One of the more strange LucasArts adventures, The Dig is essentially a science fiction movie with some interaction. Originally released in 1995 during the “CD-ROM Multimedia” craze, it features writing by Orson Scott Card and is based on an idea by Steven Spielberg. All ingredients for a great experience?
The interface is a radical departure from LucasArts’ previous verb interface, a trend that started with Sam & Max in 1993. There are no verbs, just a single “interact” action when clicking on stuff with the mouse. The inventory has to be opened by clicking on the little [i] box, and it contains an “examine” action. In a way, this foreshadowed the trend in the 2000’s of only having two actions, “Interact” and “Look”. I’ll talk about verb design in a later post, but in general, this works well for The Dig because the cinematic experience is first. Michael Land’s music helps with that as well – it’s a true movie soundtrack, very atmospheric and while not driven as much by melody as e.g., his work on Monkey Island, it is an awesome support for the game.
Now, I keep talking about The Dig as a cinematic experience. But how is it as a game? Unfortunately, it suffers from a bunch of issues that make it not nearly as much of a classic as most other LucasArts games. First, the writing. As said, Orson Scott Card had a large part in it. Whether you like him as a person or not, there is no doubt that he is one of the best serious science fiction writers, and as a result, The Dig has really great writing. Unfortunately, it also has a lot of it. Characters often ramble on for way longer than welcome, leading to long periods of watching instead of playing. There is also no way to skip single sentences like in more modern games – you can skip whole conversations, but you can’t just skip the current sentence after you’ve done reading it. I’m pretty sure there is enough writing in there to make it a full blown movie, it’s just that often it gets in the way of the gameplay.
Speaking of the gameplay, The Dig is not an entry level adventure, its puzzle design is obscure and (ha!) very alien. One reason is the art style – it’s another radical departure from past LucasArts adventures which were comic-like. The Dig looks very realistic (for 1995), with some pre-rendered sequences. As a result, some things are somewhat hard to see or obscured by the background. You are also almost immediately thrown into a series of complex puzzles (for those who played it: The power generator puzzle felt way too hard for how early it was in the game. For those that haven’t played it: 5x purple, 2x yellow, 1x red, then 5x purple, 5x blue and 1x red) with very little guidance. In a way, this fits the setting well because after all, you are on an alien world and your characters don’t know anything either, but on the other hand it made it hard for me to hook me and make me want to keep playing.
Getting hooked is something LucasArts was really good at, mainly because of the world and the characters. In The Dig, neither is immediately interesting, but to be fair, I’m looking at this in 2015. The characters in the game are actually really well done, it’s just that they don’t start out very sympathetic and it takes a while to feel for them. Brink should’ve had more character development before a pivotal moment early in the game.
None of this is truly bad, but some of it really limits the appeal. It is more a like a science fiction movie that every once in a while remembers that it is actually supposed to be a game, and if you give it a chance it shines with some great (albeit not easily skippable) writing and (for the time) great voice acting. It deserves a lot of credit for showing how CD-ROM Multimedia can be done good and if anyone is planning an HD Remake of the game, adding skippable dialog lines, putting “Examine” on the right mouse button, and offering a slightly gentler difficulty slope would make it a true classic.