You’d think by now video games would have more verbs. We have blockbusters where a single button will make you, alternately, dodge a bullet, scale a cliff, garrote a guard, and generally perform all manner of badassery. Or multiple buttons might be strung together to form a quick-time event, a kind of Simon Says for heroes. In each case, you do something simple, and through the magic of video games, awesome happens.
But these catch-all buttons produce only imitation verbs, amplified to flatter the player. And the remaining alternatives — those consistent video game verbs arising from dedicated controls — are still quite limited. Shooting and driving immediately come to mind and are compelling enough to define genres, or even form the core of an experience around which shallow ancillary verbs can orbit (as in Grand Theft Auto V). Still, it’s remarkable just how narrow this range is, how little you can actually do in games so abuzz with seeming activity. It’s no wonder that at the beginning of this console generation, Nintendo’s Wii found success by taking simple motions and connecting them to familiar pastimes. Returning a serve or bowling a spare suddenly felt closer to the real thing, and one could sense in each movement the promise, still unrealized, of new video game verbs.
The verbs I find most interesting in gaming are those that draw from the real world but then transform that action into something more resonant and strange, something that only makes sense in a video game. Mario’s jump is the clearest example. Yes, we can jump in everyday life; no, we do not do so regularly, not with our dignity intact. We jump so poorly, over such small obstacles, and usually as a last resort. Mario’s jump is ebullient and rigorous, though, a means to spatial mastery, a study in movement as meaning. When I first played Super Mario Bros. in a dingy Pizza Hut, I was struck like everyone else by his precision and the sense of being there that comes with a verb fully predicated.
I was struck by something else, too, a consequence to that jump, a trace left behind in an otherwise invisible arc. A trace carved out of broken bricks. This was cool in World 1-1, but the bricks were mostly just stage setting for question mark blocks and the coins or power-ups hidden within. But in 1-2, those bricks were another thing entirely. They defined the underground passage itself, not just an occasional walkway but the walls and ceiling too. Where they hung low, your Super Mario could bust through, practically digging upside down. Their destructibility was the first clue that the top of the screen was not just some artificial barrier; it was key to thinking beyond every apparent edge and discovering 1-2’s true treasure — the warp zone.
This may seem quaint now, another setup for the story of King Mario and his enduring influence. But my point is that this aspect, the destructible environment, did not have nearly the effect on future games that it should have. Yes, there are elements designated “destructible” in many games, but these are mostly props. You destroy things in the world, not the world itself. Making a hundred cars explode at once is cool; digging into the dirt of GTA V and having it stay dug would be cooler. Most video game worlds aren’t designed for players to have any meaningful impact, not even physically. We’ve become so used to polygons not inclined to budge that the very idea of persistent destructible environments in an open world is practically unthinkable. And yet games have finally emerged that take this underused gaming verb — the dig — very seriously.
Like video game jumping, video game digging diverges from its real-life counterpart in significant ways. It’s easier, it requires less equipment, and it’s not nearly as messy. It’s also, like jumping, less purposeful. You don’t need a grand plan to begin some excavation. You see a surface, you wonder what’s on the other side, you start to dig.
Minecraft is of course the current gold standard for virtual digging, even if the elaborate structures players build get more press. Having no immediate need to recreate Midgar, I watched Minecraft from a distance for quite a while. I never really got its appeal until I finally played it last year. Only when I saw firsthand how its world worked in survival mode, how everything came from something else, how its blocks were not truly destroyed but always reused or transformed, how my range of actions were natural extensions of its materialist universe, did its power come into focus. The game was just so coherent, not in spite of but because of its limitations. This was no mere construction set, where one could erect towers with ease. Carving out any habitable space, let alone building your own majestic keep, took real time and effort. And it was all done at a human scale, a two-block Steve working one block at a time.
Though Minecraft’s embodied perspective, consistent rules, and necessary labor are vital to its appeal, especially when it comes to building, the actual digging is how it finally hooked me. I love caves, the underground, enclosed spaces. And a Minecraft world is full of them. I would go scouting, taking in the full lay of the land, and come across a hidden ravine or an unassuming hole stretching down into darkness. I’d feel real vertigo looking over an edge and glimpsing the reflected glow of lava, since a fall would ruin me. I could dig anywhere I wanted, but the world pushed back with its own rules, requiring tools and light and time. Whenever I returned to the surface, I couldn’t help glancing back, Orpheus-like, at the evidence of my passage, at the tunnels and makeshift stairs and trail of torches. At any natural dead end, I could press ahead, knowing that at any moment I might break through into another cave system. I felt like I was there because its world was not just a series of backdrops and evocative illusions. Its world was really there. At least as much as any video game world can be.
So it was hugely disappointing when my walkabouts in Minecraft Pocket Edition yielded no such caves. No deep gashes in the earth exposing layers of ore, no twisty little passage leading who knows where. I had thought the reduced size of the map would be the problem in the mobile edition, since having that feeling that you would never get your mind around its world, never fully map and domesticate its space, was an important part of my Minecraft experience. True, the smaller world felt more knowable, but what was practically game-ruining for me was that there was now nothing to know under the surface. Nothing beneath me except a frozen sea of raw materials, a mass of mineral veins and rock stuff.
