Steamworld Dig is a game in which you play a clanky, ramshackle steam-driven robot that has to clamber down into a seemingly worthless mine shaft and retrieve the scraps of minerals there that are worth anything in pursuit of answers for the question of what happened to my Uncle, and why did he give me this mine? It’s all framed with this lovely pastiche of steampunk and cowboy aesthetics. You’ll meet robot saloon maids, robot general store clerks, and a robot prospector, while you swing your pickaxe through the dirt.
There is a simplicity to Steamworld Dig. The game is a series of linear narrative choke points. It’s possible to wind up in some failure states that make progress through the game unpleasant and awkward.
The controls are a little bit clunky, too, shown best with the steam punch you collect in the mid game. You can shoot it at 45-degree angles, but the game’s controls are such that when you try and fail to do it, it can feel like maybe you’re not meant to. There’s also the way some sections in the middle can go more or less completely wrong when you fall between people throwing explosives. Also, the upgrades you save up for and buy are honestly a little bit dull – you get a little bit more of whatever it was you already had, repeatedly.
It’s a little interesting; to unlock new abilities, you explore, but to expand the abilities you already have, you have to retrieve guff from the earth and come back with it. This means that you delve into the earth, fill your pockets, then return to the surface, building up funds to afford new, bigger, better things, things that made it easier and faster. It’s not a system I’m sure works for me, but it certainly works for the game. Plus there’s a lovely irony to an upgrade system whose primary purpose is just to fuel itself.
There’s your basic lot, really; a linear dive from up to down, with a story to tie it together and an incentive to sort around for bits and pieces of value along the way.
I think if I had to compare Steamworld Dig to any other game I’ve played this year it’d be Ittle Dew. Once upon a time, a game like Steamworld Dig wouldn’t be remarkable at all – and as a small-team development, it’s a marvellous little piece of design.
Everything in this game feels nice and fluid, even though the mining is done on a big grid. The combat’s a little loose, the puzzles feel just faintly like you might have messed up rather than solved something. This looseness carries through to the major plot points, too – it’s hard to reach points in the game where you can’t proceed or have broken things in a way where you need to die and head back to the surface.
What this speaks to is a remarkably clever design, where the game presents a space you can explore in your own way, but which is very subtly designed as a funnel, constantly guiding you downwards. You can move to some degree, you can avoid or accept some power-ups – but the game very cleverly keeps you on track, keeps you playing in its own way.
This is a wonderful game to examine for its conveyance. Very rarely does the game send you anywhere; it usually presents you a pathway and lets you take your own time following it. You wind up where the game wants you to go, and very, very rarely does the game have to make you go there.
Really, while Steamworld Dig is a very clever game, it’s almost charming in how simple it truly is. This is a game which isn’t trying to make some grand point about the human condition or allow for procedural content generation or feature an epic grind or anything like that. It’s just a videogame that wants to be a fun experience for a little bit, and it does that with some very slick, very nicely designed mechanics that work from the top to the very, very bottom.
And sometimes you just want a videogame.
You can get Steamworld Dig on a host of services, all linked conveniently on Image and Form’s website.
Buy it if:
- You want an explorer game.
- You just want a videogame, with running and jumping and digging.
Avoid it if:
- You want something with a lot of replayability.
- You want a videogame with a lot of expression.