Image and Form Games have earned a reputation as strong genre-swapping developers. Under the Steamworld franchise, they created card-based RPGs, Metroidvanias, and team-based tactics games. All are confident, understanding the power of their genre while streamlining it to their essence. Dirt is both new and familiar ground for the studio. It’s a puzzle platformer, with a classic step-by-step design. It is also the studio’s first adventure in 3D, with a budget that is displayed on the screen. Fortunately, Dirt is both skilful and direct. It’s a regular old video game with craftsmanship and heart.
Dirt has a simple premise, which moves with refined elegance. Poor space independents Rani and Becks track a mysterious energy signal to a seemingly uninhabited alien world. They find pockets of energy… surrounded by life-choking, shape-shifting goo. Determined not to make this trip a waste of their ever-stretched resources, Rani and Becks set out to solve the mystery of the grime. Soon, they discover that cleaning up the grime reveals a lush world, dotted with the ancient machinery of a dead civilization.
The following are the classic puzzle platformer verbs. Rani will jump through caverns, arrange old machines to make a path, and fight monsters. Attached to Rani’s missing arm, lost to the negligence of a foreman in a space mine, is a gigantic suction hand. Pumpkin, as Rani calls it, can absorb minerals and plants to craft upgrades, cling to walls, and suck up mud. It’s a classic video game multi-tool and a perfect accompaniment to Rani’s warm conversation with Becks as she leaps through the gaps.
All DirtThe puzzles are simple. Only one or two briefly puzzled me, and none of them swirled around in my mind as real puzzles. However, almost all fit in with the satisfaction of a good puzzle. The game is still playable. It has the effectiveness of a good joke or a well-drawn action scene, layered with set-up and payoff, growing in complexity but never straying too far from its core components. It’s just rewarding to play, the work of a team that knows what they’re doing and has far more skill and confidence than any AAA game I’ve played this year.
It helps a lot that the game is legitimately well written. Platform puzzles are consistently accompanied by Rani and Beck’s conversation. It’s normal fodder for a long-lasting relationship: “When do we eat…what’s the plan for the future…Hope you’re staying safe.” It is grounded in fundamental chemistry between the characters and warm, enduring voice work. The underlying attraction and tension of their relationship is between Rani’s optimistic curiosity and Beck’s down-to-earth pragmatism. It’s a simple start, but the game draws a lot from it. It’s no spoiler to say that Becks’ relentless cynicism and practicality get in the way of Rani’s reckless wonderment. This character tension interacts with the central narrative in predictable yet satisfying ways. It’s a game that understands the fabric of romantic relationships, wrapped up as they are in money, time and careers.
Rani and Becks constantly refer to a shared past, suggesting a larger world. There aren’t many proper names, but there are enough to push the boundaries of the game’s vision. It gives what could be a vast allegorical narrative a certain specificity. The result is refreshing. It’s a sci-fi game that’s content to use its setting as the bones for a partnership story. I’m glad to say there’s not a whole lot of sequel potential in Dirt. It’s wonderful to play a game with the evocation of a larger setting, without needing to overload it with lore and ties.
The presentation is just as neat. The soundtrack is enveloping and ambient rather than melodic. It relies on strings to create a wonderful sense of space. The game is dedicated to earth sounds, so much so that when a synth bass pulsated under the atmosphere, it legitimately surprised me. Visually, the game looks shiny and lush. DirtThe budget didn’t allow for motion capture or an extensive set of animations. Commercially, the camera has a real eye for visual storytelling. When entering new areas or transitioning into a loading screen, the game has real fixed camera angles, leaving Rani to get swallowed up in threatening or busy environments. Dirtthe world of seems legitimately foreign, reminiscent of the mushroom landscapes of Morrowwind or the bizarre sets of Star Trek: The Original Series. This strangeness effectively complements the game’s environmentalism. Even the game’s puzzles rely on a kind of ecology. The interaction between plants and the mysterious energy source is central to much of the game, helping to understand how the world’s flora and fauna build a world together.
DirtEnvironmentalism is somehow banal. I could certainly do without the color code red = bad, green = good. However, it is based on the real concerns of a material world. The extraterrestrial inhabitants of this strange world brought the filth because they wanted all their needs taken care of. Rani and Becks search for the power source to pay their bills and repair their deteriorating spaceship, which also serves as their home. It’s not subtle or complex, but it has real-world logic and isn’t cheap allegory.
i don’t mean that Dirt completely avoids a sort of imperial video game logic. Rani is the person who can save this world, not the people who once inhabited it (although she will need their help). The bountiful natural world serves primarily to provide tools for traversal and materials for upgrades. Removing gunk instantly restores plant and animal life, with no intricate labor required to cultivate sustainable life. But it’s a game about how we have to save each other, whose pro-worker environmentalism feels earnest rather than flippant or cheap. It’s not as bold or poetic as another environment-focused platformer even the oceannor a portrait of work under capitalism as powerful as Diary of a Spaceport Janitor. However, his emphasis on character resists these games.
In reality, Dirt is a game that I would like to see more. He’s content to be good, rather than great. It’s short enough to wrap up in an afternoon or two, but fun enough to span a week. Higher profile, bigger budget indie games are here to stay. It’s a perfect example of what the format could offer and a showcase of how a short game on a moderate budget can outshine its much larger contemporaries. If you’ve played Halo or Call of Duty and feel drained from current games, Dirt is a perfect palette cleanser and an effective gateway to even better games.
Grace Benfell is an aspiring queer woman, critic and fanfiction writer. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.