This weekend, I finished Steamworld Dig. That in and of itself is pretty remarkable. As much as I love games, these days I rarely finish them. Normally, I suck out all of a game’s ideas and mechanics, like the marrow from its bone, or get stuck or just bored, and then move onto the next one.
In part, that’s simply because Steamworld Dig is short. I polished it off in five and a half hours, though one of the achievements I browsed through after completing suggests you can do it in under three. By video game standards, that’s positively skeletal.
The other part is the soothing rhythm of the game. Before I explain what I mean, I’d better lay out what Steamworld Dig actually is:
There’s a robot. Rusty, his name is. Awful shiny feller. Into the two-horse, three-bot town of Tumbleton, Rusty comes a-strollin’. Tumbleton’s a strange place, a mix of ol’ Western tropes and steampunk science-fiction that the game shouldn’t rightly be able to pull off, but does mainly thanks to its Saturday-morning-cartoon graphical stylings. Anyway, Rusty strolls into town clutching his uncle’s will and a pickaxe, with a mind to digging down deep underground.
What follows is basically a two-dimensional adaption of the block-hitting action you’ve likely seen in Minecraft. The world beneath the world’s crust is made up of a series of cubes, and by tapping the pickaxe button, you chip away at them to create a path and mine for precious minerals. As you dig down deeper and deeper, the blocks become harder to mine, but you earn new and upgraded tools that make you faster, stronger, harder and indeed better.
Steamworld Dig is not a game you’d accuse of being especially nutritious, but that simple loop – of encountering a tougher obstacle, and buying your way to an upgrade that lets you overcome it – is undeniably satisfying.
Playing Steamworld Dig, you’re likely to catch yourself every now and then and realise, yup, these are empty calories. But occasionally a bit of mental junk food is exactly what you need from a gaming session. For example:
Waking up to the EU referendum result on Friday – after a few nights of limited sleep and travel – I found myself, to my own surprise, genuinely distraught. The idea of going outside or watching the news was unpalatable. Even music was too much, too likely to jangle my nerves, and all that made it incredibly difficult to work or even function properly.
Over lunch, though, I popped on a podcast (Jay & Miles X-Plain The X-Men recapping the ’80s crossover event Inferno – no connection to real-world or even vaguely current events, no British accents) and Steamworld Dig on the PS4. It was an incredibly soothing experience. Not only did it take my mind off the chaos unfolding in the real world, Steamworld Dig offered a self-contained sense of order where, with a little effort, all problems were surmountable. I guess, to use a word I’ve always been uncomfortable with, it was empowering.
It’s a game I find hard to actively recommend – it does what it sets out to do in slick rewarding fashion, and not much more – but that session of Steamworld Dig was magical.
It’s worth adding that the magic held up beyond that, right until the end, those rewarding loops continuing to pull me deeper and deeper below the surface. I suspect half an hour more and the game would have outstayed its welcome, but that’s the beauty of being short. I finished Steamworld Dig, and put it down happy, satisfied to never touch the game again.
Previously on PS4Play: Hitman, clockwork puzzles & Groundhog-Day syndrome