Feeling Lost in ‘Miasmata’

It might not be very idealistic or heroic sounding, but one of the things I like about video games is the comfortable boundaries they offer. Whether it’s a function of technology or creativity, you know your place in a virtual world, usually in a very precise way. Eventually you’ll run into an invisible wall that prevents you from wandering off the level or you’ll hit a door that isn’t actually a passageway into a building but rather a decorative ornament on a solid wall. If you have a map, it functions by some glorious system of auto-cartography, filling itself in as you wander new areas. As you travel, a dot marking your position charts your path and shows your exact location.

In this respect, the rise of smart phones has made life a lot more video game-like. If you’re wandering around the overworld (i.e., not in a building and within your carrier service area), you’ll have a map that will fill itself in with your surroundings. On that map is a dot that shows your exact location as well as the location of various landmarks. Because of this dynamic, I’m more likely to treat going to a new place in the real world the same way that I’d treat it in a video game; I’ll just head over and try to figure it out. Getting lost is a momentary setback remedied by a quick glance at a magic map.

Nothing makes you appreciate a convenience quite like losing it, which is exactly what Miasmata does when it comes to navigation. It’s a first-person exploration game that has echoes of Far Cry 2 and Myst, but its excitement comes from the simple pleasure (and terror) of exploring unmapped territory.

In classic video game fashion, Miasmata opens with you washing up on an unknown island where mysterious and ominous things are happening. You’re sick, low on supplies, and there seems to be some combination of human-made and supernatural danger lurking in the jungle. However, the most dangerous thing I’ve encountered so far is my own sense of direction. The island is uncharted until you take manual steps to fill out the map. Once you identify certain fixed landmarks either by finding scraps of other old maps or by thoroughly exploring a region, you can use those known vantage points to triangulate your position in the world and thereby fill in the map.

If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is complicated. Despite still being a hugely abstracted representation of real triangulation and cartography, it illustrates just how much most games coddle us. Instead of being able to strike out in a random direction with confidence, exploration is best done systematically and cautiously. It’s crucial to keep an eye on your compass to make sure that you aren’t going in circles. Seeing that familiar landmark slip behind the trees is a panic-inducing event, as you’ve just lost your landmark. A simple detour around an impassible river or sheer cliffside can turn into an all day affair and later a race against the sunset.

As a city dweller, it’s easy to just forget the night’s true darkness. It’s something I’m reminded of when I’m camping and it’s something that Miasmata captures expertly. During one expedition, I luckily came across a hut and decided to use it as a shelter against the game’s unknown nighttime terrors. As night fell, I decided to stop scavenging for supplies and return to my crude camp, only to find that the sun had gone down, the moon was obscured by clouds, and I had only a small lighter to illuminate my path. Without a minimap to guide my stumbling, I had to carefully inch my way around the world, praying for some recognizable shadow to reveal itself. When I finally made it back to camp, I realized that I had walked by it in the dark multiple times and had returned thanks to sheer chance.hat

Miasmata couples these navigational challenges with a unique take on movement that makes it one of the best backpacking simulators I’ve ever played. Your movement is subtly impacted by the topography in a way that forces you to pay attention to the simple act of following a trail. Going downhill causes you to gain momentum and makes it harder to stop, while traveling uphill is slow and leaves you vulnerable to sliding into disaster. More than once I have found myself tumbling head over heels after making the foolhardy decision to try to cut through the brush in search of a shortcut. Dizzy and dusty, I pick myself up and am overcome by the creeping realization that I now have no idea where I came from or where I am. The map is useless because I haven’t created it yet, it’s already 5 pm, and I just drank the last few drops of water from my canteen. It’s simultaneously the most prosaic and realistic dangerous situation I’ve ever faced in a game. Forget battling dark wizards or racing through asteroid belts. I don’t even know where I am or where my next drink of water is coming from.

Miasmata is a reminder that video games are very accommodating to folks that aren’t paying attention to their surroundings. You know your place in the world because it’s on your minimap, and the moment that you encounter a new region its landscape is automatically filled in. Real life and video games have converged around this point. Unless you’re in a very rural area, Google Maps is your own personal minimap and quest marker system that you can always turn to when you’re done wandering around. Miasmata offers the same feeling you get when you turn off your phone or head out into the country and are forced to find your way using only your environment and your wits. Playing a game like Miasmata can be tedious and exhausting, but it has been a refreshing (if sometimes stressful) reminder of what life used to be like without the ubiquitous magic mapping tools that follow me around in both the real world and in virtual ones.