You are Robert Hughes, washed up on the shore of a tropical island, your body wracked with fever and discoloration from a deadly plague. You climb to your feet and wander to a nearby path, surrounded on one side by thick jungle foliage and endless ocean on the other. Down the path you come to a rickety log cabin—there’s blood on the floor. On the other side of the cabin, a dead body lies in a pool of blood with a knife in its back.
Being the pragmatic type, you crouch down and pull the knife out. Clearly you’re going to need some protection. You move on. Further down the path you come across a hut full of laboratory equipment and notes on how to research local plant life and synthesize it into medicine—even a cure for the very plague that’s killing you.
You continue, not sure of where to go, sticking to the coast to avoid getting lost, mapping as you go. You stop for water, pick through the forest in search of medicinal plants, and search for more huts, which in turn might have more information about just what happened on the island, why everyone is dead, and how you can cure yourself. You step through the grass, turn inland to head down a path toward the jungle interior—and see a massive horned beast staring you down through the grass. You jump from fright, freeze in place, recover your breath. The beast swipes, your vision goes black. You’re dead.
Welcome to Miasmata.
Developed by brothers Joe and Bob Johnson, Miasmata is a first-person survival horror-adventure with an emphasis on survival. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to compare its individual parts, though this only gives a glimpse of the way these parts work together to create something utterly unique. Take the quiet, surreal worlds of Myst with a far more scientifically-minded version of the alchemy systems of The Elder Scrolls series and the unpredictable stalking terror of Amnesia and free cult favorite Slender, with a dash of its own hardcore survivalist mechanics thrown in. At first glance it’s a strange concoction, but it works exceedingly well.
Miasmata is a brutal game, made by people seemingly unafraid to take their design ideas to the logical extreme. Plenty of games have elements of survival and exploration, but which is the last one you can think of that will unblinkingly leave you lost in the dark in the middle of the jungle with no way to triangulate your position as you die slowly of dehydration?
The island apparently served as some sort of natural laboratory for a group of exiled scientists searching for a cure for the plague. That’s as much as you’re told in the introduction, and from there the story is relayed through snippets of journal entries, newspaper clippings, and scientific writings scattered around the small huts and tents used by the scientists all over the island. Like that archetypal game of exploration, Myst, you are given little to no guidance as you poke around. Very early on you conveniently discover a formula for synthesizing the cure, but finding the recipes for the individual agents that make up the cure is no easy task, and it’s also up to you to map out the island and piece together the mysterious events that left the island a tomb instead of a laboratory.
Unlike Myst, this island does not hide a bevy of logic puzzles. In fact, Miasmata has no explicit "puzzles" at all. The core gameplay involves exploring the island and gathering plant life while keeping an eye out for huts, tents, and outposts left by the scientists, which often contain beds and lanterns (save points), examination tables (for deducing the medicinal benefits of the plants you’ve picked), synthesis tables (for turning plants or combinations of plants into medicine), and notes left behind by the scientists containing bits of exposition, clues for the whereabouts of certain plants, recipes for specific types of medicines, and most importantly, snippets of the map.
Ah, yes, the map. If you’re coming from... well, just about any open-world game ever, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Miasmata would feature a world map that helps you navigate by representing your location as a small dot or arrow. But the Johnson Brothers provide no such solace. I hope you paid attention at Boy Scout or Girl Guide camp, because the name of the game here is "triangulation". Pull up your map in-game and your character will literally hold out a map—while the game world continues in real-time around him. The same goes for the player journal and inventory—the action does not pause as Robert pulls out an actual journal and flips through the pages without ever abandoning the first-person perspective. Need a drink? Pull out the journal and look down at the strap that hangs from the binding, holding your canteen secure.
The map will show what parts of the island you’ve mapped out thus far. But it’s just that: a map. It won’t tell you where you are unless you use the game’s innovative landmark system. Triangulating your position is a matter of using the relative locations of two known landmarks in the environment to find your exact location. Doing so involves pulling up your map and then peering out over it looking for man-made reference points such as huts, stone walls, or the bizarre Easter Island-esque ancient statues that dot the landscape. Your crosshair will change when hovered over a known landmark and clicking it will draw a line on your map based on the location of the spot and its compass heading relative to you. Do this twice and you’ll be able to find your location where the two drawn lines intersect. The catch is that this only works when you can actually see at least two landmarks, and there are many places on the island that are so thick with vegetation or rocky cliffs that doing so is impossible. And landmarks have to be plotted from two separate locations before their absolute position is determined.
Whew. Sounds complicated, but trust me, it makes sense. It’s explained in great detail (with pictures!) early on and eventually it becomes second nature, even for those of us who got hopelessly lost trying to earn our navigation merit badges as kids. If this system sounds frustrating, it can be, but it also immerses you to a nearly unprecedented degree, forcing you to pay attention to minute details and slowly work your way across uncharted territory instead of sprinting around like you own the place. This deliberate pacing is what makes the game special—it feels more like a jungle island simulator than a game at times. You don’t run around between scripted events or set pieces; you slowly, carefully, painstakingly explore.
There are a few other reasons you’re going to want to take it slow in Miasmata. Remember, you’re dying of the plague, and that means you’re fighting off dehydration, anemia, and fever. Robert will become thirsty at different rates based on the passage of the time, the progress of the fever, and his physical exertion, so keeping a full canteen is essential for any extended outing. You can refill it at tents or ponds of fresh water, but those aren’t always easily accessible. Your character has been weakened by the plague as well, which means you can’t swim, climb, or run particularly well. Unlike most games where the player can stop on a dime, here your avatar has momentum. If you’re barreling along, sprinting through a jungle and you come to a slope, you may just sail right over and tumble ass-over-teakettle all the way down. This has got to be the only game where the player can literally trip. Annoying? Sure, but it adds greatly to the sense of tension and desperation that pervades the game.
Which brings us to the fever. This particular effect of the plague worsens much like thirst, with symptoms getting increasingly disruptive if left untreated. Physical harm also leads to a higher fever. Once a fever hits, the screen will start occasionally blurring and Robert will stop in his tracks, trying to regain his composure. This gets worse and worse until you can barely move, and then finally you fall to the ground, coughing, and the screen fades to black.
To avoid that nasty fate, you’ll need medicine, which comes from synthesizing various plants around the island. To find out which ones create medicine, you’ll have to pick them (in a nice touch, your character actually holds the picked flora in his left hand) and take them to an examination table, where research can be done and recorded in your journal. Basic medicine has only one ingredient, but stronger medicine can be made by combining plants. Other combinations can create drugs that temporarily or permanently boost abilities such as endurance or mental clarity. Of course the major goal of the game is to synthesize the full cure using the same process, but basic medicine is the most oft-needed and oft-synthesized in the game.Continued on the next page...