I’m nearing the end of Steamworld Dig and the only reason I haven’t already reached it is that, as I write this, I’m on an airplane and my 3DS’ battery died about 20 minutes ago.
2013 has been a year to be enthusiastic about games — for everybody, I think, judging from the discourse online, but also for me in specific. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.
I was just reading a book that discussed the 1970s culturally. The context isn’t important. What I thought about was that in college in the 1990s, as a teenager, the 1970s seemed so far away — but the 1990s are as far again now as the 1970s were then.
I mention this because it made me realize how significant my fascination with the games of the 1990s is. A lot of people still like the games of the 1990s, but to me games reached a kind of high watermark then. It’s not just that those were my formative years (though they were — I turned 13 in 1990 and 23 in 2000) but they also mark an era were certain styles of game were explored and perfected and not really bettered.
Sometimes they were overcooked, and even ruined.
Anyway: there are plenty of games that are touchstones for the 1990s, but the ones that matter in the context of Steamworld Dig for the purposes of my conversation are this list: Mega Man X (1993), Super Metroid (1994), Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997), and Mr. Driller (2000 — squeaking in under the wire in the last year of the 20th century.)
Of course, there are other influences on Steamworld Dig, both older (1980s: Dig Dug, Lode Runner) and newer (general best practices for mobile phone game design circa right now) and they’re worth mentioning, particularly the latter, but bear with me for a second.
Last year I played a lot of games, but my two favorite games were Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) and Vagrant Story (1999.) I hadn’t played either one before (well, more accurately: I’d started both of them and given up on both of them in frustration, finding them obtuse upon release, though I’d been very excited for both.)
I guess it was a little over a year ago when I was playing Final Fantasy Tactics and being utterly consumed by it, and watching it easily catapult into my “favorite games ever” list when I realized I’d reached a point where I didn’t any longer truly care about any of those animating forces that supposedly drive the need for new console systems: better graphics and modern gameplay design innovation (again, some on this latter later.)
Vagrant Story comes a close second behind FFT as “best game of 2012” for me, and I could sing its praises for a very long time. It’s an incredible game and really deserving of its reputation, of being played today, and also of being studied and written about nowadays. One thing that it does incredibly well is tell a story cinematically like a real movie, with short, well-framed, meaningful scenes. Most video games do not actually use cinematics to create cinema. But this ain’t what I’m here to write about, so I’ll move on.
It was in the forefront of my mind for the rest of 2012 that my favorite game of the year was from 1997 — even in terms of art direction, these two games stood above the rest of what I’d played, I’ll note. Contrasted with Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Tomb Raider, the alpha and omega of the shitshow that is Square Enix now, I felt a particularly righteous indignation at The State of Games Today.
So I guess this whole preamble is a lead-up to the fact that while I’m confident the medium of video games can be used for more than what we used it for in the 1990s, and technological advances are not irrelevant or undesirable, and that those two games are far enough from the best representatives of the triple-A scene that it’s unfair to pin the downfall of the Modern Console Game on their backs, and that there’s a thriving indie scene — etc, etc, etc — Steamworld Dig arrived when my brain had this question itching me: Were the 1990s the best era for games?
Steamworld Dig's answer to this is: Fuck yeah!
But it isn’t just enough for a game to say “I love the 1990s” and build on it with a dash of contemporary sensibility. There’s gotta be more going on there. Super Meat Boy and Cloudberry Kingdom are two examples of games that I’ve played and liked but not loved. Of course it’s partially a matter of taste (what Steamworld Dig does is not just build on the games of the 1990s, but build upon those 1990s play mechanics that I personally love, whereas those two games build on a mix of play mechanics I love and others I’m less personally enthusiastic about.)
But I guess my point is, I’m not a totally uncritical old guy just blindly harping on some game that feels retro. It’s like anything else. In the early 2000s Interpol came out and reminded a lot of people of Joy Division, and a lot of other bands came out around the same time that also reminded us of Joy Division (and/or Interpol), but Interpol was the best of them because it was the best of them.
