This was going to be another “Games We’d Like to Play” article, but it would’ve been a stretch to write it, since I can sum it up for you real quickly: “I want to play a game just like Miasmata, but with less rough edges.” Now, I found out that IonFX is indeed working on a spiritual successor to Miasmata, so that made my day.
I love Miasmata for one simple reason: it’s the only game that actually makes me feel like a hero of a Verne/Crichton-type science adventure. Sure, there’s the survival horror element, the free exploration, the mystery, but I always imagined that you can deconstruct the genre and find that “using technology in an uncivilized, natural environment” is the key to most of that atmosphere. This creates contrast and tension, shows how much we rely on our fragile tools that are nearly useless when confronting forces of nature. That’s why movies like Jurassic Park, Twister, even Aliens work so well, and that’s why I loved Lost for the most part.
And this is why Miasmata works as a science adventure. You are on an island, possibly dying, there’s a much stronger force present that is likely to hunt you down. Your only chance for survival are the tools of science. I like how the game doesn’t tell you where you are, where you’re supposed to go, and it doesn’t tell you that “you’re 35% sick”. It’s far from game-y. First, you’ll have to triangulate your position using landmarks. Then, you collect some plants, examine and prepare them to make medicine. You see, there are small, abandoned research lodges around the island. There are huge stone statues as well. Once, this island was inhabited, but now it’s empty. Except for you and the monster.
You might suggest that Alien Isolation would be the game for me, but I noticed several flaws with its philosophy of setting and exploration. In System Shock 2, there’s a part when you see this:
I love this scene, because it shows how desperate people were, what kind of chaotic events took place, and my imagination is now reconstructing what happened. Somebody wrote that… with blood? How fucked up is that?
Now, Alien Isolation tried to lift this technique, and ended up looking like this:
I mean, the principle is the same: show the player that something went wrong with this place. There was chaos. But the imagination of the player is still trying to reconstruct things. And now we’ll notice that something is wrong. Did they… took a ladder just to make weird graffiti up that high, while there was a monster on the loose? This is the point when you notice how overdone and dramatized Alien Isolation is. Moments like that, it’s length, it’s dramatic structure… it is still a good game, though.
But I digress. Back to Miasmata: it was way more minimalist than that. That was its charm and that made the game, its atmosphere effective. You could only sense that something went wrong, there were clues, but who knows, really? But if you pay attention, you can reconstruct the plot behind the game.
You’re simply very lonely in Miasmata. It’s a terrifying experience to walk through a small section where you can’t see any buildings, and an incredibly rewarding experience when you eventually find a small lodge. When you find the right ingredients for the drugs you were looking for.
Now, Miasmata does have issues. It’s not a very smooth experience and it’s a bit fatiguing after a while. I get really annoyed by body awareness effects (I like them optional), especially when it shows that they’re a bit low on the production value. The wrists of the character bend unnaturally, and you can feel something’s not right with character movement, picking up objects, “grabbing hitboxes”. Make no mistake, it’s deliberately different than FPS games that allow you to walk over objects to instantly pick them up. But it’s still not exactly right, and one of the main principles of game design that if your game doesn’t feel smooth and playable instantly, if you are so lost that your only option is to quit, well… not many gamers will have the patience to explore what’s there to see (see Minimum Viable Product video by Extra Credits).
But IonFX is a small team and working up the courage to work on a game of this scope and beauty is just incredible. Obulis was a nice start, sure, but this is like an astronomical leap for them. Miasmata is important, because it’s success story will show you that exploration and the sense of danger are the most important factors why we play games. They don’t have to be all about spectacle and action. They can promote quiet humanism, the scientific method (your curiosity is a major driving force of the plot and gameplay in Miasmata), principles of smart survivalism, the sense of wonder that we feel when confronted with the vastness of nature. Botany, medicine, wildlife are in focus, not personal gains or defeating enemies. This game is extremely valuable for that.
Graphically it’s almost beautiful even with the rough parts. It’s lighting is really atmospheric, especially when combined with the ambient sounds. The picture above shows one of my favorite lighting conditions, a somewhat dark feeling even in bright daytime. Not many games can handle light this effectively.
I could go on and on about this game, but it is definitely a pioneer of smart exploration and survival horror, that maybe, just maybe inspires some people to pursue a scientific career. If one of a thousand players consider this, then this game is a success, a successful continuation of the work of Verne and Crichton, even Attenborough. I definitely mean it.