Originals

02/20/2013

Dissonant Reviews: Miasmata

A look at the weighting of creativity, access to resources, and quality standards.

By: Drew Dixon

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Industry Review

miasmata

Chances are you haven’t played Miasmata. You have probably read very little about it, and what little you have probably has not enticed you to play it. While the game has been received well by critics, their praise been tempered by its lack of polish. I believe these criticisms are more a product of the current state of games criticism than they are legitimate detractors that keep it from being stellar.

To be fair, Miasmata does lack polish in comparison to the average AAA game. It was created from the ground up by two brothers over the course of four years. When the credits roll, every single aspect of the game is credited to Bob and Joe Johnson—including the game’s engine. Very few games are made this way anymore, particularly games made by a team of two people.

The game starts players adrift on a mysterious island and tells them that their character is dying from a plague and must discover the cure on the island in order to survive. Initially the game’s only challenge is navigating the island’s unruly terrain while battling fevers that affect your vision and endurance, but later you discover that you are being hunted by a strange creature. There is no GPS and no HUD. Players uncover the game’s map by discovering landmarks and triangulating their position, all while searching for plants to synthesize medicines to keep their character’s fever in check. It is a game about getting lost, finding your way, and being utterly alone. With no one to save you but yourself.

According to Steam, I have played 22 hours of the game and I don’t want a single one of them back—Miasmata delighted, frightened, and astounded me. Alec Meer of Rock Paper Shotgun summarizes it well:

. . . there’s so much drama to be had from falling over or running out of tablets or getting lost or even seeing that silly… thing while you’re trying to grab a rare carnivorous plant, and that’s Miasmata’s greatest achievement. No cutscenes, no setpieces, no bangbangbang or bossfights. Tension and trauma from mundane errors made when there’s no-one who can possibly help you. Sure, it’s often awkward in both appearance and interface, and there’s an element of magic potions which doesn’t quite sit right with the grounded terror, but this is an important game, I think. It does Far Cry 3 without the macho power fantasy tropes, yes, but to some extent it also does Dear Esther without the limitations or auterish vibe that turned so many off it.

And yet the game has not been reviewed by a number of major game publications and is currently sitting at an average score of 76 on Metacritic.

As someone who reviews games for outlets with numerical scoring systems, I go to great pains to write compellingly about the games I am reviewing because I know that if I give a game anything less than 80%, I’m inviting people to stop reading my review. Game reviews tend to be a little inflated and consequently a 76 screams “you don’t really need to play this, this is good but not great.” And the reviews would lead you to believe that Miasmata is indeed that—a good game whose lack of polish keeps it from being great:

Other areas are similarly underdeveloped. Nature is beautifully re-created here, with storm clouds moving in, wildlife darting through the bushes, and brilliant sunlight glinting off the water. In contrast, animations for your arm movements are rough, and getting a closer look at most objects reveals a lack of detail. Though minor, these issues do detract slightly from the realistic vibe of the gameplay.

– Nathan Meunier of Gamespot.

The interesting mechanics and immersive gameplay however is countered by the constant graphical glitches, crashes to desktop, and lack of intuitive gameplay. . . . I really hope that Joe and Bob Johnson take lessons learned from this game to make a much more polished and playable game in the future.

– Rowan Rumble of Parable Games, courtesy of N4G.

Miasmata does plenty to stand out with its gameplay and sense of place, but it’s not without its fair share of issues, either. From severe framerate issues to omnipresent texture pop-in to straight up game crashes, Miasmata often feels unfinished. Repeated textures and chunks of the environment also stand out sometimes, and Miasmata is far from a pretty game due to its dated graphics. Still, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in what Miasmata does well that it manages to be a good game nonetheless.

– Antony Gallegos IGN.

I understand why these criticisms were leveled. In my 22 hours in the game, it never once crashed to Windows, but I did notice some clipping issues and some pop-up when I played the game on my less graphically-capable laptop. What is frustrating about these criticisms is not that they hold an independent game to AAA standards, but that these assessments miss the forest for the trees. If we as critics are going to hold games like Miasmata to the graphical standards of AAA games, we ought to go to greater pains to hold AAA games accountable for their lack of creativity.

In sea of rote, predictable, disappointing, and highly polished games made by studios 300 times the size of IonFX, Miasmata shines as a game that highlights the frailty and potential of the human spirit. For every tenth of a point it loses for it’s lack of polish, it ought to gain a hundred points for providing players with an experience that they’ve never had before and won’t soon forget.

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Industry Review

About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.

  • http://twitter.com/miksimum Jesse Miksic

    “If we as critics are going to hold games like Miasmata to the graphical standards of AAA games, we ought to go to greater pains to hold AAA games accountable for their lack of creativity.” – THIS, 100%.

