Written by Dan Gill
The Secret of Monkey Island. Maniac Mansion. Sam and Max Hit the Road. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Full Throttle. Grim Fandango. These titles – and indeed their sequels and prequels – are regarded by many as stone-cold classics; absolute pinnacles of the point-and-click adventure genre, and they gained LucasArts a reputation as one of the finest developers of the era, offering a friendlier alternative to the player-killing Sierra titles of the time. While the aforementioned titles are well known by many, there are a few others which are often overlooked; Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders and Loom tend to have a smaller yet dedicated following, but one title which is considered by some as the black sheep of the LucasArts flock is The Dig – but why?
Beginning as an idea by Steven Spielberg for his Amazing Stories TV series, The Dig famously had a protracted development. Deemed too expensive to film for TV, the idea was passed to LucasArts as a pitch for an adventure game, development on the title starting in 1989. The game went through a drawn out process of adding and scrapping ideas, and staff leaving and joining the project throughout its six year creation. Alongside Spielberg, the story was developed by interactive fiction author Brian Moriarty (whose previous gig with LucasArts was Loom), and dialogue was written by sci-fi author Orson Scott-Card. The pedigree was certainly there for a solidly written adventure game, but looking back it's clear to see how the game was to differ from its stable mates; who's writing the jokes? This is The Dig's first issue. The house that brought us Guybrush Threepwood and Purple Tentacle has developed a more serious tone, and fans at the time perhaps weren't expecting this.
The story involves three astronauts being sent to a potentially earth smashing asteroid in order to alter its trajectory. As the game progresses the player discovers there's more to the asteroid than there seems, sending the team across the universe to another world. There's no doubting the engrossing nature of the story, and that is one of the game's strongest assets. Each development compels the player to make progress in order to see what will happen to the intrepid explorers next, and there's a desire to open up more of the alien landscape. As expected from LucasArts, the background art and characters look great (for the time), and the 2D and 3D animated cutscenes have a distinct mid-nineties allure with their grainy, low resolution charm.
As expected, gameplay centres on exploration and puzzle solving. Perhaps due to the game's setting, the puzzles differ slightly from the rest of the LucasArts catalogue, preferring to take inspiration from somewhere between the “use X with Y” approach of its peers, and the abstract headscratchers from aesthetically pleasing slideshow puzzler Myst. This is a refreshing approach, but may dissatisfy those who didn't get along with Cyan's game. The puzzles can sometimes be a little obtuse, but no more so than those of Monkey Island 2.
So far a mixed bag then, but I found my biggest problem with the game to be its voice acting. A shame, since Robert Patrick and Stephen Blum are involved. While Blum (a seasoned voice actor) plays astronaut Ludgar Brink well, Patrick's Boston Low and Mari Weiss's Maggie Robbins lack any kind of emotion in response to the game's events, really taking the shine off the title's presentation. One can imagine the two of them stood in the recording booth reading the script verbatim whilst thinking of what they'll spend their fee on. As such I'd recommend turning off the vocal track and sticking to the text. The soundtrack's rather lovely and otherwordly, so it's certainly a decent alternative to the dull reading of Scott-Card's script, which itself is pretty good, but peppered with a dusting of awkward, stilted lines.
So, not one of LucasArt's finest (although it was their biggest selling title at time of release in 1995), but not worth missing out on. I think it's fair to say that if The Dig were released by another developer it would have had much more critical recognition and praise. It's a solid game that offers a good few hours of adventuring, a decent story, some reasonable (and slightly obscure) puzzles, a good musical score and some great environments and ideas. If it passed you by first time round I'd certainly recommend playing through it now. It deserves a place in your LucasArts point-and-click collection alongside those classics, just don't expect too many jokes.