During TIPC2, Mata Haggis-Burridge discussed how games have relatively few verbs available that allow us to interact with the past. This made me think… We shoot, we maim, we strategize, we “press X to pay Respects”, but only rarely do we dig. Which is a pity, because digging can be a lot of fun! Case in point? Holedown!
— By Doctor Random
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: yes, this is a Games We Dig about games in which you dig. This review is not a simple excuse for wanton punnery. I’ve truly always been fascinated with digging in games and I and many of you reading this have done quite a bit of digging as archaeologists. So in a way, it is weird that we didn’t delve into this topic sooner! (Ok, that was a pun, sorry…)
The first digital digging I really dug was Boulderdash, a Commodore 64 game — I played it on the NES, though. You are Rockford, a geologist (I guess) who digs around trying to collect diamonds, evade underground critters, and avoids getting conked on the head by falling rocks. It is basically a timed puzzle game in which the digging feels strategic, fun, smart and frustrating. It’s probably through the rose-tinted spectacles of NEStalgia, but I remember the digging felt really right, with just the right amount of delay and visual feedback.
Digging as (video game) craft
I enjoyed digging a good hole as a kid, for example on the beach or by helping my dad in the garden. However, I started thinking more deeply about digging in the first year archaeology fieldschool. I remember distinctly doubting the seriousness or sanity of the archaeologist who went quite in depth about the theory of digging at the start of the first day. Of course, I quickly found out — through sore muscles and messed up features — that digging is a craft. It is a craft that is easy to mistake as simple, but is hard to master. Like any craft, when done right it will result in an artefact of the highest level (a hole or other soil abstraction), and is extremely gratifying to undertake.
Seeing a first year’s archaeology student initial skepticism about the craft of digging, it is not hard to understand why so many games get digging wrong. If you dig in a game it can be instantaneous (Fallout) or tedious (Minecraft), but it hardly ever feels strategic, smart, fun or worthwhile in itself. I’ll wager that 95% of developers that design digging, whether as a (sub-)feature or core mechanic, have never really seriously done any digging as a craft.
I started thinking more deeply about digging as a game mechanic, when I read Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark’s A Game Design Vocabulary. Anna in particular is a designer that has spent quite some time thinking about digging, which comes into focus in the first chapters of the book. In it she talks about the importance of verbs for defining what rule-based systems (like games) are really about. She discusses at length how the verb “to dig” is what is central to the game Tombed, a game in which Danger Jane explores a tomb, but gets trapped and has to dig for her life as spikes descend on her.
Tombed is a small game that gets the smart and fun part of digging right (the original can be hard to find, but you can still check a deluxe version here, also check out more of Anna’s games at w.itch.io). What it doesn’t get right (for me) is that instead of being methodical, Tombed’s digging is stressful as it takes place under constant time pressure: you have to make fast digging choices as “spikes on head” is an ever present, imminent problem. Perhaps there is some larger metaphor at work here about the pressure that every archaeologist is under when excavating, as time is money and money is in short supply when paying for time in the field. Yet actually digging, not planning an efficient excavation strategy, is a methodical and strategical undertaking as well as tiring, complicated, and yet also strangely relaxing.
It is my experience in the field that I will be active non-stop, except for a couple of small breaks. An entire day can be spent digging. What I am doing when digging is feeling for and thinking about the best way to excavate what is a small part of an archaeological site — hopefully, but I’ve excavated my fair share of non-archaeological soil too. In the Caribbean, the region where I was lucky enough to do the majority of my digging, this is complicated by roots, (enormous) rocks, fragile and small objects, stone artefacts that look like stones, hard to spot ashy and sandy features, holes dug in limestone, thousands of tiny fish bones, stone-hard shells, and all sorts of other things that make the life of an Caribbean archaeologist a frustrating, tiring, slow as well as engrossing and rewarding sensual and mental delight.
Wherever they do their digging, I think many archaeologist will agree it is a kind of interplay between body, soul, and soil. It is, in a way, the type of embodied play that makes one worldful (a great concept inverting the idea of mindfulness, which I borrowed from Ian Bogost’s Play Anything). Granted, while I can smell, touch, taste (yes, been there), hear and see the things I am digging, games generally have to make do with the latter two experiences. It is difficult to give me the real deal via a screen, audio, and input, but with its smart and minimal design Holedown comes very close.
Down the hole!
In Holedown you use your finger to direct little balls of which you’ll get progressively more, both over the course of one play as well as through a currency-based progression system. These balls are used to go down in a hole,but a soil-like material impedes your progress. You aim the balls downwards, in a billiards kind of way, to get rid of the blocks of material: using the edges and angles of a shaft as well as the blocks. The blocks have numbers and every time a ball hits a block one gets subtracted from that number. If the block number reaches 0 it gets removed. Furthermore, there are two types of material, free-floating material and another one that needs other material to support it or it will collapse. Balls will bounce around until they arrive back at the top of the screen. Finally, you can pick-up currency for the progression system that is encased in blocks of materials (like artefacts).
These simple mechanics lead to a really satisfying game. The touch controls feel smooth, are easy to pick up, and can lead to tactical experimentation with different angles as well as a snuff of luck if a series of balls bounce around just right. More importantly, even if it doesn’t look like digging, it feels like you are. That is mostly because of the different and changing resistances of the soil that is encountered while digging down — i.e. the different numbered and two different types of blocks. Just like in the field you sometimes can “brute force” your way through a bit of tough soil (by using strength or in Holedown by shooting a lot of balls at blocks), but it is hardly ever the right thing choice as you will expend your energy too quickly. Instead it is smarter to maneuver around resistances in the soil by probing here, aiming there, and finally smoothly excavating whole sections in one go. In short, Holedown matches the challenge, rhythm and feel of (archaeological) excavation.
Holedown is an absolute milestone in digital digging and I invite you to experience it for yourself. If you do, let us know what you think of it. Or tell us what other verbs you feel should be innovated on when it comes to interaction (with the past) in videogames!