Before the days of in-depth single-player campaigns and cinematic storytelling, nearly every videogame shared the same basic premise: survive as long as you can. From Pong to Missile Command, most early gaming experiences weren’t about concluding story-arcs or even defeating a final boss, they simply tasked players with trying their best at a certain task until they met with an inevitable defeat – our natural instinct to persevere and earn high score bragging rights is what made that journey satisfying.
That’s why I find it curious that survival games as a genre only really took off during the mid 2010s after the success of titles like Minecraft and Day Z. While this was likely due to rapidly advancing technology allowing for more complex mechanics that could better simulate real world survival, you’ve got to admit that there’s no better universal motivator than being forced to find shelter and attend to basic human needs like food and water.
Of course, not all survival games are created equal, and today I’d like to shine a light on IonFX’s criminally under-played Miasmata, a decade-old title that not only helped to pioneer the genre as we know it today but also hasn’t been surpassed when it comes to sheer dedication to its premise.
Originally a part of Valve’s ill-fated Greenlight Program, which allowed gamers to vote for independent titles to be approved for distribution on Steam, Miasmata was developed by a couple of Minnesotan brothers that had previously specialized in simple puzzle games and Pocket PC ports of older titles. Wanting to set their sights on something more ambitious, the duo looked towards the real world for inspiration and came up with an idea that would blend pharmacology, cartography and botany into a challenging yet addictive digital cocktail.
Over the course of four years, Joe and Bob Johnston began developing a custom-built engine that could support unique terrain and physics, as well as an innovative map mechanic that would force players to pay attention to their environment. Settling on a name inspired by the now-debunked theory that noxious air is responsible for disease outbreaks, the duo would release Miasmata in November of 2012 with little-to-no fanfare.
In the finished game, players take on the role of the plague-infected Robert Hughes, a scientist who finds himself trapped on a deserted island with only his wits and some abandoned lab equipment to help him. Forced to study the local flora in order to find a cure for his condition, Robert soon discovers that he’s being stalked by a tiger-like Beast that aims to prevent him from escaping, resulting in a thrilling fight for survival unlike any other game available at the time.
Despite this thrilling setup, there’s no denying that Miasmata is a janky experience in both mechanics and presentation. From glaring quality-of-life omissions to animations that have aged about as well as a year-old jug of milk, it’s easy to see why the game doesn’t usually make top ten lists when it comes to “best survival games.” However, much like other idiosyncratic classics in the vein of Deadly Premonition and even Shenmue, it’s precisely these offbeat and often unfriendly creative decisions that make the game such a memorable ride.
For example, the title’s more realistic approach to inertia means that simply stumbling down a hill while dehydrated can result in a near-fatal incident, and don’t even get me started on trying to navigate the dense jungle while sprinting away from your seemingly supernatural pursuer. Hell, the only other time I’ve had to be this careful with my virtual footwork was in Death Stranding, but even Kojima’s title didn’t go so far as to allow its protagonist to die of a jungle-borne fever after becoming lost in the unmapped wilderness.
Miasmata’s heavily simplified depictions of amateur botany and pharmaceutical science is also based in reality, with the Johnstons consulting with real scientists in order to get the basics right. However, the real star of the show here is the advanced cartography, which teaches players how to triangulate their position through recognizable landmarks instead of a constantly updating mini-map. It can be a little frustrating to find yourself losing hours of progress simply because you took a wrong turn and can no longer find your way back to camp, but it also means that you end up paying more attention to your surroundings and it’s a shame that this mechanic hasn’t shown up again in more recent games.
While the real horror of the experience comes from the protagonist’s fragile state as he’s forced to confront nature itself, the game also boasts a more immediate threat in the form of the ever-pursuing Beast. Survival titles often rely on in-game timers to keep players on the edge (such as Don’t Starve’s ravenous Hounds), but the creature in Miasmata is unique in how it’s specifically designed to hinder your scientific progress. The developers actually programmed the beast to spawn more often when the player character is sick and/or close to ingredients for the cure, making it even more dangerous a typical enemy.
Sure, the creature’s often-inexplicable AI (which was modeled after a pet cat) and the title’s lackluster stealth mechanics mean that you’ll probably stop being scared of the beast after a handful of encounters, but it’s still an incredibly unique way of keeping the exploration fresh. I also really appreciate the Beast’s bizarre design, with its fever-dream-like appearance actually hinting at one of the game’s final twists.
Miasmata may not have aged as gracefully as some other survival classics, with its conceptual reach clearly exceeding its technological grasp, but it’s still a shame that IonFX didn’t continue to refine these ideas in future games. Even in 2023, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another survival title as committed to its mechanics as this one, with most of the genre focusing on player-friendly experiences and forgetting that the challenge of surviving is supposed to be half the fun.
It may not be a polished AAA experience, but I’d argue that Miasmata remains a stellar example of creative survival mechanics in gaming and is still worth revisiting today if you can stomach some uneven presentation.