Emergent narrative. A phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit these days, and for a good reason. Games like Journey and XCOM: Enemy Unknown that give players a real feeling that they’re creating their own story within the framework of the world and setting given to them.
It’s what makes games like Minecraft and others so much fun. Each player (literally, at times) carves their own unique signature in the world. Steamworld Dig seems like a game that would easily make that same mark. Despite its polish and hint of excellence, it falls just a bit short of unforgettable.
It’s actually pretty confusing to compare Steamworld Dig to games like Minecraft, so such comparisons shall immediately cease. Steamworld Dig more easily resembles games like Diablo, in truth. You play as Rusty, a “steambot” who has inherited his uncle’s mine which sits under a pathetically small town. The player actually starts off by being dropped unceremoniously into the mine with only an NPC to catch Rusty and the player up on the nitty gritty.
The relation to a roguelike such as Blizzard’s classic comes when the main flow of gameplay gets going. Rusty operates out of the town as his supply depot. Descending into the mine to collect precious metals and gems, a lovely lady robot can convert these into gold which is used to purchase upgrades to make it easier to get more precious minerals so Rusty can… you get the picture.
Mechanically the game plays very well. Rusty is concerned with health, inventory size, water supply (for item and ability usage), and lamp strength. These four constraints alone keep Rusty from venturing too deep into the mine before returning to the surface to exchange loot for gold. Such exchanges also count towards raising Rusty’s level, unlocking tool upgrades, new tools, and stat increases for purchase.
Taking a solid, tried-and-true formula and applying it to a western mining adventure works fairly well. Traveling with Rusty back and forth into the mine as he uncovers ancient towns and caves and his crazy uncle’s robo-tech powers is a good way to burn time without realizing it.
At least it would be, if the game was just a tad more interesting.
One of the self-proclaimed qualities of the game lies in its ability to create “emergent narrative,” a quality found in games where the pre-scripted story isn’t really the focus. Emergent narrative is the kind of thing not to be found within miles of a game such as Final Fantasy VII, for example. Such titles depend on a well-written story and characters right from the get-to; the player does not play themselves, they take the role of a character and are pretty much along for the ride. And that’s fine. Awesome, even, when done well.
Emergent narrative is best expressed by a fan of XCOM telling his buddies about the mission where he took out 3 Mutons and a Cyberdisk with a well-coordinated rocket combo from his two heavies, only to be countered with another story from another fan. A player creates their own story effortlessly through the experience, and everyone gets a different takeaway.
There is, however, a difference between emergent narrative and laziness. Steamworld Dig isn’t on the latter end of the scale, but it doesn’t quite make it to the former end either. While the gameplay can be addicting, this only occurs in brief spurts and leaves something to be desired.
Maybe it’s the core theme of mining, or perhaps there’s a crucial “something” missing from the experience: action, thrill of exploration, or possibly a truly memorable experience or two along the way to the center of the world. Presing down on the keyboard and holding the ‘a’ key might count as exploration for some, but for those who remember the dungeon-delving days of olde it’s just not good enough anymore.
Graphically, for a quote-unquote indie title, Steamworld Dig is sharp and polished. The NPC’s, monsters, and world are artfully detailed and create a pretty little world to dig around. With digging out the mine being the overall goal, Steamworld Dig does manage to create a sense of tension at times by giving Rusty a few objectives here and there, ultimately culminating in a “big reveal.”
The story, however, ends fairly quickly in a few hours at best – and that’s only if a player can push through a grind worthy of an 80s RPG. Overall, Steamworld Dig is a good game. Good, and that’s all. Definitely not for everyone; good for a few hours of enjoyment, yet alas easily forgettable.
[+Excellent graphics][+Exploration over Combat][-Easily Forgettable][-Grind Required]