Game and Book Retrospectives

The Dig

PC - Lucasarts, 1995

Adventure and slightly mystical archaeology with a strong and sassy explorer, created by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. No, not Indiana Jones, The Dig.

I had just finished all of the Indiana Jones games ending with The Last Crusade and The Fate of Atlantis. Feeling a bit of point-and-click fatigue, I wasn't looking to play more adventure games when I unearthed The Dig. In fact, I had not-googled suggestions for more games with an Indiana Jones vibe, which turned up a recommendation for this 1995 Lucasarts classic.

The Dig does share some other parallels with Indy adventures. An opening scene separate from the main adventure, travel to exotic locations, uncovering ancient cultures to solve mysteries as fact and fantasy blur into one. But despite some similarities to the Indy formula, The Dig is definitely its own game, and one that gripped me from the start. It begins with your crew floating in space, moving freely about the screen wherever you deign to click. Already it feels more ambitious than the Indy Lucasarts adventures. The Young P7uen Chronicles very much consisted of space, fantastical archaeologists, and fantastic space archaeologists, so I was all in from the first scene.

This game had a Deep Impact on me.

Growing up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I enjoy stories involving competent people working together to solve a problem. All the characters in The Dig are very competent, but there is a surprising friction between them from the very first scene. While I prefer a TNG-style lets-all-be-nice-to-each-other dynamic, your colleagues on the space shuttle Atlantis do not all get along with you or each other, which ultimately becomes important to the story and atmosphere. I actually found the slightly fraught conversations quite refreshing, turning some of my recent expectations from The Fate of Atlantis and The Last Crusade on their head. For an adventure game mechanic, it also lends believable agency to the other characters who don’t share your goals or interests. Of course, being a classic point-and-click adventure this agency is demonstrated by them doing some animations until you solve the right puzzle, but it's sold particularly well here. They don't need you and don't particularly want you either, meaning you're conveniently left to go and uncover the story for yourself.

And uncover you must, literally and figuratively. There is digging in The Dig, with your trusty shovel among the many items you will be using to progress from the opening scene. Although some years before the familiar Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998, you are in orbit planting nuclear explosives to prevent an asteroid hitting the Earth. Soon after, you are whisked away to an alien world in the game’s opening. Dumped unceremoniously on this new planet, what else is there to do but study a long dead alien culture in the hopes of somehow making it back home.

A beautiful and interesting alien world.

The beautiful art hits you straight away and there is a serenity of being alone somewhere unfamiliar but benign. The sense of place is helped in no small part by the beautiful score. Michael Land, who oversaw the soundtracks to many Lucasarts games, really stretched his legs with the more introspective tone of the game.

There is a real sense of wonder and discovery, especially in the first half of the story, wandering around a very alien world. Lacking a clear goal at first, you simply wander curiously (and point, and click), as your discoveries slowly guide you in the right direction. It was compared to Myst at the time, which is less grounded and more abstract than many similar games. It’s obvious why, as Myst has a similarly slow pace and undirected opening in a peaceful environment.

The puzzles in Myst were also famously obtuse. For the most part the puzzles in The Dig are satisfying and follow logic, or at least 90s adventure game logic. There’s always one impenetrable puzzle, and in The Dig it's the notorious broken lens. There are the odd moments of pixel hunting or Use-every-object-on-everything temptation which, as a boring old gamer, I don’t have time for.


Happily I have no qualms using walkthroughs to skip those parts. It’s a crucial part of playing (and more importantly, enjoying) old games for me. It can be difficult enough with archaic user interfaces, non-standard controls and game design, so there’s no need to add more frustration to the mix when trying old classics. Fire up a walkthrough and enjoy the show.

On the subject of 90s interfaces, instead of a list of verbs along the bottom of the screen as with most SCUMM games, The Dig’s scenes take up the whole screen, letting you soak up the atmosphere. Click an icon to bring up your list of objects and likewise click on a person to talk to them. You can also click on their icon in your handheld PDA to talk to them on the radio. Click the icon representing what you want to talk about, and the conversation will play out. This means you can talk to them even when they’re not around. Each new object or discovery adds a new icon, so you can ask your crew about whatever new discoveries you have made, granting a bit more freedom and less cause for backtracking. When you do have to retrace your steps it’s thankfully made less painful by clicking to skip most of the transitions, a nice quality of life improvement after playing the Indy adventures. The game design is very player-friendly, providing time-saving shortcuts as you progress as well. It clocks in somewhere short of 10 hours to finish which is among the longest Lucasarts adventures of the time and I was satisfied for it to be over once I reached the end.

The graphical icon system.

The radio system again typifies the obvious care and detail that has gone into the game, your colleagues sounding tinny if you’re talking via your PDA. The dialogue itself has been criticised as tinny as well. It could be considered rather dry and clinical without the humour of its contemporaries, but for me it works great. A bit of technobabble, characters in a life-threatening situation that are interested in scientific and sociological discoveries, it fits the game well. The animosity of your crew gives you an even greater feeling of isolation on this alien world. Robert Patrick of Terminator 2 fame does a great job as the lead character Commander Boston Low. There is still some playfulness in the writing and sarcasm of your crewmates to lighten the mood, but compared to other Lucasarts adventures, it’s appropriate, but not entertaining banter.

That comparison to other Lucasarts games of the time seemed to Loom large over The Dig at the time. Reading some old reviews it seems the contrast in tone to Monkey Island or Sam and Max was jarring, but here in the future, without those expectations, I had no such qualms. I wasn’t expecting a comedy, and I didn’t experience any hype leading up to its release. The game had a huge weight on its shoulders with Lucasarts’ pedigree, Spielberg’s name attached and an unprecedented 6 years of development, a lot of which was troubled. The reviews were generally good, but it seems the hype and the distinctive style worked against it. To this day it still seems divisive among reviewers even as the hype has faded away as it aged.

The Dig - credit Retromags.com.

There are other ways in which it has aged as well. Another famous name, writer on The Dig and of sci-fi classic Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card is rather problematic to say the least. Our middle aged white male Boston Low is as generic as they come, and is the typical blank slate 90s hero. He is mostly pit against the single minded and determined Maggie Robbins, a journalist sent on the mission to record history. They clash regularly. As noted by John Walker on RPS (warning, MAJOR ending plot spoilers) (who I consider a close personal friend as he once responded to my letter about Yoda Stories in an issue of PC Gamer in the late 90s) their relationship can be considered a bit more problematic at the end of the story. I liked the maturing of their relationship over the course of the game, and at least it never devolves into a mere love interest.

You won't find that ending often cited as the strongest part of the game. It’s a sudden shift in tone which perhaps stems from its roots as a short tv story, or is a result of its troubled development. But The Dig is very much about the journey, not the destination.

I'm certain my mind would have been blown had I played it as a child, although let's be honest, I would never have made it past that damn broken lens puzzle. But decades later, The Dig is still well worth playing for the atmosphere alone. Yeah, I dig it.

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