Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bonus Feature: Interview with Miasmata Designer, Bob Johnson

As of today, Kill Screen magazine issue 7, The Great Outdoors, is available for purchase. The various contributors have taken the intersection of video games and the outdoors in a variety of directions from the way astronauts play in space to a video game adaptation of Thoreau's Walden. It's definitely worth picking up, and available as both a physical magazine or in digital format.

I have a piece in the magazine as well; it's about the game Miasmata and how getting lost in that game's wilderness paralleled a time when I got lost in the woods as a kid. I was interested in investigating what it takes to overcome fears, particularly of the unknown, which the uncharted outdoors represents in both the game, and in real life.

To gain further insight into Miasmata and the thought process behind the game's design, I got in touch with IonFX's Bob Johnson, one half of the team behind the game along with his brother, Joe. Since only a few bits and pieces from the interview actually made it into the final piece, I wanted to share what was left on the cutting room floor. Also, Miasmata is an incredible game, and the more in-depth discussion about the game that can exist in the world, the better.

So, here's my spoiler-free interview with Bob Johnson, which was conducted over several email exchanges. I've edited certain passages for readability and my questions for length. If you want the full scoop, in all it's exquisitely designed and edited grandeur, including a somewhat embarrassing personal story, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of The Great Outdoors!


LOW CUTOFF: There's a great tension achieved in Miasmata with regard to the Creature, and in my playthrough, I found that it manifested in an interesting arc that really made me consider the island and weather/time of day as my best defense. I've read elsewhere that some inspiration for Miasmata came from your camping experience. Was tension or fear a part of camping or did you draw that aspect from somewhere else?

Bob Johnson: Yes, certainly. Every summer growing up, the males in our family would take long trips to the wilderness of northern Minnesota. We'd be miles away from civilization and would spend our days portaging and canoeing from one campsite to the next . We'd go days without seeing other people, and that seclusion elicited a range of feelings and emotions. The thought of getting lost, or of one of our brothers falling overboard and drowning in one of the many deep glacial lakes, was persistently in the back of our minds. And as we'd hike over the slippery and craggly terrain, you couldn't help but remind yourself that the nearest hospital was a three-day's journey away.

I'm not sure we ever experienced anything akin to panic or terror, even in our rare encounters with a black bear or ornery moose. We were maybe too tired and hungry for that: or too fed up with mosquitoes to really care. But, there were often moments of building tension. For example, trying to discern the entrance to a portage trail among the overgrowth, or following an animal trail by mistake and having to retrace our steps as the sun is beginning to set.

For Miasmata, I think these camping trips provided a lot for our imaginations to work with.   

LCO: Obviously there is a fear in being attacked in Miasmata, but for me, I was also afraid of getting lost. I might die in a Creature attack, but sometimes I'd get away only to find myself in an uncharted part of the map, feverish after falling down an incline, and lacking medicine. However, finally locating a cabin and then being able to map a tiny new area, disconnected from the rest of the known space was one of the most rewarding parts of the game for me. It felt like maybe I wasn't supposed to find this spot this way, but I did, and it's exciting. How important is getting lost in Miasmata?

BJ:I think getting lost is everything in our game, honestly. It's the core mechanic, as strange as that may sound. Joe and I talked about this a lot.  The feeling of getting lost evokes something primal within us. It conjures emotions from our evolutionary past,  and I think the reward of becoming un-lost is also exciting to those same ancestral sensibilities. I'm surprised more games haven't tried to tap into that.

LCO: I found that my perspective when it came to "fear" in Miasmata changed over time as unknowns become knowns. Did you personally ever have a "fear" of the wilderness? Did that perspective change over time? If so, what you you think facilitated that change?

BJ: Sure, I definitely had a fear of the wilderness early on. I used to have nightmares before leaving for our trips: the fear of the unknown. But, I was taught how to start a fire, how to tie knots, what to do when I encounter a bear, how to perform first aide, how to use a map and compass, and so forth. 'Unknowns' became 'knowns', and my fears went away. With that said, I'm no Les Stroud. I'd be scared to death to camp in the Amazon or on the plains of Africa. But Northern Minnesota? No problem.

