All The Right Elements: Miasmata
April 7, 2013 2 Comments
Miasmata is a first person adventure game with survival elements.
You are mortally sick with an unknown disease, you have been banished to an island where a group of scientists was trying to find the cure for your ailment. Upon arrival you discover their camps abandoned and the scientists dead. Armed with only a journal and canteen you set out into the woods to finish their research and synthesize a cure from the plant life found on the island. You are not alone on the island, a large cat-like creature is stalking you.
Miasmata has a strong emphasis on realism and simulation.
The visuals are kept as close to realistic as the engine allows, no false color-grading or ambient lighting is used. Nights are pitch-black and fire only illuminates the closest area around you. Colors are kept in their natural state without enhancing or over-saturating textures.
The character you control has a very intricate movement-system with proper momentum and weight. A sprint down a hill can quickly become a tumble, climbing up a slope is an inch-by-inch affair with the possibility to slip and slide down. Sudden changes in direction when moving frequently overshoot your movement and let you slide to one side, retaining your previous momentum. Walking or running over jagged rocks with your bare feet has a higher chance to make you trip. Swimming is only viable for a few seconds in your condition and you are ravaged by fever and cough whenever you forget to take your medicine in time.
The island is lush and green with flora playing the dominating role.
Natural colors with natural shadowing without overexaggerated fill lighting.
There is only so much your character can carry in his hands without an inventory system. Medicine for your ailments is carried in your journal, the canteen is attached to your journal as well and collected plants or sticks are carried in both your hands, visibly.
Miasmata forgoes a traditional abstract inventory, with items to manage in lists or grids, in favor of a realistic visual representation of everything you carry. When opening your journal the game does not pause, looking at your notes is like flipping a book, you can freely move around your view to focus on what you want to see or use, even zoom in is handled like bringing the book closer to your virtual “face”. When you find something of interest or a new entry is added, it is accompanied with a tapping sound and your finger pointing it out on the pages of the journal.
Another element worth mentioning is the cartography system, where if you see two known landmarks, a portion of the map around you is revealed.
The true strength of Miasmata is its immersive interface
With all this immersive attention to detail, flaws of the system become even more pronounced than usual.
It’s the uncanny valley of every simulation trying to be immersive and realistic.
How I can’t carry more than 2000$ in my wallet in Far Cry 3 might be hard to swallow, but it is quickly discarded as you murder a tiger with a rocket launcher and do base-jumps from radio-towers. In Miasmata however it immediately becomes a nuisance that I can’t carry more than three plant-specimen at the same time in my hand. He couldn’t hold more flowers in his hand?
It’s never really clear if you wear anything at all or if you are naked. The flora (a lot of pine trees) seems to indicate a northern climate, no palm-trees or tropical vegetation exists so I have to assume this is not the tropics, yet your character never feels cold, or hot.
You get thirsty and your trusty canteen can be refilled 5 times at springs or lakes (as long as it is sweet water) but you never feel hungry and never have to hunt or scavenge for food. Never once in my weeks spent on the island did I eat, even though fruit is scattered about quite frequently, logic suggests I should be dead by now.
There is no way to improve your survival situation, you can not chop wood, build your own shelter, create some way to carry around more than three samples of plants (one medicine, one tonic, etc.), like a backpack or pouch, no clothing to protect you from the elements, or shoes to make walking over the uneven terrain safer. You can not try to repair your battered boat and move upstream without swimming.
Specimens placed in trays at the abandoned base-camps miraculously appear in -every- base-camp from that point forward, clearly a convenience feature as only the main camp has the equipment required to synthesize medicine and do research, breaking the immersion and simulation aspects.
Items exist like knives, pans or axes but are entirely useless for anything other than trowing them. You can not use a pan to cook, there is no food required, you can’t use the knife to carve out things like spears, or arrows, there isn’t a way to chop wood with an axe. You can’t make a torch or take the oil lanterns from base-camps, all you can do for illumination is to light some twigs on fire for two minutes or use your lighter, which seems to have infinite fuel.
You don’t get tired or sleepy, only your illness and injuries are a limiting factor to your exploration.
The Outcast seems to be partially suspended in time, he does not need sleep, food, shelter or heat while needing water and medicine.
He is a robot, designed, assembled, made.
All this contrasts so strongly with the simulation and immersion side of things that it becomes unbearable to play the game. It highlights the game mechanics and the transparent nature of design, failing to hide it in a veil of immersion and relying on the suspension of disbelief.
- Why go through all the trouble to make a momentum-based movement system? Because you want it to be hard to run away from the creature.
- Why can’t you carry more than 3 specimen? Because you want the player to frequently return to the base-camp and extend the lifetime of the game.
- Why can’t the player swim or use the boat? Because you don’t want him to avoid the creature by swimming upstream to the “endgame” without experiencing what you intended for him.
- Why can’t the player hunt for food? Because that would mean introducing effective weapons that could hurt your only physical threat, the creature.
- Why can’t the player take oil-lanterns from camps for better visibility at night? Because that would undermine the night-time atmosphere of walking around with only your small lighter in hand and falling off cliffs.
- Why can’t the player craft shelter and take equipment from the base-camp in the field? Because that would make the base-camp save system obsolete and it would undermine the survival aspect of needing to plan for trips.
Simulations are unforgiving like that, either you go all the way in simulating survival or you don’t do it at all. The game simply becomes “game-y” instead of the immersive experience it’s trying to provide.
Alternatively provide a reasonable explanation: “you can’t carry the equipment with you because its just way too heavy” ok fine, I’ll take that over “you can’t click that”. The creature can’t be harmed, magic, ok, fine, but let me still scavenge for food like apples and bananas, you have them strewn all over anyways (you get achievements for throwing them at the creature for some reason).
Let me craft at least a pouch, a token effort to better my situation, to feel like I’m progressing and adapting to my environment instead of being just a crazed hobo running around naked on an island. I don’t need a beard-shaving simulator.
Miasmata has all the right elements for survival but ultimately its attitude to only use half of them actively is infuriating for the player. The more logical and realistic a game is, the more scrutiny will be applied to it, this is a hallmark problem of almost all adventure games, (operating on game-logic).
The game is a great achievement for its creators, two brothers as far as I remember, which even programmed the engine themselves. Technical difficulties aside, the game feels mostly incomplete and repetitive. Miasmata isn’t a bad game, it is a valiant effort, but I can’t shake the feeling it was created solely for the purpose of showing off the engine and the prowess of the creators first and being a game second.
In the end, there is just enough in Miasmata to make me disappointed that it isn’t a better game with more thought applied to its mechanics.
Oh well, I guess someone, somewhere will someday create a fully immersive first-person survival game, until then I’m waiting for NeoScavenger.