A Robotic Canary in a Coal Mine: The Quietude of SteamWorld Dig

Right from the get-go SteamWorld Dig lets you know that it’s going to be a quiet experience. The game’s hero slowly walks across a barren desert while a tune that’s equal parts Metroid and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly plays solemnly in the background. Much like the inspirations it wears on its sleeve, the adventure within SteamWorld Dig is a lonesome one both thematically and design-wise.

SteamWorld Dig is one of those games that gleefully defies definition. A lot of people label it as a “Metroidvania” at first blush, and while it has elements of one, I always think of that as kind of a lazy comparison. It is its own beast; focusing more on the gathering of supplies and bettering your cowboy/miner avatar Rusty and the gratification of self-improvement rather than simply showing your growth via combat prowess. It’s an important distinction, and one that I think a lot of people have noticed.

The game begins with an all too familiar scene with Rusty quietly sauntering to a town called Tumbleton, to pick up the deed of his lost uncle’s mine. As he’s going about his business, he is introduced to his new claim by haphazardly falling into it. It’s a pretty loosely hidden tutorial, but luckily it’s also a brief and to-the-point one as well. Soon enough you’ve pried a pickaxe from your deceased uncle’s cold, lifeless hands and you’re on your way to fortune, glory and answers underneath Tumbleton.

Your goal is to dig as far down as you can go, finding out what your uncle discovered and making a tidy profit all the while. The game runs at a comfortable cycle; you mine for minerals and ore until you run out of oil for your lantern, then return to the surface to sell your wares and upgrade so you can dig deeper ad nauseum. You’re never pressured to try and get further, so the game lets you kind of decide your own pace through its labyrinthine network. Personally, I chose to futz around and make sure I raked in as many robot bucks as I could to try and max out Rusty in order to make the game easier for myself.

As you move further and further into the old claim, secret paths are uncovered. Some just offer a little bit of platforming with a side of resource gathering for good measures; others are marked because your uncle had already scoured them and contain a significant upgrade. SteamWorld Dig never has pretenses at being anything other than what it presents to you, and it’s one of those rare cases where that’s a good thing.

The quietude of the experience is unique in a world where bright and colorful bombast are the order of the day. Rusty’s endeavor is a lonely one, with subtle undertones such as solemn music, lack of lighting and genuine surprise every time you run into something below that moves. It makes the workhorse mentality of being a miner something special; the dreariness offset by the reward of finding rare ore or a hidden alcove. More importantly, it never overstays its welcome even though I wouldn’t have complained with even more tunnels to explore.

The plot too is a subtle one, to the point where you don’t even really have to follow it. By little bits of conversation though, you can divulge that there’s more going on underneath Tumbleton than first appears. As you go further, townsfolk begin to question the high technology you unearth and why you’re even doing so in the first place. The end game is shocking, with a surprise that you don’t really see coming. If I had one complaint about SteamWorld Dig, it’s that it never owns up to what happens just before the credits roll. There are more questions than answers and it leaves the ending a little underwhelming. Obviously the hope is that all will be revealed in the upcoming sequel.

SteamWorld Dig was a phenomenon when it first hit the scene; everyone was taken aback by how good it was. It feels familiar while also treading a new path, a perfectly heady mixture that didn’t go unnoticed. Even better is that it holds up to repeated play-throughs. I don’t think the randomization of ore placement is the key, rather its the return to a more somber state of mind that you don’t often see portrayed in video games very often. It’s like a robotic canary in a coal mine – you’ll somehow find your way back.