by Diego Beltrami
I’m hiding in the tall grass, my heart is pounding and my fever getting worse every minute. The darkness engulfs me, my trusty lighter is my only protection against its nothingness. There’s something here. I know it is there and it just doesn’t go away, I can hear it walking along the small ruins of altars of old. I gotta do something but I might lighter only provides me enough light to see about what’s a meter away from me. My only hope is to continue following the coast and hope I get to a safe house before that thing finds me or I collapse from my sickness.
Miasmata is an interesting game, on one hand it’s a game primary about exploration but with those same systems can create incredibly tense moments that are some of the best experiences I’ve had in gaming all year.
Miasmata knows what it wants to do. It’s a game primary about navigating around the island. Getting the flowers, the whole medicinal aspect to it’s just an excuse. The game is build around exploration. There is cartography, so in order to find where you are, and to fill the map, you have to triangulate your position using landmarks that you have to find or triangulate in turn. Also movement reflects the exploration theme. You’re not just a floating camera, your body will have inertia, you will slip, you will trip and fall if you go too fast or if you fall down a step slope. So navigation through complicated terrain will require careful thought.
The island is mostly harmless, step cliffs are probably the most dangerous thing you could find besides also you’re being stalked by a -a bit ridiculous- creature. It’s pretty tense during the night as you can’t see a anything because, well, you’re on a deserted island at night. Escaping from the creature in the dark, desperately trying to guess where you are and where is a safe place when you can’t see farther than one meter has been one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had.
What stands out of the game is how unique the interaction between the player and the game world is. No shooting, no platform jumping, it’s the player and an island to be explored. From the beginning you are faced with the wondrous unknown of this island, believable yet mysterious at the same time. What happened here, what’s that over there. It’s full of little details that tie together a story that’s barely suggested but still contains a strong theme which if you get philosophical you could tie it to “being lost” fitting perfectly within the game.
Exploring the island is a unique experience, the triangulation required to navigate and map the island makes the player depend on observation and planning instead of just walking around. The need for shelter because of the danger of the night and its darkness increase that importance of careful thought. “Can I get to this point before nightfall? Do I risk to explore this side of the island hoping to find shelter there or do I just wait here until the next sunrise before venturing forth?” Those are questions that are -or should be- always present in the mind of the player.
In the end, it’s a different experience, and a beautiful one to boot. I’d love to see the same ideas taken further. I want to explore worlds like Vvanderfell with the same focus on navigation. It doesn’t need the medicine excuse, just marvellous vistas, unique places and a mystery to tie it all together. Games can take us to any place we can imagine, Miasmata wanted to take us to this island and it’s the first one that really wanted us to explore it, not just travel around it, but to truly look at it, study it and think about how to best traverse it and this ends up being the best way to experience a place, to truly understand it, to give it a sense of place and physicality that invisible walls and a floating camera just can’t convene.
A small warning: The game gave me terrible headaches during the first hours. I learned to avoid water as the visual effect of the wet screen was one of the worst offenders. I don’t know if my brain clicked later on as the headaches stopped being as bad as the start but the effects certainly had a adverse effect on me.