LCO: Any particular camping excursions or activities that you could point to as definitive inspirations for the experiences you wanted to create in Miasmata? I ask because Miasmata is an incredibly solitary affair, and while it's just as easy for a pair of people to find themselves lost, the psychology of the experience seems different than being alone. 

BJ: It's hard to point to any singular event or experience that shaped an aspect of Miasmata. I think the rudimentary sensory experiences are what were most influential: seeing the clouds finally break in an overcast sky and feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, or listening to the haunting loon calls that echo over still water on a hazy morning. Those are the types of experiences that left huge impressions, and inspired us to re-create them in Miasmata.

Yes, there were many times I'd find myself separated from the group. Not necessarily lost, but maybe a quarter mile ahead on long portage. Far enough away that the trees and dense overgrowth would mute my laggard companion's footsteps and voices. I'd stop and catch my breath and listen to the wind as it whispered through the trees above me. Those were contemplative moments, and inspirational. I think Joe and I both drew heavily from those sorts of experiences.

LCO: What's your relationship with maps and mapmaking? I came into Miasmata without knowing the first thing about triangulation, except that it's somehow how cellphones work, but I left the game with the basic idea. That said, I don't think I'd be able to actually triangulate my position on a map without learning more about the process and the tools needed. How did you come to strike a balance between simulation mechanics and a more focused, accessible set of abilities?

BJ: I've certainly always been fascinated by maps, though before Miasmata, I didn't know too much about the mechanics of map-making. I knew the basics of using known landmarks to triangulate something on a map, but that was about it. Joe is quite a bit more knowledgeable on the subject. He's the kind of guy who knows something about everything. The idea to incorporate that system into Miasmata was all him. He was actually interested in doing a more comprehensive mapping mechanic, but I think I convinced him to develop a more rudimentary system.

What led us to creating the mechanic in the first place is that we wanted to add significance to the simple act of traveling from one place to the next. In a typical game, you'd likely be spending that time mashing a button over and over again to thwart hordes of enemies with a sword or a gun. I find it both funny and disappointing when I see people ignoring Miasmata's triangulation/cartography mechanic. It's like playing Call of Duty without pulling the trigger.

LCO: A lot of games take place on islands, and I see the useful limitations of the island setting in terms of putting a natural feeling border around the world so it doesn't need to be infinitely huge, but without resorting to invisible walls or even more elegant solutions like Journey's wind gusts. However, this can also have the effect of putting game settings, and in Miasmata's case, the wilderness, at an isolated distance from civilization. Could you talk a little about the decision to set Miasmata on an island?

BJ: I think you more or less hit it on the head. Invisible walls have always been a pet peeve for both Joe and I. When video games transitioned to 3D in the 90s and the player, I fell in love with the freedom and the possibilities for exploring that they often allowed. So, I would always be a little disappointed when a game would show something in the distance, like a mountain or a building, and it would be nothing more than an unreachable set piece. Joe and I would talk often about these sorts of things growing up.

Your point about isolating the player from civilization was spot on too. In a sense, the island becomes a metaphor for the solitude the player faces.

LCO: I've read comments on forums from other players who just want to explore Eden and wish there was no Creature. While I understand the desire and satisfaction of simply filling out the map at one's own pace, I can't imagine Miasmata grabbing me as intensely as it did without the Creature. Was the Creature part of your design concept for Miasmata from the beginning? 

BJ: I think from the beginning, we were simply interested in the idea of the player having infrequent encounters with an invincible enemy or enemies. That was sort of the foundational idea we had.  We wanted the player to have moments where he could just explore and feel relatively safe. At the same time, we liked the idea of having a slowly-building tension and that really happens naturally as the player begins to anticipate the inevitable encounter with the creature. It's interesting how successful that was. We never actually set out to make Miasmata a horror game, by any stretch,  but many people seem to be genuinely scared when they play the game.

