So I’ve decided to start doing a series of posts all dedicated to a similar idea. A lot of my posts tend to be really broad, so I wanted these “Spotlight” posts to focus down on a single thing. Basically I want to focus on a game, movie, book, television show, or so on that I enjoy a lot (I might do some on things I don’t enjoy in the future, but for now I want it to be a positive thing).
With that being said, let’s get on with the debut post.
How do you define a place? Is it by location? Geography? Climate? Well, all of those things of course. But can you define a place simply by its feeling? Not feeling as in climate, but feeling in an emotional sense. Can you define a place with such an intangible concept?
A couple of years or so back when I was playing the video game Miasmata, something struck me in a deep way. I found myself feeling an uncanny familiarity with its island setting, but I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time. It eluded me, like a mischievous shadow in the dead of night. And it wasn’t until I was walking down one of the many rugged paths of the island that it finally dawned on me.
The Boundary Waters. It reminded me of the Boundary Waters.
For those who don’t live in Minnesota, the Boundary Waters is a vast expanse of wilderness that straddles the border between northern Minnesota and Canada (specifically Ontario). It’s an area that remains largely untouched by humans. My family used to have a cabin up there until it burned down in the infamous Ham Lake fire of 2007. And it never had much of a proper driveway. There was only a narrow, makeshift path up a steep hill that we would have to drive up.
But I digress. I’ve camped out in the Boundary Waters as well. Waking up in the morning, stepping out of the tent and looking out at the forests and the water…that’s what Miasmata was reminding me of. It was bringing me back to a time long gone, a time of my youth that has faded into the distant murky waters of memory.
And that was exactly the intention of the two brothers who created Miasmata (something I have talked about before).
Miasmata puts you in the shoes of Robert Hughes, a man who washes up on an island and is stricken with a deadly plague. The game’s central goal is to find the plants you need to synthesize the three parts of a cure to relieve yourself of the sickness. In terms of how it plays, Miasmata does some very interesting things that I’ve never really seen done in a game before. However, it is one of these things that will polarize people when it comes to opinions on the game.
Miasmata uses a system that is meant to simulate realistic human walking physics, meaning that if you try to climb too steep of a hill, you’ll slip and fall. In theory, this sounds good and true to real life. In practice it’s a bit of a different story. It does indeed mean that you’ll slip and fall, which means that every move you make has to be deliberate, however the physics are overdone. This means that Robert tends to slide forward like he’s on ice even after you stop pushing him forward, which can lead to you flying right off a cliff if you’re not prepared for it. Don’t worry, one tumble doesn’t ever seem to be enough to kill you. It just means that your character’s fever will spike and you’ll have to take medicine to bring it down.
This brings me to one of the game’s other interesting features. As I said before, you need to find specific plants to make the cure for your illness. However, the plants have other helpful properties such as making medicine to fend off the fever for a while as well as other enhancements for your character (such as permanent boosts to your endurance and strength). And the way you discover them actually feels like a real thing. Instead of immediately knowing what the plants will do, you need to bring them back to a camp that has an examination tray. You lay the plant on the tray and then click on the microscope. The game proceeds to show you a brief time lapse of your character cutting off a piece of the plant and placing it under the microscope. Once it is done, you’ll get a note in your journal telling you what helpful properties the plant has, if any.
But the most interesting feature to me is cartography.
In this game, instead of having a map that’s immediately filled out for you, you have to rely on either finding scraps of paper that fill in sections of it or using landmarks to triangulate your location which then fills in a tiny portion of the surrounding area as well. It’s a very interesting mechanic that helps cement the idea that you are alone on this island with nothing but your wits to keep you going. A phrase I often heard reviewers use when this game first came up in 2012 was that it was about traveling between “bubbles of safety”. And that’s true. Often you’ll set out on a path not knowing exactly where you’re going, hoping that somewhere along the way will be a tent or a wooden shack that you can hole up in for the night.
But when you do find that safe zone and the music swells up…it’s quite the emotional release. The music does a good job of accentuating that feeling of isolation as well as wonder at the beauty of your surroundings. It’s also rare to hear outside the main menu and the pause screen so when it does crop up it makes you feel something (you can listen to the soundtrack here…I highly recommend the track “Respite”, as it’s one of my favorites).
I could go on and on about the game and how it does so well at making you feel the isolation of being stranded on an island. I could go on about how the movement physics of your character make you feel like a sick and weak individual who is not in his prime physical condition. I could even go on about how the tension of being alone sometimes blossoms into outright terror when you’re confronted with the only other living thing on the island: a strange, demonic-looking creature.
But I won’t do those things, because then this post would end up being far too long. The big reason I pointed this game out is that it can serve as a reminder, a reminder that there exist games that aren’t just blood, guts, and killing. It can serve as a reminder that video games, much like movies, have their big blockbusters that are flashy, explosive, and violent. But at the same time, also like movies, games have a side to them that few people outside the gaming culture actually see. We hear all the time about the violent Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat games, but little attention is ever paid to ones like Gone Home. Little attention is paid to games like That Dragon, Cancer, which is based off the true story of a father watching his young son succumb to cancer and eventually pass away.
Video games, much like movies, should be allowed to explore their capabilities. Otherwise, they will not be able to fully mature as a medium. I hear all these complaints about games and I can’t help but think about how, in the past, movies and books came under the same scrutiny. The ones that explored touchy subject matter were often the subject of harsh criticism whereas the ones that didn’t were often forgotten to the point where the criticism of a small few became symbolic for the corruption of the whole. Like I said last week, it seems to boil down to the fact that the older generation, who didn’t grow up with video games, simply don’t understand them and thus react with fear. And while games can be controversial, so can paintings. So can movies. So can books.
Miasmata, to me, is a reminder that games can channel the same emotional energy as books and movies. Bob and Joe Johnson, the two brothers who made the game (and contenders for the world’s most generic name), said in an interview that the setting was inspired by trips to the Boundary Waters they would make with their father. And if you’ve been there yourself, you can feel it as you play. There are lots of games out there full of this kind of emotional passion. They’re not all big-budget blockbusters about grizzled soldiers blowing things up and waxing poetic about war. They can be just as simple as a man wandering alone, searching for a cure to the disease that ails him.
Thanks for reading. Come back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!
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