Puzzle game

The Gunk is a puzzle game with crafts and heart

Image and shape games have built a reputation as a strong genre exchange developer. Under the Steamworld franchise, they’ve created card-based RPGs, Metroidvanias, and team tactics games. All are confident, understanding the power of their gender while rationalizing it to their essence. dirt is both new and familiar ground for the studio. It is a platform and puzzle game, with a classic step-by-step design. It is also the studio’s first foray into 3D, with a budget that is displayed on the screen. Fortunately, dirt is both skillful 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 freelancers Rani and Becks track down a mysterious energetic signal to a seemingly uninhabited alien world. They find pockets of energy… surrounded by a glue that stifles life and changes shape. Determined not to make this trip a waste of their ever-strained resources, Rani and Becks set out to solve the mystery of the grime. Quickly, they discover that cleaning up the grime reveals a lush world, strewn with the ancient machines of a dead civilization.

The following are the classic verbs of puzzle platform games. Rani will jump through caverns, arrange old machines to fight her way, and fight monsters. Attached to Rani’s missing arm, lost to the negligence of a foreman in a space mine, is a gigantic vacuum hand. The pumpkin, as Rani calls it, can absorb minerals and plants to craft upgrades, hang on walls, and suck up mud. It’s a classic video game multi-tool and the perfect accompaniment to Rani’s warm chat with Becks as she jumps over the holes.

All dirtThe puzzles are simple. Only one or two left me puzzled briefly and none of them turned in my mind like riddles. However, almost all of them fit in with the satisfaction of a good puzzle. The game is still readable. It has the efficiency of a good joke or well-drawn action scene, layered on top of setup and cost-effectiveness, increasing complexity but never straying too far from its core components. It’s just rewarding to play, the work of a team who know what they’re doing and have a lot more skill and confidence than any AAA game I’ve played this year.

It helps a lot that the game is legitimately well written. The riddles of the platform are systematically accompanied by the conversation of Rani and Beck. This is the normal fodder of a long-standing relationship: “When do we eat… what’s the plan for the future… I hope you stay safe.” It is based on a fundamental chemistry between the characters and a warm and lasting vocal work. The underlying attraction and tension of their relationship lies between Rani’s upbeat curiosity and Beck’s down-to-earth pragmatism. It’s a simple start, but one that the game leans heavily on. It’s no spoiler to say that Becks’ relentless cynicism and practicality hamper Rani’s reckless wonder. This character tension interacts with the central narrative in predictable but satisfying ways. It’s a game that understands the fabric of romantic relationships, as they are in money, time, and careers.

Rani and Becks constantly refer to a shared past, suggesting a bigger world. There aren’t many proper names, but there are enough to push the boundaries of the game’s vision. It gives what might be a vast, allegorical story some specificity. The result is refreshing. It’s a sci-fi game that just uses its frame as the bone for a story about a partnership. I’m happy to say that there isn’t much potential for sequelae in dirt. It’s wonderful to play a game with the evocation of a larger setting, without needing to overload it with traditions and connections.

The presentation is just as well put together. The soundtrack is enveloping and ambient rather than melodic. It relies on ropes to create a wonderful feeling of space. The game is dedicated to terrestrial sounds, to such an extent that when a serious synth pulsed under the atmosphere, it legitimately surprised me. Visually, the game has a lush, glossy clay appearance. dirtThe budget did not allow motion capture or a large set of animations. In the trade, the camera has a real eye for visual storytelling. As you enter new areas or switch to a loading screen, the game has actual fixed camera angles, leaving Rani to be engulfed in threatening or animated environments. dirts world feels rightfully alien, evoking the mushroom landscapes of Morrowind or the bizarre sets of Star Trek: The Original Series. This weirdness effectively complements the game’s environmentalism. Even the game’s puzzles have a sort of ecology. The interplay between plants and the mysterious source of energy is central to much of the game, providing an understanding of how the flora and fauna of the world build a world together.

dirtEnvironmentalism is sort of mundane. I could definitely do without red = bad, green = good color coding. However, it is rooted in the real concerns of a material world. The alien inhabitants of this strange world brought the filth because they wanted all of 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 a home. It’s not subtle or complex, but it has real world logic and is not a cheap allegory.

i don’t mean that dirt totally avoids a kind of imperial logic of video games. Rani is the one who can save this world, not the people who once inhabited it (although she needs their help). The natural and bountiful world is mainly used to provide tools for traversal and materials for upgrades. Removing grime instantly restores plant and animal life, without any of the complex work involved in cultivating a sustainable life. But it’s a game about how we have to save each other, which worker-centric environmentalism feels serious rather than casual or cheap. It’s not as daring or poetic as another environment-focused platformer Even the ocean, nor such a powerful portrait of work under capitalism as Logs of a spaceport janitor. However, his character focus stands up to these games.

In reality, dirt is a game that I would like to see more of. It’s about being content to be good, rather than great. It’s short enough to end in an afternoon or two, but fun enough to span a week. Bigger, 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 outperform its much larger contemporaries. If you’ve played Halo or Call of Duty and are feeling exhausted from current games, dirt is a perfect palette cleaner and an effective gateway to even better games.

dirt was developed by Image & Form and published by Thunderful Publishing. Our review is based on the PC version. It’s also available for the Xbox Series X | S and Xbox One, and on Game Pass.

Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her Grace in the Machine blog and can be found @ grace_machine on Twitter.