Friday, March 22, 2013


If you're wondering who built these things, well, tough.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be shipwrecked on a tropical island? Have you ever wondered what that scenario would be like if you had a crippling disease that could only be cured through the use of drugs manufactured from local plantlife while you were hunted by a bizarre monstrosity against whom there was no defence save hiding? If so, then Miasmata may be the game for you. Created by two brothers by the names of Joe and Bob Johnson, Miasmata is a first-person survival experience in which you play as Robert Hughes, who has arrived on the island of Eden seeking the legendary cure for a Plague which has devastated his homeland. On the island you find the ingredients you need for manufacturing the cure as well as the suspiciously deserted research outposts of your scientific colleagues, along with in many cases their brutally murdered corpses, taking a hearty slice of inspiration from, I can only assume, Milton, and Lord of the Flies.
Just like in the travel shows!
The first thing that must be said about Miasmata is that it's an incredibly atmospheric game. Given that it was entirely developed by these two brothers, and the programming was done by one of them, it has graphics to rival the latest big release titles by major game developers, with an astoundingly realistic environment replete with believable topology and foliage. The island of Eden feels absolutely, convincingly real, from its swampy valleys to its shimmering beaches to its bare, ruin-strewn deserts. The limited resources of the team are evident, of course - the textures aren't of the highest resolution, for instance, but the details are nonetheless present. The water and lighting are particularly impressive, from dim dawns to days with a variety of weather from bright sunshine to thundering rain, to moody dusks and finally to realistically dark and impenetrable nights with nothing but moon and stars giving negligible illumination.
The welcoming committee.
As such you must manage your time as you explore Eden looking for the ingredients to make the cure. Robert is sick, and the greatest threat in the game is really from the Plague itself. Mr Hughes cannot run or swim very far, nor climb or descend very steep inclines without the risk of falling. He also needs regular water and sleep. Exerting yourself strenuously in any of these scenarios brings on fever, which without the aid of medicine will steadily diminish Robert's health. As such as one explores the island there are numerous factors to consider: how far it is to the nearest shelter, how well provisioned you are with water and medicine, what time of day it is, and most importantly of all, perhaps, where you are.
This is one of Miasmata's most unique features: its cartographic system. Eden is covered in Moai-esque statues and other landmarks essential for orienteering. There is no persistent position on the map; Robert can only discern his location in relation to at least two landmarks, which also allows him to fill in more of the map, uncovering more features. It is also possible in this way to triangulate the position of other, unknown features so that the map can be filled in elsewhere. This can be a frustrating feature, but it can also be satisfying as you get the hang of discerning your position and get a better grasp of the layout of Eden. It's very easy to get lost, especially at night, and so it's important to keep the map's development consistent.
Run through places like this in terror of a green cat.
Keeping the map up to date is also essential because of the game's focus on exploration. You are guided towards the first couple of plants you need to formulate the cure, but beyond that you are largely left to your own devices to roam the island and discover the remaining ingredients wherever you may. The many existing shelters on the island, where you must seek safe haven in order to sleep, save your game, restock your water and research plants, are also replete with notes to fill out the game's interesting, if subtle, backstory, as well as give you advice on where to go next.
Live like you've always dreamed: in a shack!
This brings about one of the most important elements of the game: research. Robert can hold up to three plant specimens at a time, and bring any of these to a microscope and it may be researched, which reveals what properties the local flora has. This permits you to manufacture weaker and stronger medicines for alleviating fever, as well as temporary and permanent boosts to your strength, stamina and awareness, to help you move further and faster and keep yourself safe, all of which assist in the hunt for the Cure.
Climb pointless staircases.
Many of the ingredients of the Cure, however, are guarded by the Creature, a nightmarish monstrosity resembling a large, greenish, antlered cougar. The Creature cannot be harmed; it cannot even be fought, only distracted, avoided, and fled from. It is fast and deadly, but its behaviour is programmed in an effective way such that if you make eye contact with it you are generally unlikely to be pounced, and fire and other thrown implements will attract its curiosity so that you can hopefully escape. Improvements to Robert's clarity stat greatly assist in this regard, as an indicator appears onscreen when crouching to reveal whether the Creature is near. Fortunately I only encountered the Creature after I had acquired this upgrade, which makes it significantly easier to escape. The Creature is an unsettling enemy which had me clinging to the shoreline, where it is less likely to spawn, for many in-game days so as to avoid it for as long as possible, because the sense of threat in the face of this invincible enemy is real and palpable. There is a genuine and unpleasant feeling of being hunted and regularly in danger, especially in thick woodland and valleys where it is easy to become disoriented and lost.
Come home to a real fire.
There are a few things I might complain about; for instance, some of the temporary boosts seem to have a negligible effect. Additionally, cartography can be confusing and frustrating, especially if you have a limited range of vision - trees in particular easily obstruct distant landmarks. Thirdly, Robert's limited inventory can at times seem needlessly restrictive: you can only carry whatever you can hold in your hand or store in the pockets of your journal. It seems like there's not much justification for the limited inventory. You can't store duplicates of medicine, for instance, or carry additional plants of the same type. The Journal too can be confusing and slow to navigate at times, although generally it's a useful tool. My biggest complaint really would be one that spoils the immersion somewhat: all of the text in the game is in dire need of a proof reader, because it is full of spelling mistakes that either make the flavour text seem amateurish or genuinely confuse pieces of information conveyed about gameplay.
Feel an overwhelming sense of isolation.
Nonetheless, Miasmata is an engrossing game, and I'd thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to try something a bit different. If you have the patience to explore a beautifully realised environment (and marvel at the talent of two developers with no million-dollar studio doing the legwork) and are willing to face your fears and uncover a disquieting mystery about science, politics and the darkness of the human soul, I can heartily recommend Miasmata. It's a unique experience and Eden is one exotic destination I am grateful for having visited.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hindsight: A 2012 Cinematic Retrospective