    • Baumer

      I agree entirely

  • http://lovesubverts.com M. Joshua Cauller

    Awesome stuff, Drew. Yeah. I was intrigued by this game the moment I saw the Greenlight page. But the initial reviews snuck a skepticism in my brain that kept me from climbing over hill and valley to get my hands on it. Now I want to punch those complaints in the nose. I just need to stop triangulating my position in my sleep.

  • Steven Sukkau

    AMEN X1000

  • http://twitter.com/drewdixon82 Drew Dixon

    THANKS guys! I am glad it struck a chord.

  • http://twitter.com/granderojo Jake McKenzie

    Miasmata was one of my favourite games last year and even I recognize it wasn’t polished enough. On my quite adequately powerful laptop(i7,2gbVGU, 8gb ram) it runs at sub 10 frames on the lowest settings so yeah it has problems that even the developers acknowledged to me personally they’re working on when I emailed them. After saying it was one of my favourite games last year I also acknowledge there is a ton of creativity in the best AAA games last year as well. I guess I just don’t accept your premise.

    • http://twitter.com/drewdixon82 Drew Dixon

      Mind sharing some? I’ll buy that with Dishonored and maybe XCOM

      • http://twitter.com/granderojo Jake McKenzie

        Sleeping Dogs took an entire genre of film that I love and put many aspects of it on display in it’s game. Since I’m a huge fan of that genre of film it was riffing off, I’ll just name drop some. It went from basically being a Johnnie To film in the start of the game, in it’s presentation, core gameplay(fighting system), pacing and made a really cohesive aesthetic. It eventually starts to resemble other Hong Kong New Wave directing styles and all those things I mentioned before(presentation, core gameplay, pacing) change to match the clear styles they’re emulating to make a really great product. That on top of the fact that now they’re supporting it with such smart DLC. The DLC is either stuff that modders would make but of a really high quality stuff that just adds to the fun of that style of open world games or it’s story missions that dive into more subgenre’s in Hong Kong New Wave.

        I’ve spent 40 hours in Portal 2 messing around with their Perpetual Testing Initiative just playing maps people have made and a few hours building some myself. That Initiative came out in 2012 and I consider it the most creative single thing in games that we had last year. It’s also an initiative that could only come from a AAA budget in my opinion, just because you need a torrent of factors converging to allow such a thing to exist. You need someone who knows how top notch designers, a huge fanbase, and a lot of money. Antichamber is incredible, but if there were a way for me to manipulate that game’s geometry to make rooms with the same sort of tools as Perpetual Testing Initiative would be highly improbable. Not due to the fact it’s technically impossible but due the scope of the project. That’s not to take anything away from Alexander Bruce, I love his game but I think we should also acknowledge how creative that initiative was for games and that it’s a service that only a AAA budget could allow.

        XCOM would definitely be on a list of creative AAA. Like the designers at Sleeping Dogs the designers at Firaxis really took their previous projects strong points and iterated fantastically on the formula.

        I don’t mean to be some defender of AAA games. I sat down recently and made a top 10 list of my favourite games of 2012. Seven out of the ten were indie games. I think there’s a balance to be had, two games from series I really love Assassins Creed 3 and Borderlands 2 were boring to me last year due to their lack of creativity, so I don’t inherently disagree with the premise. They were well made excellent games from a technical standpoint but boring to play. That said I think there are plenty of indies I could say the same for. I can think of just as many indies which were just as creatively bankrupt so the premise is dumb to me. The creatively bankrupt AAA games are easy marks because a lot of people play them, the indies that are just never get the same amount of attention. The ones that do, well go look at the reaction to The War Z.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fiddlecub Kevin VanOrd

    Some thoughts.

    Of course any criticism taken out of the context of praise misses the forest for the trees: you removed the trees from the forest.

    I have always felt that critics should see the game on its own terms, and determine whether or not the game succeeded at what it was trying to do, and whether or not what it was trying to do was valuable. At least at GameSpot, our average indie game score is higher than our general average score, which would seem to imply that indie games are indeed getting a fair shake. As for Miasmata, a game that relies almost solely on atmosphere, anything that breaks that atmosphere is an apt criticism, I would suggest, though our 7.5 is hardly a low score, and is notably higher than our readers’ average.

    Pointing out visual discrepancies that mar the experience, and stating that we expect them to meet the visual standards of AAA games, are two different things. Several of our 2012 Game of the Year nominees were indie games that do not have AAA-game quality graphics. You are leaping to a conclusion that isn’t supported by the overall body of evidence. There is a greater context that you are ignoring–and you assume because you can look past troublesome visual problems in Miasmata, that anyone that is bothered by them must be expecting AAA graphics. And I would think it obvious that it isn’t an either/or scenario like that.

