Few words exist to describe the singular experience of Miasmata, but I have to find some regardless. I won’t be able to do this game justice with words, and there is no 1-10 score that will ever satisfy me, based on my experience. I want my first statement on this game to be – you need to play it. You achingly, desperately, need to play it. You may love it or hate it, but it is an important game that must be played by anyone who considers the gaming medium in any way capable of eliciting emotion. The fact that it was made from the ground up – engine, gameplay, art, sound, everything – by only two people makes it even more important and impressive. I beg of you – play this game, regardless of what my words or the score end up saying about it.
Miasmata is an interactive experience, created completely by the two brothers of IonFX, that can loosely be categorised as a survival sim/exploration game, with a healthy dash of disorientation, fear, and gardening. The premise is rather simple – you are a scientist plague victim sent to the isolated jungle island of Eden, given the task “find the cure and survive”. You must find your way around the island, picking and analysing various plants and fungi, continuing the scattered research of those who have gone before, until you can ultimately synthesise a cure to the plague and return to civilisation. All the while, you are being hunted by the creature, the beast, the singular unnamed terror whose sole purpose is to stalk and kill you. Throughout your time on Eden, you will find documents, diaries, news clippings, and photographs that fill out some of the back story of the world, and the fate of the dead research party stationed on the island. The back story of the world is sufficiently realised, but that’s not the real story here – the real story is the one you create.
Your name is Robert Hughes, but it doesn’t matter, really. You are you. I have never felt such a connection to a silent protagonist. The connection was not the traditional narrative connection that many game creators seem to want to create, where the player is experiencing the story through a blank slate’s eyes. For me it went deeper than that. My emotions about the game reflected the probable emotions of the character themself. It’s difficult to describe, so I will do my best to describe an example that happened to me.
It is my first night on the island. I’ve woken up on the beach lost, and found my way to the first outpost. I’ve found the note about the cure, and the trail of blood, and my first dead body. I’ve found the laboratory, and read how to analyse and synthesise medications and tonics from plants. I’ve read the tutorial on how to use the map, but I don’t understand it precisely. So I had set off along the trail to no idea where – lost, confused, naive, and woefully unprepared for what would come next. I didn’t know well enough yet, but my first mistake was to set off just before dark. Darkness had fallen swiftly, and I soon found myself turned around along the path. My second mistake was not to keep my map updated, or keep track of my compass bearing. I was now lost and alone in a dark and unfamiliar place. In my panic, I set off in a random direction. That was my third and biggest mistake – panic. I ran and ran and ran and ran through the jungle, because I thought that if I ran, I would eventually find something. I was underestimating the enormity of the island. I ran until I became dehydrated, emptying my water bottle. I ran down slopes, stumbling in the dark. I was feverish, dehydrated, and frustrated. “Why,” I asked myself “is this game so badly designed? I can’t find anything, and it’s so hard, and I’m tired, and I give up”. As if hearing me, my character promptly stumbled and collapsed for the final time, gasping his last and dying, undignified, in a ditch. I never saw the dawn.
I had given up on living, resigned myself to death, and I had died. Thankfully, Miasmata doesn’t have permadeath, and I was able to restart at my last save point at the laboratory. Next time, I wisely slept through the night and started out again at 7am.
This is the beauty of Miasmata – your collection of small mistakes can be deadly, but you will learn. This is how Miasmata handles character development – next to no stats, no XP, and no skills. Instead, the player learns how to survive in this uncaring world. All character development is due to your knowledge as a player and your familiarity with the island. The game is about teaching you the mechanics and systems through interaction and experience – yours, not your characters. It skips the middle step of arbitrary numbers for your character, and offers an undiluted learning environment.
This is wholly due to the uncompromising way the game is designed. The game makes you feel like a pathetic, sick human. Survival mechanics are in place, beginning with no HUD. You must monitor your health through your journal status screen, or visual and auditory cues from your character. You need to drink water regularly or you will dehydrate. Healing is relatively rare and must be planned. You can swim for about ten seconds before you start to drown. Slipping down slopes will cause a tumble, which will hurt you and make you drop any ingredients you have in hand. Running downhill is a precarious proposition. Climbing steep slopes is a dangerous idea.
