Comparisons: No Man's Sky and Miasmata
Comparisons is an occasional series of posts looking at links and contrasts between specific games. Contains spoilers for both Miasmata and No Man's Sky.
No Man's Sky and Miasmata are both niche games featuring exploration, cataloguing species and crafting products from collected resources. Beyond that, their approaches are radically different. Where No Man's Sky is huge beyond my ability to conceptualise it, Miasmata is contained to a single island. Where Miasmata is about mapping and growing to understand a place, NMS embraces a more nomadic existence.
But there's value in comparing these two exploration games. Perhaps the most compelling difference between NMS and Miasmata is whether focus is directed inwards or outwards.
Miasmata presents a heavily internal struggle, exploring human nature and emotions. It's about sickness and human weaknesses; about guilt; and about loyalty. NMS is far more interested in looking outside ourselves. On Kill Screen, Gareth Damian Martin notes the importance of windows and framing in NMS. It's like being a photographer or filmmaker, continually composing shots of the landscapes and alien creatures within your field of view.
Both games are journeys in search of knowledge, but go about it differently. NMS puts us in the role of an observer, always disconnected from the universe around us. We're different from the other intelligent lifeforms we meet, and have to learn their languages and customs. Always focusing out, and trying to understand what is alien and other.
In contrast, Miasmata digs deep and becomes as much about emotional travel as physical exploration. Inner turmoil manifests as hostile hallucinations. To escape the creature stalking us is to survive our inner darkness and repressed guilt.
This focus on internal vs. external elements shines through when considering representations of power. In particular, whether we draw on personal power, or look for power to be granted to us. Even the crafting systems betray these different outlooks. In Miasmata, new drugs can be produced through trial-and-error, by distilling or combining different plant samples and testing the results. Alternatively, drugs are synthesised based on notes left by your own research team. Either way, the focus is on personal ingenuity and experimentation. In NMS, crafting comes entirely from discovered blueprints. We look to other beings and civilisations for enlightenment.
In that sense, Miasmata ultimately has more of a sense of personal power, though we start from a much weaker position. In NMS I can rely on my jetpack and life support systems to let me move freely, and I have checkpoints to follow. In Miasmata, the protagonist's illness holds me back. Each small hill is a battle, lungs heaving as we inch to the top. Taking frequent breaks and popping pills to keep the fever at bay just a little longer. And then there's the creature stalking us: a constant background sense of threat and urgency.
The first time I met Miasmata's creature was an unbelievable moment of panic. I'd had no idea to expect this dark, snarling monster. I ran blindly from the beast, tumbled down an incline and dropped the samples I was carrying. I kept going, and crouched in the vegetation, wheezing and dizzy from the exertion. I waited for a moment for my heartbeat to slow, in and out of character. I had managed to evade the creature, but was now off the map and hopelessly lost. It took literally hours to find my way back to something familiar.
NMS is about loneliness and isolation, but it would never let me get so lost. My spaceship is always a clear checkpoint, and I can scan for nearby landmarks and resources. Still, in Miasmata the situation is more under my own control. There aren't any checkpoints to guide me back to a basecamp, but I make my own way using landmarks, and my map and compass. I get to know the place slowly, feeling like a genuine explorer and scientist. Painstakingly filling out the map via triangulation as I go.
In Miasmata I begin weak and grow stronger over time, enhancing and healing the body itself with the drugs I discover. Working towards a cure, and an escape from the island. Power is internal, fuelled by my own agency.
In NMS my tools improve — a larger inventory; a more powerful mining laser — but how I interact with the environment stays fundamentally the same. Power is external. Even the economy seems to be acting against me. The value of a new ship now far outstrips my ability to earn money, devaluing hard work and rendering it meaningless. I have to find another way. Never building my own technology, but scavenging it from wrecks.
NMS's frustrating inventory system is like receiving technology that was built for someone else. Crafting and inventory management involves deciphering fiddly controls. The arcane systems become more familiar with practice, but never feel natural or automatic. But, even at his sickest watching Miasmata's protagonist use a microscope or carefully weigh components to synthesise drugs is a thing of beauty. Unrealistically so, but it conveys our skill as a chemist. In these rustic labs plants are manually transformed into professional quality pills, perfectly shaped and even with a line scored down the centre for splitting into a half-dose.
Where one character pursues science, the other goes looking for ancient wisdom. But surprisingly, there are many similarities in how NMS and Miasmata consider knowledge. There's a trade-off between the purity of ignorance, and the danger of uncomfortable truths.
Miasmata is the more blatantly spiritual of the two. The island is even called Eden, rammed home by a copy of Paradise Lost placed prominently at the game's conclusion. At least in my interpretation, part of the knowledge we uncover is of our own madness and the realisation of having murdered the other scientists on the island. The blood has been on our hands from the beginning and never washes off. It's heavily implied that we have been retracing our own steps, and I imagine us attempting to leave the island with the plague cure, only to have the boat crash and wash us up on shore again, delirious and forgetting what came before. Whether we restart or escape the cycle is up to interpretation, but either way we can only exist here in ignorance. Gaining knowledge and seeing with more clarity — but also more guilt and darkness — means leaving Eden.
NMS has a more philosophical take on a similar idea. If we explore purely for exploration's sake that's a more pure, innocent experience. But it's alluring to seek some higher purpose. The danger of this is in revealing that our perceptions are false. The truth of the simulation hypothesis. We observe the universe because that's what we were designed to do. It's not surprising then, that we should struggle to find our own agency beyond discovering what has been created for us.
It was impossible not to seek knowledge. In Miasmata for a specific quest to cure sickness and escape. In NMS possibly pushing back against banality and loneliness. In either case we were in some sense programmed to follow a path that would eventually alter our self-perception.
Arguably, Miasmata's dangerous knowledge is self-awareness of having committed horrific acts, while NMS is about discovering our own artificiality. Both are truths too large or terrible to contemplate. These stories can wrap in on themselves in a desire for self-preservation, and end where they began in an ongoing cycle.