There is, of course, still plenty of mining to be had for any player who wishes to build an Isengard of one’s own back on the surface. And the digging itself is still engaging. But the world you are digging into matters, and when there are no natural formations to negotiate, nothing dark and grumbly below, the whole thing feels more like a transaction with yourself and less like one with a world. Without caves, mining loses its power to surprise and makes survival mode feel like just a more arduous creative mode. Minecraft Pocket Edition is still at the top of the sales charts nearly two years after its initial release, and it will no doubt be updated to expand its scope and carve out an underworld, but for now: Miners and explorers beware.
Terraria goes hard in the other direction, inviting players into a sprawling, dangerous underworld. What appears to be Minecraft recast as a 2-D platformer is really a full-fledged adventure game with some basic mining and crafting elements and a whole lot of item collecting and fighting, all set in a randomized map. The perspective switch has some interesting effects on the digging experience. For one, though a perceptual fog somewhat limits what you can see, and lighting still matters, it is harder to get lost underground. 2-D environments trade on legibility and clear spatial relations (except when intentionally hiding secrets), and much of digging’s sense of wonder is diminished because you can kind of see what’s just beyond the wall you’re clearing away. Still, it’s fun to carve your own path and explore the 2-D depths. And little touches like the water physics make the cave system feel more dynamic than your usual platformer.
Terraria’s exploration has a more distinct purpose, though, and you realize this about 30 minutes in as your inventory fills up with exotic items and you begin to die. This is where Terraria’s transition from PC to mobile devices undermines its premise. Unlike Minecraft, whose already very simple controls didn’t suffer too much in translation, Terraria’s controls simply can’t support the adventure it wants you to have. Years of platforming bring certain expectations about how hard or easy it should be to, say, jump. And Terraria suffers the same way all mobile platformers do without a directional pad for movement. Early enemy encounters were frenetic and messy, but I never got far enough to see if combat was manageable for the harder enemies. It was really just basic movement that sunk Terraria for me. If my biggest fear is falling in a hole that will take me forever to get out of, and I’m not playing Atari’s E.T., then something is very wrong. Even digging offers no real solution to this because it is too protracted and scattershot, the brick units too small, and it just feels superfluous to what the game is really about. Digging functions more as a workaround to the world’s randomness, not a central verb upon which the adventure depends. Which would be fine if Terraria’s other verbs were at all suited to the touch screen.
Digging in 2-D can actually be quite satisfying when given responsive controls and a clear focus, and SteamWorld Dig has both. It’s available on the Nintendo 3DS, so the tactile feedback of buttons and a directional pad is not an issue. That a vaguely Metroidvania-style steampunk western starring cute robots would choose digging as its focus is surprising, though. SteamWorld Dig is the kind of charming, original title, both polished and restrained, that explores some forgotten part of our gaming vocabulary and in doing so makes an inspired case for its revival. Its upgrade loop is familiar but never grindy, and I loved its commitment to extreme verticality (reminiscent of the original Metroid, a game unafraid to oppress you with long drops into the isolation of an alien underworld). It flirts with a tougher cave-diving structure early on by imposing scarcity on your resources, but this falls away once shortcuts are introduced. Which is understandable, but unfortunate. As with most games in the Metroidvania mold, mastery of your environment comes at a cost, and the underworld eventually loses a great deal of the menace that made it so compelling to begin with.
Much of SteamWorld Dig’s power, like Minecraft’s, lies in its coherence. Digging is not some sideshow here; it’s what you come for. Enemies are just a distraction, and most of the powers you gain center on improved digging mobility, not fighting. The game urges you to tread lightly at first, to think about whether the paths you carve down will allow you to make your way back up. For every digging choice creates negative space that allows passage but potentially limits purchase (clear out the entire shaft and how will you return to the surface?). These limitations inherent to digging create naturally interesting choices. Unlike Minecraft, which lets you replace the blocks you mine, SteamWorld Dig’s excavation allows for no do-overs. And until late-game powers render this fact moot, it provides a very material sense of consequence, paths carved and those not, right there in the dirt.
My favorite games of the last few years have offered a very strong sense of place. Video games can do many things, but transporting players to a new world is still chief among them. I crave that sense of being there, in its space, not with my belief suspended but with my belief provoked, by an environment that responds to my verbs, that is deformed by my presence. I can’t wait until all the kids obsessed with Minecraft grow up to make their own games, thinking its approach to world-making (and unmaking) normal, not the revolution it actually is.
If environments were more supple and digging a more common video game verb, not limited to Minecraft or SteamWorld Dig or the extraordinary Spelunky, it might develop a fuller range of expression. Think of all the different kinds of jumping and the way they evoke different characters, different game experiences (Mario is no Mega Man is no Rayman is no Samus). Digging is itself a rather earnest verb, awfully willful, a bit drab. But also deeply curious and hard to satisfy. With a medium like video games, that so excels at surfaces, we need such stubborn, unglamorous verbs.
I know that part of what excites me when I stand in a Minecraft world and stare down into a cavern is the concrete image it gives me of surface and depth, of hidden passages below, of the dark places within the earth. When I look back again after exploring those depths and see the path I’ve carved, lit by the torches I’ve placed along the way, I see something else — the evidence of my passing. Digging by its nature leaves a trace. There’s the action and what remains, the dig and then the dug. Video games feel more vital, more necessary when they too mark our absence. When they do not clean the slate every time we turn around. When we can look back afterward and see the outline of a past, a hole where someone used to be.