    Interesting, too, are the huge number of comments we get expressing the exact opposite view: That we overpraise indie games in some strange effort to by hip. I look at our review comments for highly praised games like Lone Survivor, Closure, Braid, Proteus, Comet Crash, Spelunky, Dear Esther, and so on, and a large number of comments suggest that we give such games high scores because we’re hipsters, or trying to send some sort of anti-AAA message. Also common: complaints on reviews when we call out a game for lacking in originality.

    The point, of course, is that it’s a matter of perspective. In this case, you adore Miasmata, and sought reasons for why critics have criticized it. You presume that “lack of polish” is the reason, and cite examples. But there are so many examples of games that receive praise for being unique, and polished games criticized for being run of the mill. Medal of Honor: Warfighter, a gorgeous-looking game, was largely criticized for lacking uniqueness and diversity; we gave it a 6 at GS–and that was the high end. Resident Evil 6 looks terrific, and we gave it a 4.5. The super-polished Ace Combat: Assault Horizon? A 5.5. Lost Planet 2: 5.5.

    Interesting to note: We just gave Crysis 3–the most visually advanced game yet created for the PC–a 7.5. The same score we gave Miasmata. There are plenty of similar examples that suggest that your point, while having some validity, is not given proper context, and doesn’t draw conclusions from empirical data or a broad sample set.

    Also, the statement “very few games are made this way anymore, particularly games made by a team of two people” is categorically untrue. A huge number of well-known indie games are made by one person, or teams of two and three people. I can name dozens upon dozens of recent games made this way. In fact, there has been a resurgence of small teams, and such developers are increasingly high profile. Proteus, A Valley Without Wind 2, Cart Life, Kentucky Route Zero, Fez, The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, Antichamber–I could fill pages. Open up the PlayStation Network store, or Steam, and you will see large numbers of recent games created by one person, or two, or three.

    In any case, I wanted to bring some other perspectives the discussion. After all, someone could take our 9.5 review of Braid and our 6.0 review of Medal of Honor, and presume the opposite: that we punish AAA games and reward indies. In truth, this entire subject is much more nuanced. It’s simply impossible to take one game and use it to decry an attitude that doesn’t actually exist. The truth is, games of all kinds get praise, and games of all kinds are decried. Games made by huge teams get critically drubbed all the time. And games made by two people are sometimes nominated for game of the year.

    Ultimately, you love Miasmata. Other critics don’t. And others are in between. And when something you love isn’t loved by others, that doesn’t mean that other critics are responsible for the game’s bothersome discrepancies. What I read here is an attempt to find a greater problem to explain away how it could be that others may not adore this game as much as you do.

    And one last thought: “I know that if I give a game anything less than 80%, I’m inviting people to stop reading my review.” I really think you need to change your thinking there. If you truly believe that, then you are part of the “inflated score” problem you call out. What that tells me is that you believe if you want people to read your work, then it needs to get an 80% or above. And that is a very, very bad approach to take when writing a review. If you write something awesome, and you say what you think (rather than pumping up a score to an 80% because you fear it won’t be read), then people will read it.

    • http://profiles.google.com/jplebreton Jean-Paul LeBreton

      Thanks so much for the insightful, well thought-out comment!

      I’m sure there are reviewers with both pro and anti AAA biases. Anecdotally, I’ve seen far more pro-AAA bias – being wooed by things like high production value, marketing spend, access to “famous” devs – than the fairly absurd accusations of some major outlet being hard on a AAA game in an attempt to be hip, but I’m plugged into very specific segments of the industry.

      Ultimately the thing we have to watch out for is any coercive force that causes undisclosed bias. Kudos to the critics out there who are being really thoughtful about this stuff.

    • http://twitter.com/drewdixon82 Drew Dixon

      Hey Kevin,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. This article was not intended as a critique of Game Spot, I apologize if it read that way. I like Gamespot’s reviews and I even liked the one I linked which by and large was very positive about Miasmata and hit on the things that make it great.

      I am well aware that lots of games are made by teams of two people–my point was that very few game makers take the time to also build their own engine–that sets Miasmata apart from the average game made by a team of two people.

      I also recognize that the game’s visual foibles and I site clearly that I understand why those criticisms were made, in my view however, such criticisms weren’t worth this game getting overlooked.

      • http://twitter.com/drewdixon82 Drew Dixon

        Anyway, my apologies if my critique came across as overly criticial of Gamespot, that was not my intention, for the record, I have been genuinely pleased with the quality of the reviews I have read there of late. In fact this is the 5th Dissonant Reviews column I have written and this is the first time I have quoted a GS review ;)

        But yeah you are right–my column misses the forest of Nathan’s review in the quote that I share but I shared that merely as an example of how I feel such criticisms didn’t warrant the score that the game got.

        We can disagree on that, but it wasn’t meant as a criticism of Gamespot.

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