Movement has a strange momentum to it, which feels very wrong at first. You can’t stop immediately – instead you must take a long time to cancel your motion, which can lead to falling off a cliff to your… detriment. Likewise, backwards and sideways movement is slow, with any direction other than forwards reduced to a laboured walk. It takes a long time to get used to, and may put some players off. But I see it as part of the experience – learning how to control your motion is part of your development as a player.
Further complementing the survival mechanics is the inventory system. Firstly, you are able to carry an item in your right hand. This item is a utility item or weapon, such as a rock or flaming branch. The key use of this item is not combat, though – rather, it is distraction. Throw a rock and the creature will investigate the sound, allowing for a small reprieve to find a hiding place. Flaming branches or torches help you navigate in the dark, which is oppressive and smothering at night. In your left hand, you can carry up to three picked ingredients, which you collect from plants and fungi found around the island. If you fall, you are liable to drop what is in your hand, however, which makes navigation with your hands full a careful proposition, even moreso when you have a rare and difficult to find plague cure.
All of your other inventory is handled in the journal screen, the accessing of which does not pause the game. You have limited slots, of a sort. Synthesised plague cure components have dedicated slots, which means you won’t have to sacrifice your other items for the story. You have a water bottle, which can hold up to five uses, however whenever you take a drink from a freshwater pond or a jug at a tent or hut, it fills completely and automatically, so I hardly ever found dehydration becoming a significant issue. Having said that, it was frequent enough to sometimes be very inconvenient, so drinking never drifted far from my thoughts by the end. Each of the pills or tonics have dedicated slots in your inventory, and you can only carry one of each. This limits you to one small heal and one larger heal, one brief strength, mental, and endurance booster each, and one locator tonic, which reveals your position on the map but not the map itself.
The map system is a unique mechanic, totally unlike anything I have ever experienced in a game. It has quite a steep learning curve, but it adds so much to the overall experience – both in the learning curve and the veracity of the system itself. The map begins completely concealed, and there are only two ways to reveal further sections. Firstly, you can find maps to outposts and special plants located in huts and tents around the island. Picking these up reveals a small path on the map and the location of several landmarks along the way. The main plague cure ingredients can all be found in this way, if a diligent explorer discovers all the right notes. This is the easiest and quickest way to reveal parts on the map, however you can reveal probably less than a quarter of the total map this way. The other way of revealing the map is through the age-old method of triangulation. To do this, you must bring up your map and then locate two different identified landmarks in the distance. This will triangulate your position relative to those two objects, and reveal a small circle of the map in your immediate location. You must identify landmarks first, however, by triangulating your position, then drawing sightlines from your position to the landmark. You must do this a second time from a different location to complete the identification, which then allows that landmark to be used for further navigation. It’s real world orienteering 101. I remember learning these skills in my childhood, and the method in the game is exactly the same as in real life, albeit having some of the more intricate compass-work automatically completed for you by the game. The landmarks themselves are distinct and numerous, and there is almost always a chance to locate yourself on the map, however it is very difficult to orient yourself at the beginning of the game when there aren’t very many landmarks identified – which greatly compliments the theme of learning through experience.
Saving is handled by either sleeping in beds, or lighting lanterns or candles, both of which are found in the various huts or tents smattered across Eden. Not being able to save anywhere you wish presents the old conundrum – tension versus convenience. There were a few times when I had to attend real-life obligations, but didn’t want to lose the half-hour or so I’d played for since my last save. That offered some minor annoyance, but the trade-off is worth it. The peril that having restricted save points generates changes the way you play this game, making you inherently more cautious. When you don’t know where the next save location is, or whether you will make it there, you approach every hill as a potential death, every encounter with the creature as a heart-stopping panic attack.
