One of Minecraft’s more remarkable side-effects is how it gave rise to (or, indeed, popularised) an entirely new genre: the survival game. Steam is absolutely packed with survival games, many of them unfinished and a surprising number of them pretty damn good regardless. Tough and uncompromising wilderness survival sims like The Long Dark and The Forest sit alongside slightly more off-kilter projects such as the quirky Don’t Starve or the dinosaur-obsessed ARK: Survival Evolved.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK on May 9, 2016.
But the best survival game, in my opinion, is one that you may well have never heard of. Miasmata released quietly in 2012, garnering a small amount of attention before disappearing under an avalanche of Early Access survive ‘em ups. It’s a game about picking flowers and falling over, and it’s one of the most unique and engrossing gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
It’s also finished, which already makes it fairly unusual in the survival genre. Not to discredit the many fascinating Early Access projects currently ongoing, but sometimes it is nice to purchase a complete game without worrying whether the developer will be able to continue the project for another two to five years. When you buy Miasmata, you get everything it has to offer right away.
What makes Miasmata so interesting is that it approaches many of the conventions that have been established in survival gaming from a very different angle. Staying alive, gathering resources, crafting, exploration and avoiding threats are all important components of Miasmata, but they’re structured in a much more specific, goal-oriented manner than other games of its ilk.
The premise casts you as Robert Hughes, a scientist trying to discover a cure for a disease that has ravaged the entire globe. You travel to a remote island as part of an expedition to research a possible vaccine. But something goes wrong, and you awaken in a far-flung corner of the island alone, with no memory of what happened or where your team has vanished to. You’re also sick, infected with the same plague that has caused so much damage to the rest of the world.
It’s this illness that drives many of the game’s core systems. To begin with, movement in Miasmata is unusual in that it actually takes momentum into account. As you walk and run around, you gradually gather pace, and when you stop running, your avatar takes a couple of seconds to slow down first. If you try to climb a steep rise, you’ll simply slide back down unless you’ve built up enough momentum to surmount it. Similarly, if you travel down a slope too quickly, you risk falling over and injuring yourself.
The system is a little crude in places. At times it can feel like your lower body is attached to a wheel rather than a pair of legs. But it achieves two important goals. Firstly, it makes the surrounding landscape a far more interesting puzzle than with traditional first-person movement. You need to pay attention to the undulations of the environment and adjust your approach accordingly. Secondly, it communicates how vulnerable your character is. Even walking along an idyllic tropical beach is a potential deathtrap for poor old Robert. Skid down a sand dune too fast and he’ll tumble head over heels, the resulting impact causing his fever to skyrocket.
Like the best survival games, Miasmata understands that putting the player in a position of weakness causes more tension than putting them in a position of strength. And compounding this feeling is the fact that you’re being hunted. See, Miasmata’s island is home to a monster, a lone creature that haunts your footsteps throughout the entire game. You’ll be wandering through the forest when suddenly your heart begins to pound, the game’s signal that the creature is approaching. At this point you’ll have to duck behind the nearest rock and pray to whatever deity is listening that the thing doesn’t see you. You can try to distract it by throwing a rock or a branch, but if it finds you, you’d better hope there’s a camp nearby, because you won’t be able to outrun it for long. The effect is slightly spoiled by the fact that the creature looks ridiculous up close, but its ability to kill you with a single swipe remains terrifying.
The monster is the only active enemy in the entire game, but there is another opponent that you have to tackle: the island itself. Miasmata’s island is geographically very complex; its forests are dense with trees and the scant pathways wind and meander through the foliage, sometimes vanishing under piles of branches or tumbled scree slopes before reappearing behind a rise a few yards onward. To figure out where you are on the island, you need to triangulate your position using landmarks, such as research campsites left behind by your research team, or stone heads carved by a lost civilisation.
Miasmata is entirely happy to let you get completely lost, and this makes every foray out from your camp feel thrilling and dangerous. Each time you strike out in an attempt to reach a new camp, it feels like a genuine expedition. The game also possesses a powerful sense of place, which shifts depending on things like time and weather. Shorelines, for example, are places of calm and sanctuary. The sound of the ocean lapping against the sand is a soothing presence, and the open beach offers plentiful opportunities to note down landmarks and gradually build a sense of what the island looks like.
Venture into the jungle, however, and ambience becomes much quieter and claustrophobic, doubly so if the game’s billowing, volumetric clouds scud across the sun, turning the forests murky and silent, a perfect place for monsters to hide.Miasmata doesn’t compromise on its nights, either. Stay out after sundown and you’ll struggle to find your way home in the dark without a light source. But of course, wandering around the jungle with a makeshift torch isn’t an ideal situation when something is trying to eat you.
On top of all this, there’s the disease, which is slowly turning your insides into goo. Miasmata busies you with resource gathering and crafting like any other survival game, but the emphasis is very different. Here you’re not building tools, constructing shelters, scavenging for berries to eat or wood to build a fire. In Miasmata, your survival depends entirely on the formulas you’re able to synthesise from the island’s flora.
Early on you learn a couple of formulas to keep your health up and stave off illness, but these are only temporary measures. Ultimately, you need to find a cure. Scattered through the campsites are notes and documents which contain drawings of the plants you need to find, and vague directions of where to find them. Hence you must scour the island for the right flowers, mushrooms, grasses and so forth, pluck samples from the ground and bring them back to one of several pop-up laboratories in order to create different elements of the cure.
Miasmata solves so many of the problems that plague other survival games. It gives you a very specific goal to reach, which means it doesn’t tail off like most open-world survive ‘em ups, and it breaks this goal down into specific stages, with each area providing new environment types to explore and new plants to discover. It makes travel and navigation a constantly active experience through its momentum and cartography systems. You’re always having to check your bearings, take note of landmarks, and watch your footing. Framing its resource collecting and item crafting around a specific theme also lends Miasmata more personality than most survive ‘em ups.
Miasmata was developed by just two people, brothers Bob and Joe Johnson, who worked under the company name IonFX. I spoke to them about their work a couple of years back, and they had some vague but exciting plans to make a new game that would focus on climbing. Sadly, there have been no updates on IonFX’s site or otherwise since late 2012, perhaps due to Miasmata’s fairly muted reception.
It’s a shame, because Miasmata is probably the best complete survival game around, a rich, intelligent and imaginative game that was way ahead of the curve on the survival front. This makes it all the more galling that its legacy is critically endangered. If you enjoy trying to stay alive in virtual wildernesses but have exhausted options likeDon’t Starve or The Long Dark, or you’re not enamoured with the idea of playing something that might permanently be in Early Access, I’d thoroughly recommend a tour of this tropical island.