With yet another year lost to the grasping hands of the past, it's time for us to take a look back at what we were forced to endure over the last twelve months film-wise in the name of the commercialisation of art, demographic-chasing and culture vandalism, as well as those parts which didn't make us suffer the same way. Without any further ado, let's take a look at:

The Top 5 Overrated Films of 2012
This only includes films which I have actually seen. There were a number of other pictures I was interested in but haven't yet watched including Ted, Looper, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Wreck-It Ralph and Les Miserables.

Ridley Scott's true form.
Honourable Mention: Prometheus
Before it was released I thought Prometheus would be a shoe-in for the list, but it turned out almost everyone else thought this film was crap as well despite how absurdly hyped it was. An indecisive creature which, unlike the Engineer-Black Slime hybrid, was not greater than the sum of its parts, director Ridley Scott seemingly couldn't find the balance between the kind of horror-thriller of Alien and the classic sci-fi questioning of something like Blade Runner. Worth watching mostly for the ever-reliable Michael Fassbender's performance as the android David, poor pacing, moronic and undeveloped characters, a repeatedly stupid plot and a finale which spectacularly failed to maintain the stronger elements of mystery established earlier in the film were its main failings.

5. The Avengers
Sorry, Cap.
Now don't get me wrong, I don't hate The Avengers. When I saw it at release I thought that it was a decent film; above average, certainly. Director Joss Whedon, the king of overrated, did a good job making so many main characters work in a film, although the dearth of female heroes and the general tediousness of the main plot lets it down somewhat. It certainly did a good job of making the Hulk an interesting character by focusing on a well-characterised Bruce Banner performed with aplomb by Mark Ruffalo. However the allocation of the majority of character development solely to Iron Man and the simplistic "opening a portal to let aliens in" storyline didn't match the rest of the film's ambition. And seriously, how long did they spend sitting around on the Helicarrier? Joss did make the correct choice of focusing on Captain America significantly, but overall it was just an okay film; it's not as amazing as it is made out to be. C'mon, that Transformers-esque final battle is hardly award-winning material. Tom Hiddleston's performance as Loki is another strong point worth mentioning, but these strengths just aren't consistent. It's decent, but it's nowhere near as good as people say.

