In 1989 I was Site Overseer for the Stowe Avenue Digging League, Back Garden Sandpit Division. I wielded a fiersome plastic dumptruck in bold blues and reds, a yellow spade and rake combo, and my nimble, enthusiastic four-year-old’s hands.
Oh, the heady exploits of those halcyon days! Towers of sand would rise, sand-civilisations would fall. I would dig to the very centre of the Earth, where a ridged, orange plastic base resided. The wonders and trinkets to be found there! Kit Kat wrappers, chunky two-pence pieces, a dried nugget of cat poo once when I left the sandpit lid off overnight.
I tell of these adventures not to brag, but to justify to you my relevancy as a reviewer of Digger-Simulator 2011. I know digging: the earth is beneath my fingers; soil saturates my blood.
So it is something of a disappointment to find Digger-Simulator does not bring to mind the joys of my clodhopping childhood, but rather replicates the screaming tedium of adult machine-based labour.
The tutorial level is my first indication of this fact. I am dumped into a quarry, empty but for an enormous pile of dirt, a sifting machine, and a number of storage boxes. My task is to drive a wheel loader (a basic digging vehicle, for those with less industry knowledge than I) to the dirt, scoop some up, drive it to the sifting machine, then put the sifted materials into their corresponding storage boxes. This Sisyphean undertaking is repeated ad infinitum, until you either quit out or linear time disintegrates.
And it is not an enjoyable undertaking. Wrestling the wheel loader to the dirt, wrestling your scoop into the dirt, wrestling the dirt back to the sifting machine, takes around sixteen years. At which point you drop the load and miss the machine’s tray, because none of the preset camera angles give you a sufficient view. So you drive back, swearing, and try again. This time you get some dirt in the tray, but nothing happens. More swearing, and a glass of wine, later, you discover at least three trips are needed to fill the tray enough for it to turn on automatically. This produces what can generously be called a “miniscule” amount of fine sand, which is deposited in a flatbed truck. You swap vehicles, and drive the truck literally ten yards to the storage box — except the truck catches on the geometry of the box, and freezes. So you swap back to the wheel loader and try to move the sand that way — except the wheel loader gets stuck on the geometry of the truck, and also freezes. Everything is now frozen.
At this point you swap your wine for gin.
The game doesn’t improve. By the third mission, set in a suburban garden, I’m so bored I start roleplaying. I am Gaz, a young workman not long off his apprenticeship, struggling to make rent on the flat he shares with his layabout mate Kurt. I’ve got this job digging a trench through the garden of some snooty middle-aged housewife. The pay is good, but I’m secretly depressed. I have this feeling of existence pressing in on me from all sides, this idea that I’m trudging inexorably towards my own death, doing nothing with my life but maintaining.
Oh well, I’ll dump this dirt into the geraniums, nip off for a cig, then maybe meet Kurt for a cheeky pint of Stella before the posh bird comes home from her samba lessons. If I ever get my digger unstuck from this fucking hedge, that is….
The actual digging in Digger-Simulator is a convoluted process, but passable enough. A tap of the spacebar toggles between driving controls and crane hydraulics, mapped to WASD and the arrow keys. Completing missions involves adding or removing dirt from a predetermined area until it reaches the required level. You putter your vehicle to the dig zone, engage hydraulics, claw up all the dirt within reach, then putter along a little further and repeat the process.
Bulldozers and cement mixers add some variation, but the basic formula remains the same. There are a large number of missions, although most are nigh-on identical, and take place in only a handful of locations.
Now … Digger-Simulator is a turd. Clearly. And yet … And yet … it almost isn’t. There’s this odd sense, when playing, like you can see the game it should have been. Maybe there’s another universe out there, unlike our own, where it works.
There is something to the lazy repetition of the digging, you see, something soothing, almost meditative. You dig, you putter, you dig some more … The hours drift by, and you’re reminded of those hazy afternoons of childhood, sat outside absorbed in some meaningless task, the light fading, the sounds of your dad chopping carrots blending with the voices of football commentators on the radio …
Video games have potential for reigniting that deep focus we experience as children, that immediacy and clarity born of living in a new world where endeavours are begun for their own sake, not out of a desire for some perceived external goal. Watching ants crawl across a scorching summer pavement, say, or building a dam over a stream, knowing it will be washed away when next you return.
Just once or twice, Digger-Simulator brings these relaxing pursuits to mind. This is, however, but an echo of a dream; the reality is more often banal and tiresome.
The game’s soil — its raison d’etre — looks worryingly like cat litter. It animates in jerks, like a GIF from the nineties. Vehicles surge forwards when driving, and corner as if they were on ice skates. The graphics are flimsy, backdrops look like they’re made of cardboard. Getting stuck in geometry is commonplace and crippling, some missions rendered unplayable thanks to the sheer number of objects your crane will freeze upon. The front end is ugly; purchasing new equipment appears to only work intermittently.
As a piece of software, Digger-Simulator is a mess. As a game it is just dull. There is no artistry, no beauty, no love.
It is not my intent to mock. A game about digging could work. The Stowe Avenue Digging League members (my next-door neighbour and I) took pledges for life, afterall.
Beneath the concrete of our world, the old earth resides. There is magic in the soil. Sadly, though, very little of it can be found within Digger-Simulator 2011.
[Eurogamer sent me this game for winning their reader review competition. I didn’t spend money on it, or anything.]