The final design of the creature itself didn't stick until the last quarter of development. We had played with lizard-like creatures and more super-natural designs as well. We even considered a human foe early on. We ultimately liked the idea of creating a creature that was fanciful, but also looked like an animal that could exist here on earth. I think the idea of a single enemy is something pretty interesting too.

LCO: Miasmata has a very methodical pace, and the mechanics, by design, require players to take stock in the graphical detail that surrounds them. Certainly it's nice to know that players are paying attention to things that probably took quite a bit of time and effort, but seeing as we're also talking about a realistically rendered natural environment, is there any kind of ecological sentiment you hope players take from Miasmata? 

BJ: With respect to the ecological sentiment, I really wanted to avoid any heavy-handed messages, although I didn't want to shy away from interjecting some of our own philosophy and areas of interest into Miasmata. I wanted to shine a negative light on ideologies and philosophies that rely on spirituality, faith and the rejection of evidence and reason. That was definitely a prevailing theme. The player has a biological plague in the game, but I wanted the plague to also be a metaphor for unreason and fanaticism: a plague that, "spreads in the minds of men."

The cure for the game's plague is discovered through the process of science, and I juxtapose that with the anti-science ramblings of the story's most unsavory character: a demagogue who combines a fascistic political ideology with religious orthodoxy.

LCO: The protagonist Robert Hughes is characterized as a scientist. He doesn't seem like an expert outdoorsman, but he has the resourcefulness to find his way around the island. In addition to mapmaking you also do some botanical research and chemistry lab work, which seem appropriately scientific. Do you have any interest in amateur science or citizen science initiatives or was that just something that fit for the character? 

BJ: No, I can't say I really participate in much amateur science nowadays. With that said, science was a huge part of my upbringing. My dad is a biologist and engineer, and we did a lot scientific exploration as kids, whether it was examining stuff under a microscope, experimenting with electronics or doing amateur astronomy. Joe and I both gravitated more towards computer science as we got older, but I still have a fondness for the study of nature and biology.

My fiance studied biology in college and in graduate school. I took an active interest when she was taking bio-chem and organic chemistry, and it shaped some of my own ideas for Miasmata early on. She actually helped me write some of the descriptions for the in-game research and medicine synthesis.

LCO: Lastly, in your own words, could you describe what you would hope for a Miasmata player's experience with the game to be? If that's too broad, how about key moments and takeaways? 

BJ: I know it's kind of become a cliché response for indie developers to give, but we really did set out to make the game we had always wanted to play. I guess with that said, we wanted a game that would appeal to the sensibilities of a contemplative grown-up. The typical AAA game has become a frantic mess, as Joe and I see it. So often, the player simply pushes forward on the controller and holds the trigger, and the game takes care of the rest. Where do I go next? No worries, the mini-map will tell me. What's my next objective? I don't know, but if I follow that giant, green, pulsating arrow, maybe I'll find out.

We've also grown a bit tired of AAA games' obsession with with re-creating the action and formula of a summer blockbuster, where the agenda is to overwhelm your senses with constant audible and visual rewards, and restrict your interactivity in favor of suffocating linearity. They compel you to play their game with the same techniques of a slick Las Vegas casino, in that they appeal to the attention-span of the lowest common denominator. Video games are the perfect medium to allow people to interact and explore on their own terms and at their own pace. It's disappointing to us that games don't embrace that more. Why a video game would ever want to have a 10-minute, fixed-camera cut scene is beyond me. Embrace the medium, we say! To that point, that's one reason why I'm so excited to see the Oculis Rift coming out. I think it might reward developers who insist on immersion and exploration over pre-scripted narrative.

I love indie games and the risks that so many of them are taking, and I see that as a counter-balance to much of what AAA industry is doing. But, there are so few indie games that try to push the envelope from a technical standpoint. Joe and I have always been so fascinated by the advancement of computer graphics, that it's been disappointing to see that the most visually stunning games are often the most conservative from a gameplay standpoint.

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