Bilbo who?
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
I've already waffled on at length about this film. Suffice to say that while I didn't especially enjoy it at least the critics aren't raving about it. Unnecessarily padded with not enough focus on its title character, incompetent handling of the source material and a dull characterisation of Thorin make the film a rather inadequate offering. I found it surprisingly watchable, and the decision to end the film after the "Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire" Chapter worked better than I expected but it could have maintained this and been an enjoyable two hour film if all the junk with Old Bilbo and Frodo, Radagast and the White Council had been scrapped. Decent performances clash with some unconvincing CGI, excessive landscape establishing shots and the ever-horrible friction between Professor Tolkien's unique prose style and the rather trite stylings of the Boyens-Walsh scriptwriting team.

3. The Amazing Spider-Man
All over your face.
Oh dear. Now don't get me wrong, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man offerings aren't perfect either, primarily let down by Tobey Maguire's overly shy and reserved performance as Peter Parker which tends to make the films drag. Marc Webb's film with Andrew Garfield in the title role goes too far the other way, however, with a relatively cool and aloof Spidey with whom I wouldn't be surprised if an audience struggled to identify. They rather eliminated the main strength of Spider-Man as an everyman hero. And seriously, where's the funny Spidey of the comics? Spider-Man's a funny guy, but this film gave us nothing but the "small knives" joke really. A boring villain in the shape of Rhys Ifans' the Lizard and an Uncle Ben story lacking in poignancy didn't help. The biggest problem with this film, however, is how long and slow it feels. Multiple-tacked on endings which lack dramatic purpose and a general sense of lethargy deprive the film of the energy and emotional pathos Spidey's origin should probably give us. Emma Stone, as ever, does her best as Gwen Stacy, but in general I cannot fathom how this dull and uninspired film with its fairly lame interpretation of the main character managed to please so many.

Because Skyfall sucked so hard, please
enjoy this crude drawing of Connery as Bond.
2. Skyfall
Yawn. This mishandled snooze-fest of an anniversary instalment for the venerable Bond franchise revels in a success which only emphasises how utterly out of touch modern culture is with its heritage. Featuring Daniel Craig seemingly utterly exhausted as a Bond who has jumped from a relative rookie to a worn-out relic, rubbish supporting characters in the shape of a trendy young Moneypenny and Q, a completely excessive focus on Judi Dench's M and a villain with absolutely no motivation, the film struggles from set-piece to set-piece, beginning as almost a weak pastiche of classic Bond and eventually completely losing its way in a boring drawn-out showdown. In its efforts to question Bond's relevance all it manages to do is portray itself as irrelevant and utterly lacking the timelessness of the franchise's classic instalments, and has only been successful because modern audiences have forgotten what makes Bond good or never knew in the first place.

1. The Dark Knight Rises
A terrifically boring film with an insultingly small-minded plot and limited characterisation, this final instalment of Christopher Nolan's otherwise enjoyable Batman series is an overly-long anticlimax which is so defensive about its genre and undecided as to its identity that it becomes totally pointless by about halfway through its excessive runtime. Featuring Tom Hardy wasted in an undeveloped role, typical mediocrity from Anne Hathaway and an overstuffed protagonist conga line of Christian Bale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, etc the film goes nowhere and achieves nothing which was not already accomplished by its predecessors, succeeding only in giving some limited sense of closure. I believe an undercurrent of discontent does exist regarding this film but the fact that the Rotten Tomatoes review comment system was single-handedly caused to be overhauled by pre-emptive fanboy insanity regarding any mildly negative review of this disappointing film earns it the dubious honour of being my most overrated film of 2012.

Correctly rated films of 2012
It's not to say that these films were necessarily good, just that they were perceived in a way I consider to be reasonable considering my own experience of them. Once again I haven't seen all the films I wanted so a few didn't make this list.

Rare footage of Toby caught on camera.
Honourable Mention: Paranormal Activity 4
I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise but I found this film to be something of a let-down. After three films which had developed a sense of mystery surrounding the family of Katie and Kristi and the doomed legacy of their grandmother and a devious demon named Toby, the fourth film restricted us mainly to more slamming doors and a plethora of invisible death scenes which didn't contribute much to the overall plot. Despite some decent performances from a mostly young cast the characters' willingness to throw themselves stupidly into danger and the general lack of direction render this instalment something of a fizzer.

