Every once in a while, an experience comes along that’s so completely sublime that it totally subverts everything around it. And it only happens once every generation or so. Gaming generations are pretty short, so the game before this that did anything remotely like it was Ultima 4, a game that took the idea of what it was you were supposed to be doing in an RPG and flipped it upside-down.
The game that came after this that did more-or-less the same thing was Planescape: Torment. A game about what it actually means to be alive. At the time, though, these games were both kind of underground sleepers. Ultima fans didn’t really understand what was happening in their series and people picking up Planescape: Torment figured they were getting another good RPG by the team that had delivered Baldur’s Gate.
In this way, The Dig is a completely unassuming LucasArts adventure. You boot it up and get a guy out in Borneo, looking at Asteroid data while he’s talking to his sweetheart. The next thing you know, you’re in control of an away team that’s set to blow up what seems like a hostile asteroid known as Atilla, the idea being that you’ll turn it into Earth’s second Moon.
Of course – as per the game – Atilla turns out to be “a real Hun.” Which is shorthand for “OH MY GOD! THE ALIENS HAVE ARRIVED.” A puzzle or two later and – without warning – the aliens abduct you. You end up in a galaxy far, far away. But without the droids or the light sabres. And there are certainly no Wookies.
What you get with The Dig is a surprise. It’s completely out-of-character for LucasArts [for the most part] in the sense that it’s not particularly funny. This is a story about aliens and earthlings stuck on an alien planet and the themes are pretty dense and thought provoking. There’s none of Sam and Max’s zany banter, no Monkey Island sword fighting and certainly no crazy Purple Tentacle.
Instead, The Dig is slow and so incredibly gentle that it is light as a feather. The landscapes are warm and beautiful, the soundtrack is ambient bliss. In short, it’s a marvel of computer gaming.
It does have flaws, however. One of the flaws is that a lot of the puzzles are all mechanical in nature. Sometimes, working out what the machines do – or how they operate – can be a little bit of a chore. Especially if you’re not paying attention to either the dialogue or the outcomes of your experiments.
One very early puzzle sees you writing a “computer program” to collect a part from the floor of a cavern and – until you start experimenting with the machine the arm is connected to, it’s very difficult to figure out how this all works – how the program is supposed to be input and what all of the little programming stubs do.
So, sometimes, the puzzles are a little impenetrable. The worst puzzle is easily the “put this dead creature’s bones back together again” bit. This relies on you seeing a clue that’s easy to miss. Not only is the clue easy to miss, but it’s also immensely frustrating to make sense of.
Moreover, The Dig is really two separate games. One game is all about interrogating everyone all the time about everything. And some people might not have the patience for that. There’s a lot of exposition under the hood, and you can only really get that by talking to the people around you.
The other game is the machine-puzzles game. That part is a little like Myst. If you don’t mind paying attention to your surroundings, writing down a couple of notes and thinking about the game while you’re away from it, then you will love this half of The Dig.
I’ve already mentioned the graphics, but I’d like to pause and talk about that in a little more detail, because the designers on this game had a clear-cut vision, and it’s obvious in absolutely every frame of every animation and every background that they throw onto the screen. The palette for this game is a collection of sunset colours that I completely love. Everything is so serene that it’s difficult to take the actual situation very seriously. Yeah, Boston and friends might be on a scary clock, but MY GOD have you seen the calm way the water laps at the shore-line? Or those beautiful colours you see when you first encounter the Light Bridges? Every screen of The Dig is incredibly beautiful. Even if the game is in 320×200.
There are occasional problems with the animations – most of these come from solving puzzles – and for the most part, these are quite beautiful, too, but they suffer from a little bit of jaggedness which is – sadly – par for the course as a result of the resolution the game is in.
And again, while the sound is absolutely gorgeous – if you like ambient music – unfortunately, the actors aren’t always up to the task of imbuing the characters with the kinds of emotion they should be feeling. There are rare occasions where the situation demands anger! And the actors give us a shruggy line that doesn’t seem angry at all. It is a little thing, but it detracts from how truly wonderful this game really is.
So, should you play this game? Absolutely. If you want a game that will steal you away – a game that’s serene and calm and doesn’t require any guns blazing and you don’t mind that there will be challenging puzzles and a thought provoking story about what constitutes life, then you should play this game. It was worth $60 when it was new, it is absolutely worth the $6 you can snag it for at most online store-fronts like GOG.
I did a let’s play of The Dig here.