• Innovation
  • Polish
  • Aesthetic
  • Narrative
  • Gameplay Variance

At Valve, they have a saying:

“If I shoot at a wall, something should happen.”

This is a heuristic they use when designing games. It makes sure that players are able to interact with the world in ways that make sense to them. Bullets shouldn’t just phase through a wall and leave no trace. They should make a raucous ping and leave pitted marks. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. When games fail to respond appropriately, when an action does not yield an appropriate reaction, Newton cringes. And players do too.

Unfortunately, I found myself cringing like this more than once during my time playing Miasmata. But don’t take that as a declaration of disgust for the game. It is an admirable piece of art, and an amazing feat of game development granted it was entirely created by two ambitious brothers, Joe and Bob Johnson.

Wait. Only two people?
New Bitmap Image (4)Now I feel inadequate. How many people can claim that they’ve built a video game in their lifetime? Well, alright, quite a few. But how many have created an entire island? Sure, there are the workers who constructed Dubai’s Palm Islands. But they’re sinking, so they hardly count.

At once I was smitten with the game’s visual aesthetic. Simply put, Miasmata is beautiful. Sun rays trickle down through dense leafy greens. Water brushes the shore in brief, choppy ripples. Clouds blanket the island and bathe it in a burned orange glow. The island, appropriately named Eden, is an inviting place from the start. It begs to be explored.

The Mechanics of Miasmata
Beyond its stunning looks, Miasmata succeeds at turning an old gaming trope on its head. The player isn’t just handed a map with a waypoint that flashes go here and do X, Y, and Z. Instead it leaves the player to actually create the map as they go using a simplified version of triangulation. In short, using a compass and two landmark, the player can determine their precise location using triangulation.

This is a refreshing challenge, as it makes what is usually a supplied element of a game’s HUD and turns it into puzzle gameplay. I gained a surprising amount pleasure just from carefully plotting out my path to always make sure I had two points of reference within view. And finding just the right elevation and angle… well, who knew geometry could be so riveting?

There are other mechanics, ones which concern the character’s survival. You play a sickly man named Robert Hughes. The game’s brief prologue states that Robert comes to the island as an exile of his land, banished for the disease he carries. On the island, he finds the research of a murdered man who was working on a cure which could be synthesized from the island’s flora. It’s Robert’s, and the player’s task to track down these ingredients and cook up the cure.

Maligned Mechanics
Gathering is one of the least enjoyable mechanics of the game, however. Robert can carry three plants at any given time, however, for some strange reason, they must all be different. This makes stockpiling an essential ingredient tedious, having to make three journeys in the place of one. It breaks the design principles mentioned earlier. If something is in a game, a player should be able to interact with it in a way that makes sense.

New Bitmap Image (2)I was most excited to get my hands on the game’s synthesis mechanics. From the moment I saw the first cabin stockpiled with beakers and chemicals, I wanted to experiment. I wanted to throw random ingredients together and see what happened. Perhaps I’d make a salve. Or perhaps I’d make a hallucinogen. I don’t know why the thought of playing a tripped-out chemist lost on an island amuses me so much. I’m not going to question it too much.
But there is no experimentation. A look at each ingredient under the microscope gives a quick, utilitarian explanation of what had to be used for. This flower makes fever medication. This mushroom heightens your perception. It unfortunately detracts from the overall mystery of the island, and it goes against the heuristic offered by Valve. The player goes to use the lab’s equipment, and the response is a montage showing the character doing his own experiments. But I saw chemicals! Test tubes, scales, microscopes! Why not let the player play with them and see what comes of it?

And consider the increased drama. There are not many dangerous things on the island as-is. Beyond Robert’s tendency to run around with the momentum of toddler just learning how to lug around his giant noggin and subsequently go tumbling down cliff faces, there is only one other deadly threat–a large, cat-like creature which stalks the player once they’ve reached certain hot spots on the map. Meeting and fleeing from the creature is already frightening enough. Imagine meeting it while impaired by a drug you threw together moments before. Imagine hallucinating. Is the creature real or not?

This is just one symptom of the malady which afflicts Miasmata. This feeling of shouldn’t I be able to do that infects nearly every element of the game. A prime example is the game’s survival mechanic, where the player must drink water frequently for sustenance and to keep fever at bay. However, Robert never eats besides stuffing his face with whatever pills and tonics he can get his hands on.

A Hunt Gone Wrong
Very early in the game I tried Hunting in Miasmata. Go ahead, take a look and see how it went.

Yeah, not that well. This is one of the most blatant moments of immersion-breaking action without reaction. I hurled a knife at a rabbit thinking I’d need its meat. Nothing. Then a stone. Nothing. Then three more. Nope! Not even a flinch.

You are being watched.I understand not including aspects of life in games. We don’t often expect to see characters wake, shave, brush their teeth, eat, or do homework. But in the case of Miasmata, a game of survival, it’s awfully strange to require the player to closely monitor and ration their water, but to never have them worry about food.

Again, this causes a loss of potential drama. Perhaps players would need to use in-game resources such as books and notes to check which kinds of plants were suitable for consumption? What if carrying meat attracted the creature. Would the player consider the risk worth the reward of carrying more filling food than plants?

I’m reminded of a moment in another survival game, Don’t Starve. I was failing to, well, not starve. I was on death’s door. The only food that I knew of in the immediate area would come from giant, hulking creatures that resemble mutant buffalo. They linger peacefully in large groups, grazing in grassy fields. Provoking one could provoke them all. But it was that or risk running west and finding nothing. I chose to attack. Before I knew it I was trampled. But that moment of tension was interesting. It kept me engaged. Engrossed. It’s from difficult gameplay choices that rich, emergent story comes.

Action and Reaction
Immersion-breaking moments are infamous in gaming culture and serve as the fodder for more than a few amusing YouTube videos. You’ve got guards densely asking, “What happened?” after receiving a bottle to the face, and others who could care less if you jump on their heads and swim around through the sky for a few moments.

Games are complex systems, and it’s damn near impossible to plan for every ridiculous action a player would possibly attempt within it. Even triple-A titles are susceptible. Halo saw players sword canceling and mech surfing on aircrafts.

But this is excusable to agree, and basically a non-issue in many cases where developers can address game-breaking behavior with post-release patches. But in some cases, such as Miasmata, design oversights are large enough to critically harm the rest of the game. It is left muted. It feels fake and inaccessible.

That said, Miasmata is far from a worthless experience. If anything it demonstrates just how exciting a change of setting can be. I never imagined that map making would make for an engrossing puzzle element in a game. I never imagined that I’d enjoy just exploring a landscape all while having to worry about a strange, predatory creature that’s watching my every move.

I find myself wanting more. Much more. And perhaps that’s a testament to the Johnson Brothers’ work. They got my mind wrapped up in what-ifs about video games. They got me imagining. They’ve given me a reminder that games still have much uncharted territory left to explore. And that’s a very good thing.