There’s also the possibility of building a game heavily indebted to the 1990s without having it really feel of the era. I’m thinking about Spelunky, another game I love, here. There is not really any possibility that Spelunky could have come out for the PlayStation 1. It has a lot of the strengths of the era, but it has so much its own design concepts and feel that it just isn’t of that era. It feels new.
On the other hand, Steamworld Dig mostly feels new because of stuff that’s not intrinsic to its game design. With a few more superficial changes, I can easily imagine playing it on the original PlayStation. It seems very much of that time, from a design perspective.
What makes it so great, though, is that it takes a lot of concepts from different games and without hewing too closely to any of them — it is not a slavish or even loose copy of any of the games I’ve mentioned — it synthesizes an experience that does not feel too much like anything else while simultaneously feeling just like a whole bunch of things.
It’s, again, like listening to Interpol, or Tame Impala, or any other band clearly indebted to a very specific moment in time but also super intent on being creative in the context of what’s going on right now. And just like you don’t have to like Joy Division or George Harrison to enjoy those bands, I’m pretty damn sure you don’t have to like — or have played — any 1990s classics to enjoy Steamworld Dig.
I guess now is a good time to talk about why that is, despite the fact that I haven’t really described the game (oh yeah — if you just want to know what kind of game it is and how it plays and you’re getting fucking tired of this bullshit you can just go read Eric Caoili’s take on Tiny Cartridge or Jeremy Parish’s on USGamer. And then come back if you like.)
A really cool and smart thing about Steamworld Dig has to do with the fact that its team was a mobile developer before making a hardcore game. While I’m not a big mobile gamer (I’ve been told such an animal does exist) I’ve been paying close attention to the space since the App Store launched in 2008 and I’ve learned a lot about the conventional wisdom.
One of the harsh realities of mobile games is that you have intense and innumerable competition; your audience doesn’t (generally) care too much about any specific game because they can just go find another for (at most) 99 cents, and they generally end up trying your game (assuming they even stray from the big names) is because it’s been promoted to them or because it’s already on a top-selling or top-download list. The point is: you better damn well make this thing as seamless as possible. No pain points because pain points mean app closed, never to be reopened. And you better make it as addictive as possible with psychological tricks (like perfectly-timed upgrade/unlock paths) so that people are compelled to come back.
Steamworld Dig leverages both of these to great effect. There are tons of little touches that come out of the former: the UI is completely readable and distinct. You will never be at a loss on where to go or what to do but you will rarely have to be explicitly told, and you will never be annoyed. The menus are snappy and simple and easy to interact with, and transitions between areas are as quick as possible. The game quickly auto-saves as soon as you get back to town (that’s your single safe haven, as — if you hadn’t understood this yet — it’s a dungeon crawling platformer.)
This is the weird way in which Steamworld Dig is really modern and fresh while at the same time it’s an utter throwback primarily to games released between 1993 and 1997. And I’d argue that while some of the stuff that’s come out of the modern era of game design on phones is pretty grotesque or at least fucking boring, really great play balance and user-friendly streamlining of anything that should be streamlined are actually both wonderful and something modern console games of the triple-A variety don’t seem clued into and instead create solutions to these problems that are at cross-purposes with their purported value as games (hardcore games are about mastery, but giving frequent checkpoints totally undermines this, for example — they’re a necessarily evil of the fact that people don’t want to “waste their time” repeating content. I could turn this into another lengthy digression but I’ll spare you.)
In Steamworld Dig you play as a robot in an Old West-themed town (populated by other robots) with a mine under it. You explore the mine — at first with just a pickaxe. You destroy squares of dirt and hunt for minerals. You descend and descend and, as you go, you start to find caves, and in these caves you find upgrades that give you substantial new abilities — these change how the game plays.
When the game changes how it plays, the designers start messing with how the world functions, and you learn new rules. And then you find another upgrade… It’s just beautiful. One of my main recurring thoughts while playing Steamworld Dig is “I never want this game to stop.”
