Great Gaming Moments: Miasmata
I play a lot of computer games, and along the way I see a lot of awesome level design. Every so often, however, events converge to produce a moment that makes you giddy with excitement. Perhaps none of the individual elements are particularly special, but the combination of them—an emergent event that could never have been planned or scripted—is greater than the sum of the parts. Maybe it’s impossible to convey exactly what about the moment was truly great—perhaps you had to be there—but I’ll give it a shot.
Miasmata is different from many of the games I play. It’s a first person survival/research game. You the player are stranded on an island, but possibly by choice. There is a plague, and you are seeking a cure. The team that came before you have found some of the answers (before they died) but you must collect their research and perform more of your own. Of course, you are suffering from the plague yourself. You are weak, unable to swim any distance at all, barely able to stagger along on level ground. Can you find the cure before you succumb to the illness? And can you avoid the monster—oh the monster, the fearful (but somehow absurd, but still fearful) monster—that stalks you?
You carry enough water for five drinks—something you need to do fairly regularly to stave off dehydration—and you can make various medicines and tonics from the different flowers and fungi found on the island. But you can only carry three of those at a time.
Unlike many games, where night is merely a slightly darker, blue-shaded version of daylight, night in Miasmata is black. Very black. You can pick up branches to form a torch, which will burn for a while, and if that fails you can use your lighter (unless you manage to drop it!) But these do little more than light up the immediate vicinity, and make the shadows beyond that much darker. If you are caught out on the island after sunset, you could very easily get lost.
You have a map in Miasmata—but unlike similar games, which either show you the whole thing (or reveal it automatically as you go) and which show your location on it at all times, this map is more realistic. To determine your position, you have to triangulate from two known, visible landmarks. Once you know your position, a little of the local area will be added to the map, and you can sight in any unknown landmarks (although, of course, you must sight them twice, from two different known positions, to triangulate their location.) This is full-on orienteering, more or less. Of course, if you can’t see two known landmarks—and most of the time, in amongst the trees, you can’t see any—then you can’t determine your location. And at night, even if you have a torch to light your path, you can’t read the map by it anyway.
So there I was. I had found a rough map drawn by one of the previous team, giving me the location of some bio-luminescent algae that I needed as one of the ingredients of my cure (the first ingredient, so far, after several hours of gameplay, several game-days.) The catch is, this algae is only visible in the dark. So I figured all I had to do was leave the cabin at around 7pm (nightfall is around 9pm—a game hour is about 4-5 minutes real time, I guess—and sunrise at roughly 6am) and follow the path. Get there by sunset, collect the algae, ???, profit! Of course, the path on the map is a nice dotted blue line. In “reality”, the path was a barely-visible rut in the forest floor. With no landmarks in sight, with darkness rapidly falling, and with every direction looking like a barely-visible rut, I was soon well off the path and hopelessly lost.
I lit a torch. It didn’t help.
Finally I resorted to a get-out-of-jail-free card in the form of a "clarity tonic" I had made earlier. This gave me the ability to know where I was on the map for the duration of the tonic—in other words, when I looked at my map, it identified my location. Of course, you can’t walk while studying your map—and as night fell, I couldn’t even see the map, so knowing my location became moot. But it was just enough to get me back on (or close to) the path and headed in roughly the right direction. My torch went out, and in hunting for more sticks, I managed to fumble my lighter away. Stumbling forward in almost total darkness, the only clue I had that the sky wasn’t entirely black was when a silhouette loomed above me, black against deep, deep grey. It was a tent on a hill, and by the time I dragged my way up the hill to it, the darkness was total. I fumbled around, managing to find the opening and enter the tent—but then I really couldn’t see a thing. For a while, as I flailed around looking (feeling) for a lamp or candle, I started thinking I was going to have to stand in that tent all night. Then, a ZZZ appeared on the screen. I had found the bed. Good enough for me; I crawled in and slept till dawn…
When I could see again, I discovered I had wandered into the small campsite just beyond the place where the algae grows. It may not sound like much, but having found what I was looking for, more or less—and having that tent loom out of the darkness above me—was just epic. Another ten seconds, and I might never have seen it, and I’d probably have stumbled through the darkness till I fell off the cliff into the ocean…
I spent the next day exploring (and mapping) the peninsula beyond the camp. Found a couple of different fungi (nothing I hadn’t already discovered elsewhere though) and filled in a nice chunk of map. Then, on the way back to camp—to get myself all set to head down for some algae-picking—I nearly walked head-first into the creature. Somehow I staggered away without it seeing me; somehow I managed to elude it; somehow I made my way back to the small island just (barely) off-shore and circled around to the camp that way. It was a tense moment. You can only save in the camps (and at certain other locations) and I didn’t want to have to repeat the day’s mapping!
That was the first encounter I’ve had with the creature that I’ve actually survived, so also worth a mention—and part of making that gaming session just a wee bit more exciting than the last!
Edit: Since writing the above, I have finished the game. It was impressive. There are a couple of elements that you encounter as you play—most notably the monster, and the potion which gives you the magical ability to detect its presence—that seemed to mar the otherwise excellent attempt to invoke realism. Having finished, without giving away any spoilers, I shall say that if you are paying attention they will make sense. When I finally realised the truth, I laughed with glee at the way it had been handled...