The Woman in Black
"The next Peter Cushing?"
You may notice a bit of a horror trend emerging here, but The Woman in Black was a film I very much enjoyed. A picture from Hammer Productions more or less in the style of their classic features, the pervasive sense of unease and isolation coupled with chillingly sombre performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds formed the foundation of a worthy successor to the Edwardian horror dramas of old. Eschewing oodles of gore and frantic action for suspense and the occasional, confronting intrusion of the grotesque (I'm thinking of the lye-drinking incident, for instance) its refreshing reconnection with the styles of the past and a decidedly ambiguous ending render it one of the stronger genuine horror experiences I've encountered in recent years.

There was no way I was going to attempt
to draw Kate Beckinsale. Just pretend
this is "the absence of Bill Nighy"
or something.
Underworld: Awakening
I'm not going to pretend that the Underworld films are anything other than trashy action films, but (with the possible exception of the third one) they deliver exactly what you want: Kate Beckinsale in a tight outfit killing vampires and werewolves in a hilariously over-the-top manner. Thankfully eliminating the boring Michael character the film makes no mistakes about the need to get immediately to the straightforward supernatural massacres and a plot so cliché you could sell it wholesale. It doesn't outstay its welcome whatsoever with an appropriately slim runtime of eighty-eight minutes and serves up a perfectly distilled slice of Underworld entertainment. I'm not saying it was a great film. I'm not even saying it was a good film. But it did what it had to do.

The Cabin in the Woods
Oh no, more horror! Severely delayed after its 2009 production, I was lucky enough to catch this during an extremely limited Australian release. It suffers, of course, from the same problems as most Joss Whedon productions, which is to say that its self-aware po-mo irony means it has its head about as far up its arse as it can go, but despite its staggering pretentiousness it still manages to be a solid deconstruction of the genre. Earning bonus points for strong allusions to Sam Raimi's timeless Evil Dead franchise, solid performances all-round and an unashamedly "down" ending, it succeeds in questioning where horror is going and how meaningful its modern origins are. It's not brilliant but it didn't horribly offend me so there you go.

He wasn't in this film, but here's a picture
of Gromit anyway. Everyone loves Gromit.
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!
Renamed The Pirates! Band of Misfits out here for some reason, this cheery Aardman production continues to uphold Aardman's reputation for good humour, subtlety and top notch voice acting. Featuring particularly worthwhile performances from Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman and David Tennant its hodge-podge stew of classic pirate tropes, Enlightenment-era scientific issues and timeless themes of the value of friendship and fun make it a charming little piece. If I was to criticise anything it would perhaps be the slightly overwrought Queen Victoria character who is a bit of a typical Aardman crazy screaming shrew, and the final action-based showdown not quite living up to the generally situation-based humour of the majority of the film. Nonetheless it's a worthy instalment in Aardman's ongoing film repertoire.

Seven Psychopaths
Walken will appear in anything if he has time.
Even a terrible drawing by me.
Extremely funny, with a terrifically humorous self-awareness and some particularly stellar performances from Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, this offering from Martin McDonagh is everything that a solid comedy should be. Its interesting story and ridiculously eccentric characters transform the regular cliché of a struggling writer into something memorably hilarious, with some rip-snorting imaginary sequences which blend the line between reality and fantasy in a satisfyingly absurd way. Rife with oodles of violence and profanity, its every over-the-top quality contributes to an amusing and cutting comment on the pitfalls of writing and the utter alienation of modern life.

"...I am the Law. Screw you."
Most people when they hear about Judge Dredd unfortunately think about the widely-hated 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone, which may have been responsible for this great production not getting the full attention it deserved. Featuring a plot which actively avoided being over-ambitious and a memorably stoic and dry performance from the dependable Karl Urban as Dredd himself, it was one of the best action films of the year and far more deserving of success than many of the other dreary comic book blockbusters which emerged in 2012. Its excellent production and effects characterised a ruthlessly violent, utterly debased world with aplomb. For these reasons I shall award it my "best film of 2012" award. *scattered applause*

By the way, The Artist is technically a 2011 film but it's very good too. You probably wouldn't get it, though.