenge.

    I check the IonFX website now and then but no indication of what they’re up to since Miasmata came out. Stuff? Who knows?

  11. I’ve been in a bit of a single-player funk lately, playing all these co-op games — I do love them but the problem is they require people and people aren’t always around! I finished Sang-Froid a few weeks ago and had some amazing sessions with Minecraft as part of the succession game that Armand’s been running for the last few months. That gave me a bit of a taste for exploring and finding stuff on my own terms. It was shortly after the Eurogamer Expo that I installed Miasmata after hearing (and trying to ignore) Steerpike and Joel wax lyrical about it right beside me. I’m hoping to start it properly this weekend and get some real time in with it. I can’t wait. I had a quick wander near the beginning and I could already feel the draw of the island and the overwhelming sense of that creature being out there somewhere. On the one hand I wish I didn’t know about that thing for the terrifying surprise, but on the other, it does add a certain “I feel like I’m being watched” vibe to the proceedings.

  12. Nice piece!
    I used to like open-ended exploration games, but with time I got to find games with huge worlds and no clear objectives (or not-engaging-enough ones) quite depressing.

  13. Hey Steerpike,

    Sorry for leaving your awesome comment fallow for so long, it’s been that kind of a week. Even though we talk about the player experience as king, despite a current revival of author-meaning-down-your-fucking-throat, I still feel a bit weird when I “imagine” my own game. Most of the time I read too much into a story it’s like skating on thin ice, so I’m comforted with meaning or intention projected by an author. The same goes for mechanics: if a games’ structure is solid and keeps me on the straight and level, it’s like being wrapped up in a fluffy blanket and kept warm. That question dogs me: Am I playing it right?

    I had played Obsolete once, from start to finish, and didn’t poke my head outside of the core playfield. But I liked the atmosphere of the game and played it again months later and then found myself wondering how far I could move outside. Turned out a lot which became immensely interesting. You should try Orihaus’ other works like Lumiere which have no game whatsoever; they are all about exploring a damaged, unreal space, space as sculpture. There’s no getting lost with mechanics here: there is no “game” in town.

    I think I played the game the Johnsons’ were intending, because I played to its goals – I scoured the island looking for flora, and map-making was vital in that (some of the flora are quite tricky to find too). And I think you’re right in the sense that each mechanical layer plays off the others. Map-making is a slow process, but the beast can kick over the table and chairs and send you packing into uncharted wilderness… getting lost can get you killed because your sickness is a timer… and running around too fast, being careless with your feet, will bring about an untimely demise much more quickly. It’s not perfect, but some of these pieces fit together snugly.

    I liked much of Miasmata’s design and I really got that hiking vibe. My view is that this was the experience the Johnsons’s were trying to evoke and they spent a lot of time trying to tweak this out. I do believe that. Yet they surrendered at some point: not all of it works. The overly slide-y feet, the gamey mechanics, and more. I did not like the story. I’ll go more into detail about Miasmata’s problems in the podcast next year.

    I could see how a game like this might evolve from basic ideas. We want to make a hiking game, but with some sort of mechanical purpose; you need to rest and take supplies. Let’s make that… sickness rather than hunger. You’ve got to cure your sickness, that’s the end goal. Can we make it more dangerous? How about an unpredicatble creature? Hiking is hard, though, it’s not like floating around in Proteus. Let’s work on weight. And you want to make players get truly lost so you need to kill off automatic GPS of modern games plus it has to be big, really big, so getting lost could be a one-way trip. It’s a hiking simulator.

    From what I hear, IonFX were burnt out after Miasmata and they’re not going to update it any more. Now working on something else. It would be nice to interview them at some point. (Unless Eric gets there first.)

    GREGG!

    I’m glad you’ve just started on Miasmata at last. I don’t consider the creature a great big spoiler simply because it spoils one moment: first encounter and that’s it. Miasmata’s trailers all touch on it and it’s even in the manual. I don’t think the devs intended it to be a big secret, although if it was, I imagine it would be quite the shocking revelation!!

    The island is really big. I can see some people just letting the game go after a while. But that’s okay. Maybe they got enough out of it. I love this place.

    Hi Nicolau,

    Thanks! Miasmata has some a clear goals and there isn’t too much in the way of “sidequests”. I played not to explore, but to complete the game, but that requires a lot of exploring. I’m not saying *you* should play it, but this is a game that explorer-players should absolutely not pass up.