The creature! Oh, the creature! The peril it represents is far beyond its rather ridiculous appearance. I’ll just say it – the creature is hilarious to look at. The first time you see it you’ll probably laugh. And then you will get torn apart by its claws and learn to respect its presence. While not exactly terrifying, it does present the player with a significant additional challenge to navigate. Hearing your heartbeat – the cue that the creature is near – will immediately cause a knowledgeable player to stop in their tracks and find some long grass to hide in, mostly out of a desire not to lose progress. The beast can’t be fought, can’t be damaged, can’t be reasoned with. The only way of avoiding the beast is to break line of sight, perhaps distracting it with a thrown rock or branch, and hope it doesn’t find you again. I felt that the creature perhaps appeared slightly too often for my liking, but I prefer my monsters suggested and not seen. The implied threat is enough to add an edge of additional danger to an already dangerous expedition.
Technically, the game is intriguing. The engine itself was made entirely by one person, coded from scratch. It punches far above its weight, presenting a gorgeous environment. Models are perhaps rather low detail, some things create shadows while others don’t, and there is noticeable texture pop and LOD issues. The engine looks like it’s from the mid-2000’s. But, for a 3D engine made by one person, it’s an outstanding achievement. Dawns and dusks look positively stunning, with the sunrise over the sea a true spectacle. The jungle foliage and vegetation gives the overall appearance of a beautifully realised lush place. Water is wonderfully rendered, with transparency and viscosity indicating the difference between fresh clear pools and muddy swamps. Above all, there are no loading screens – the entire island is one big area. The art and assets take full advantage of the limitations of the engine (made by just one person) that the overall effect is one of graphical fidelity. I barely noticed the small hitches created by streaming in sound data. The most noticeable technical problem for me was that alt+tab was very temperamental, sometimes working, sometimes crashing the game. In the end I avoided alt+tab unless I was by a save point.
Sound is handled well, if a little inconsistently. Most sound is great, some sound is outstanding, one or two effects are merely functional. Music follows a similar implementation to something like Minecraft – for the most part there is no background music, however on occasion a haunting violin tune will drift slowly in and around. Most tents or cabins will trigger some music, which is a nice touch and makes a familiar camp feel more welcoming. The ambient sounds in the forest really capture the environment, with tropical birds calling shrilly through the air while the wind shuffles through the trees. Your character’s audio cues serve their purpose to indicate if you are fatigued or sick, however they are more functional than artistic. Sometimes audio will hang, like if you come to a stop while going downhill and bring up your map or journal, which will loop the footstep sound effects until you begin moving again. For the most part, however, sound is wonderful and evocative and adds to the sense of place.
There is a lot of playtime here, for those who wish it. It took me 15 hours to “complete” the game, but I could have easily doubled that if I wanted to thoroughly explore every inch of the island. I also probably could have completed it in a third of the time or less, if I had known what I was doing or wanted to rush. The bulk of your playtime – your first 7-10 hours or so – will probably go towards learning how to survive and mapping the island, before you are ready to begin searching for the plague cure. If you wanted, you could live on the island indefinitely, finding a safe cabin and sleeping the days and nights away, however that would be a boring and unfulfilling experience for Robert, as well as for you the player. So you explore. You reach out into the unknown because if you don’t you will waste your life. The imperative to complete the game is not from a flashing quest marker or constant reminders about the task at hand, but from a lack of more fulfilling things to do. There is no time limit, there is no pushing. There is only inner motivation, and you progress at your own pace. It is the most realistic survival experience I’ve played in a game.
I love Miasmata – not everyone will. I think this game is important. I fear that without the Greenlight process or GOG, it never would have been able to reach such a wide distribution. This is the modern Pathologic, and I fear it will go unnoticed by many, when it is so, so important to the industry.
It is important, because it shows what two people with a shared vision can achieve. It is important because it shows how character development can be experienced directly by the player, rather than through the surrogate of a protagonist. It is important because in an industry so obsessed with providing the player with structure and guidance, it allows players to progress and develop at their own rate. It is important because of its power. It is important because of potential. It is important because video games.
So again, I implore you – play this game for yourself. You may find your expectations changed forever.
(Reviewed on PC. Review code provided by IonFX. Many thanks.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 7/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 7/10
Sound – 7/10
Lasting Appeal – 9/10
Overall – 8.5/10
(Not an average)