A Hodology of Videogames: Miasmata

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Ian here—

Welcome to the second of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.

Up today: the survival simulation game Misasmata (IonFX, 2012). Accepted onto the Steam storefront in October 2012 as part of Valve’s second batch of games approved through the now-defunct Greenlight submission process, one of Miasmata‘s most notable traits was being on the leading edge of the “goodness, there are too many indie games than one could ever keep up with” moment we are currently in. Miasmata, though, is worth remembering for more than that. It also possesses a genuinely innovative movement system, one that, in its own weird way, serves as a nice counterpoint to the subject of my previous entry in this seriesThe Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017).

First things first, though: I have to get some general praise out of the way. Miasmata was created by just two people, brothers Joe and Bob Johnson. They built their own 3D engine for the game, from scratch. And yet, despite its humble origins, Miasmata has what I think is my favorite lighting in any game.

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I suppose it’s not particularly fancy. It doesn’t have hardware-pushing god rays or accurate simulation of dust clouds or whatever. But its light has a feeling of consequence. A cloud moving over the sun in Miasmata is a genuine event. The game’s visual palette is in love with contrast. It’s not afraid to bath the surrounding woods in alarming darkness. Weather feel weighty and consequential: a sudden gathering of clouds can evoke a panicky feeling. “Did I lose track of time?” you might ask yourself. “Is the sun going down already?”

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And, to be clear, the sun’s imminent setting should indeed be cause for concern. This is what night looks like in Miasmata, if you’re not careful about keeping a burning torch handy:

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In my previous post, I made the point that Breath of the Wild making climbing impossible during the rain is a hugely annoying mechanic … but one that I like. I like it, because it makes me feel as if I’m inhabiting its world more, rather than just meaninglessly skittering across some randomly-assembled polygonal terrain. The darkness of Miasmata has a similar effect. Being caught out-of-doors in the dark, with only the tiny flame of your cigarette lighter to guide you, after an over-enthusiastic day of hiking, is a tremendously frustrating experience. But it’s frustrating in a good way. It teaches you that you made a mistake. It teaches you to know your limits. It lets you know, firmly, that this isn’t the sort of game in which day/night cycles pass by without consequence. You can’t magically see in the dark. You need to adequately prepare for the limits of your abilities.

And the last thing you want to do if you’re lost in the dark is to go thrashing about, trying to sprint wildly in hoping of blindly finding the next habitation. Because your bodily limits in Miasmata are not restricted to night blindness. They also affect mobility.

The character you play as in Miasmata is sick. He is suffering from a plague-like illness, and has sequestered himself with various other researchers (now all dead, due to apparent and mysterious foul play) on an island to do experiments on the medicinal properties of local flora, in hopes of finding a cure.

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In storytelling terms, this gives you a goal. In purely mechanical terms, it endows the terrain with added significance. Miasmata‘s player character is slow to move, at first. Going up slight inclines wears him out. The movement speed slows to a crawl, and his labored breath fills the soundtrack. He might even break into a coughing fit, depending on his current level of health. Once he gets going, though, he’s hard to stop. There is a distinctly “slippery” feel to the controls in Miasmata, and to the landscape. Your character comes to a jog a bit too fast. Just as upward inclines slow him down, downward inclines speed him up. Unless one applies judicious use of the “S” key as a sort of handbrake, keeping his movement speed under control, Miasmata‘s character will careen forward at unstable speeds, flailing, stumbling.

And, if you get him going too fast, he will take a tumble. The screen will swirl into a discombobulating 360º roll as your character falls to the ground, his illness-plagued inner ears failing him, his balance momentarily thrown into disarray.

The more you fall, the worse your illness symptoms become. The worse your illness symptoms become, the easier it is to fall. This vicious positive feedback loop can only be escaped by synthesizing weak medicine from plants, or finding shelter and sleeping, in keeping with the game’s survival-sim leanings.

Miasmata features one single hostile entity: a feline creature who stalks you on various parts of the island, making some crucial medicinal flowers and fungi difficult to procure. (You’ll catch a glimpse of it in the video clip embedded below.) But what I learned as I played Miasmata was that this creature is a secondary, or even tertiary, threat at best. The single greatest source of difficulty in Miasmata is the landscape, and your unsteady movements upon it. Eventually, I began to appreciate Miasmata in much the same way as I would a platformer. I developed a particular eye for things. Much as I would develop an eye for gaps that are jumpable in Super Mario Bros or Mirror’s Edge, in Miasmata I developed a keen eye for the grade of landscapes. “Nope, this incline is far too steep; I’ll fall.” “This one’s fine, as long as I lean hard on that ‘S’ key.” “Hmm, this one would normally not be a problem, but given how ramped up my movement speed currently is, I should probably be cautious.” Slight drifts in the terrain that I would never even notice in another first-person game—such as Crysis (Crytek, 2007) or Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2008)—become transformed into potentially serious obstacles. Walking through the woods becomes an exercise in constant vigilance, lest an innocuous fern occlude a potentially hazardous two-foot drop. And all of this is compounded when, as in the clip below, my fever symptoms have become dangerously intrusive, and I suddenly find myself pursued by an implacable animal threat.

Landscape is central to the core mechanics of Miasmata in other ways, as well. In order to not get hopelessly lost, the game requires you to constantly update your map, keeping an eye on the horizon for environmental features that you can use to triangulate your position, and fill out a bit more detail. Explore a bit too long without doing this, and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by landmarks you haven’t previously marked down, which of course don’t do you any good. Triangulation only works if you have a stable starting reference point.

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Maps, as I mentioned in my Breath of the Wild post, are tricky things. Metrically precise though they are, they often fail to accurately represent the sorts of labor involved in using a human body to get around places. Miasmata gets this right, splitting the difference in a way that is, to me, supremely satisfying. A diligent attitude towards charting one’s surroundings will be rewarded with the gradual completion of an in-game map. This is a pleasure in its own right, tickling a psychological sense of completionism, as well as giving us access to a map that is, if nothing else, a pleasing aesthetic object, filled with color and fine detail. But taking even just a few steps in the game reinforces the limits of this map’s efficacy. It can orient us, in the vaguest of ways. But it in no ways accounts for our body’s beleaguered and weakened effectivities. This map can’t communicate to us just how hard it is to get through that next patch of forest, with its frequent steep drop-offs and rocky outcroppings. We must always keep in mind that extra site of knowledge, about the limits of our abilities.

Miasmata encourages its players to be methodical across various registers: methodical in collecting and studying flora, methodical in synthesizing medicine, methodical in keeping one’s virtual body hydrated and rested, methodical in filling out its map, methodical in reading the tiniest bumps and divots along the forest floor while charting a path forward. I have found that the pleasures of the game suit my personality well—and, on top of it all, it’s pretty. That’s never a bad thing.

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