I don’t know about you, but that’s a feeling that always kicks in with me when I really love a game. Please, don’t end. I know you will, but… don’t.
There are games that are infinite or close enough that no matter how much I love them, the feeling never kicks in (Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Spelunky) and there are those that I like a hell of a lot but where the feeling never kicks in (Kid Icarus: Uprising, New Super Mario Bros. 2.)
It’s a weird emotion because it’s kind of bittersweet and it’s a bit meta. But it’s kept in check by the fact that the game is so fucking good right here right now. And that’s why it’s interesting (to me). Because it can’t overwhelm the game itself, and that’s what actually proves the game is so damn good.
I got that while playing FFT last year, and I get it from Steamworld Dig.
One thing I’ve become really cognizant of lately is that in games, we have a lot of fairly intelligent writing by a lot of really smart people about why games are good but there’s not a lot of really educated writing about it, which is why people like Raph Koster and Dan Cook write blogs, sometimes, saying things like “hey, yeah, we’ve been trying to formulate a language for this so… um… can you… read a book before writing anything more?” And in fact I have A Theory of Fun on my Kindle now (but I wasn’t reading it on this plane trip, sorry Raph, I’ve been reading Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.)
This is all a preface to my saying that the people who made this game either read a book or, just as likely, really learned what goes into tuning a game through lots of hard graft in isolation, which is how most really “talented” designers do it, I think, and it would be kind of stupid for me to try and explain what they’re doing in depth because I can’t, and I’m kind of tired of reading people groping around in the dark to try and explain why games are good. It’s the old blind men and the elephant problem.
I just know how it feels, and how it feels is: everything is perfectly timed and I always want more and I absolutely never stop trusting the game to stop giving me what I want and it never does.
There is always a new upgrade, and a new change in the way the game works, and there’s always a powerup to buy in the store, and right when I run out of life or light or get enough money it feels like it’s time to go back to town anyway, so why don’t I? It’s fucking magical. Except that I know full well it’s not: it’s the result of really smart people playing really carefully with values until they just work perfectly.
This is, incidentally, a reason 2D games are great: it’s not like this is impossible in a 3D game but the dimensional constraint makes it so much easier to confine a player to a certain set of options without it feeling limiting. I mean, contrast the magic red doors that close off a small chunk of Devil May Cry from “oh, you can’t move in all three dimensions” and tell me which one feels way more artificial and imposed on the player.)
This makes me think about Crackdown, because it’s the only open world game I’ve ever liked and it had the really genius limitation of height — you could go anywhere in the city all the time, but you needed to upgrade your jumping to reach the heights. What a good game that was despite its rather hilarious and obvious deficiencies.
I always had this theory and for quite a little while I stopped thinking about it, but it’s back. I always felt like the console generations kept pushing us forward technologically before the design spaces they enabled had been fully explored. I mean, the PlayStation itself is an example of this: 2D games started to die during this generation, for awhile, while 3D became the big thing. I can mention several (amazing) games from just that system that could have been refined further before the rug was pulled out from under them by the PS2. And that’s okay, in the end.
I mean, I thought it would be cool if they could have made a Sonic & Knuckles-style lock-on cartridge for Phantasy Star IV that opened up a new adventure in an old game. Less than 20 years later, DLC makes that idea banal.
But now is a time when we have a huge number of platforms, we have a huge number of developers, and we can make games of any style and type and team size and we can see these flowers bloom again. I wouldn’t say Crimson Shroud is in the same league as Vagrant Story — it’s simply too short, if nothing else — but it shows that Yasumi Matsuno’s as good at creating games as he ever was, and that he can still bring new life to his old ideas. It’s just that good. Steamworld Dig doesn’t, of course, follow directly in the footsteps of a prior title in that same way, but it illustrates a similar continuity of creativity, but from an unexpected source.
Games like this are the future — just as much as any other kind of game. The game industry pays a lot of lip service to innovation and spends a lot of money and time on technical achievements. But I think craftsmanship is absolutely indisputably what results in great games.