Published on September 6th, 2013 | by Andrew Vestal0
Steamworld Dig: You Know the Drill
Do games still distinguish between compulsion and fun?
There’s a reason your memories of Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, Bioshock: Infinite, and every other AAA title of the past 5 years have run into a bland and incoherent slurry. Those games were designed by committee for some hypothetical audience construct. A lot of thought went into their Systems, Set Pieces & Minigames – into balancing their 4 distinct enemy types (normal/fast/small/heavy). A lot of man-hours went into polishing their art assets. But nobody ever stopped to think about how these pieces would fit together into a cohesive experience. The developer had a spreadsheet of things they felt their game needed (cribbed from last year’s best-sellers), and they used that spreadsheet to ship a product designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience in order to maximize ROI.
And to what end? Despite all the sound and fury, you, the player, might as well not be there. Modern AAA games seem to resent your autonomy – what if you don’t look at the tower right when it explodes? What if you don’t pick up and listen to every audio log? So the game is designed around keeping you playing; momentum must be maintained at all costs. Arbitrary experience systems leave you desperate to see that next bar filled. The most important element of design is that every dollar burnt shows up on screen, and everyone who walks through the gate is forced into down the same exploding railroad. You are expected to grovel before what the developers have wrought – to be awed into obsequiousness by an overwhelming display of financial power. These games don’t want you to enjoy yourself – they want you to feel intimidated. They want you too scared to quit.
Steamworld Dig is fun. It’s made by Swedish human beings who had a great idea and wanted to turn it into a game. It’s topping the Nintendo 3DS eShop charts in every territory because of its word-of-mouth, not its advertising budget. People are playing it because their friends are telling them they should play it, too. Everyone is having a surprisingly good time.
“Game is fun.” “Players enjoy game.” These are your top stories for 2013.
The game is a steampunk Western mashup of RPG, Mr. Driller, and Metroidvania. RPG, because your home base is a frontier town filled with shops and NPCs. Mr. Driller, because you dig to explore thousands of meters of underground caverns. Metroidvania, because any game with character upgrades and player freedom is called a “Metroidvania” these days. You dig, you gather ore, you return to the surface, you upgrade your character, you dig deeper, you gather more ore, you return to the surface, you upgrade your character… It is compulsive. But it’s also fun.
Developer Image and Form‘s background is in iOS games and games for children. More than anything else, this means they respect the player’s time. Mobile gamers are never more than a click away from doing one of 10,000 other things on their phone. And children are too innocent to be cowed by displays of wealth and power; if the box is more fun than the toy, they’ll straight up play with the box. Image and Form knows you could be doing something else right now, sure. But instead of resenting your freedom, they roll up their sleeves and work twice as hard to earn your time and trust.
So the UI is elegant and informative. The artwork, while charming, never gets in the way of the mechanics. The moment-to-moment gameplay is responsive and empowering. You are a literal digging machine! And everything else is subservient to the sheer pleasure of that perpetual motion: down, down, down. Steamworld Dig knows that the freedom to play and explore at your own pace is more compulsive than any on-rails experience; the strongest drive to play has to come from within. Steamworld Dig is the negative psychology of mobile gaming unperverted into a positive console experience; your favorite arcade machine set to Free Play; an endless bag of delicious Halloween candy.
It’s difficult to describe what makes Steamworld Dig so compelling; like its robot protagonist, it borrows parts from other games to build into something more. It’s simple and nourishing and beautifully executed, like a perfectly-constructed cheeseburger or a gem of a 3-minute summer pop song. All you can think of is how much you want your friends to try that burger for themselves or to listen to that jam. Steamworld Dig isn’t concerned with reaching the broadest possible audience, but the smallest possible one: you. You’re the player! And despite everything, some developers still want you to have your say.