Eurogamer Retrospective: The Dig

By John Walker on July 19th, 2009 at 11:43 am.

The really rather special LucasArts adventure, The Dig, had me getting my retro hat and trousers on for Eurogamer. It begins,

Seeing the 15 to 20 year-old point-and-click adventures appearing in Steam’s top sellers warms my heart. There is still an audience for these games, and they don’t need them to be in 3D with volumetric physics and dynamic downloadable content. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis has, unsurprisingly, sold the most so far, but for me the game I was drawn to uncover from the archives was The Dig. Not because I have fond memories of it – I had almost no memories at all. But because when The Dig was released in 1995, it carried the weight of six years of expensive, over-hyped development around its neck, and was played under a cloud of preconceptions and prejudice.

I feel that I should restate where I write in the piece that I discuss events throughout the fifteen year old game, including the ending. People seem to be missing this, and then getting cross. It’s not a game that would have been interesting to write about if not discussing its entirety. So don’t read page 3 if you’re about to play the game. Or read it anyway and yell at me.

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52 Comments »

  1. Monchberter says:

    I picked this up last week too and it is truly a quality game, the money’s on the screen and in the writing. Most notably in Robert ‘T1000′ Patrick doing a decent job at playing the main character.

    For the uninitiated, it plays like a Michael Crichton novel and is very very Nineties.

  2. rocketman71 says:

    No joke about Boom Blox today?

  3. Dood says:

    I really liked The Dig (and I still do). It’s a very mature game, and it doesn’t achieve this by resorting to violence (well apart from sawing someones hand off, whoops) and cussing but with calm and intersting characters and storytelling. It feels like the developers placed the story way above the puzzles, which i like. And of course it appeals to the Sci-Fi fan in me.

    That said, I can understand why the game isn’t liked by everyone. Some may dislike the rather slow pacing, which is normal for a point-and-click adventure. The puzzles though can be a bit annoying. I for one hated the crystal shape-changing stick thingies. On the other hand I really liked the turtle fossil puzzle.

    All in all, this is one of the most memorable Lucas Arts point-and-click adventures from the “good old days” ;)

  4. MeestaNob! says:

    I picked it up last week when LucasArts came to their senses and went digital distribution for their stuff.

    I love LucasArts point and click, but I have to say I’m finding it utterly frustrating compared to their other games. I feels like the only way of proceeding is by doing things because a internet walkthrough tells me to – the game itself never really makes it clear why I’m doing some things (unless I missed something, I still dont know why I need a the lightbridge – infact, when I found Brink up the mountain by a relic and I go on a rant about how I can ever repair lightbridges I hadn’t even fixed ONE yet).

    For me, the game lacks the subtle little verbal hints that I’m on the right track, but should perhaps do something else first.

    I’m determined to finish it, but I feel that I’m probably wasting my time, at least when compared to Grim Fandango, or the early Monkey Island Games (and yes, I love DotT and Sam and Max too).

  5. Flint says:

    Oh bollocks, the retrospective really gave me the twinkle to get this but then it started spoiling major plot points.

    I’ll still probably snag it at some point though.

  6. Xercies says:

    Very lovely piece, I really do think that maybe the point and click was a bit to focused on comedy then serious story to be honest. Now not saying thats a bad thing but maybe it could have done a lot better if they did focus on that. And you know people will probably provide me of examples of where I’m wrong in this aspect. (Oh and I know about TLJ)

    Anyway this has gotten me tempted to play the Lucasarts games I haven’t really played(which is really a shocking list to be honest) and when I have the money I will get these on Steam.

  7. Lorc says:

    Reading this earlier this morning inspired me to buy the game.

  8. John Walker says:

    I did write at the start of the piece that I’d be discussing the ending. It’s a shame people aren’t reading that sentence.

  9. TheSombreroKid says:

    @Dood
    those two puzzles are the highs and lows for me to, i hated the crystal stick puzzle so much i stopped playing it for what felt like years. i think the story probably was put above the puzzles for this game, but it is still really good, especially since you can just go on gamefaqs for the bad puzzles now.

  10. Markoff Chaney says:

    I really did enjoy this game when it came out. While it may not have pushed too many boundaries, it was the first of what felt like a truly “adult” adventure game on pretty much all levels and like it was striving to be fully polished entertainment except that lights tram puzzle thing. Excellent piece that fired up some neurons. Thanks for sharing.
    Surely there’s a time limit when any type of spoilers, even non prior notification ones, are allowed. I think 14 years is rather generous in any capacity.

  11. zipdrive says:

    I bought the game when it came out and enjoyed it. Somehow, the only thing I have left from the game today is the box: I use it to hold the manuals for my other old games.

    Internet, find my lost copy of The Dig!

  12. Dreamhacker says:

    I find it, in retrospect, really hilarious that many Lucasarts adventure fans disliked The Dig for not being humorous!
    The “darker and edgier” trend might not be so bad after all.

  13. Flint says:

    John: indeed, I managed to miss that one particular sentence so my own fault entirely – thanks for pointing that out and sorry for the mention, if I could edit the comment I would. Writing a personal retrospective while discussing plot elements (of a fourteen year old game in the first place) is a far more interesting read anyway. I’m not seething with rage or anything as silly as that, in fact I’m just about to open Steam and buy the thing.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Erlend M says:

    I dug this game when I played it a few years ago. It’s a game where all the puzzles are really logical and not too difficult, unlike some other LucasArts games where some puzzles are frankly ridiculous. The only puzzle I had to look up a walkthrough for was the get-the-lens puzzle mentioned in the article, but I found the solution to be more obvious in hindsight than John apparently did.

  15. Ginger Yellow says:

    “i hated the crystal stick puzzle so much i stopped playing it for what felt like years.”

    I hated it so much I stopped playing it for what was years. Still haven’t gone back.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    @ Xercies

    Actually, TLJ has a lot of humour in it. Unfortunately, most of it isn’t very good, excluding a few characters, which is maybe why you don’t remember it.

    I was going to wait to get this, but I think I’m going to have to buy it now after all the positive stuff I’ve been hearing about it.

  17. suibhne says:

    Also: I fondly remember one night playing The Dig on a break from university with three buddies back home, staying up from late at night until 6am or so and still not *quite* reaching the end. I need to buy the damn game just to achieve closure on one of my happy memories from more than a decade ago. That might have been the only time I spent in that apartment, and I was focused on the flickering CRT for most of the night, but I still remember the physical space of that room with surprising vividness.

    It’s the power of such memories that leads me to laugh a bit when non-gamers talk about games sucking us in and undermining our connection to “the real world”. Sure, it’s possible – but it’s equally possible for them to extend our relationship to that world and emblematize or reference it within our memory and consciousness in surprising ways.

  18. TonyB says:

    I’d like to say at the start that I really enjoyed this game, for the most part its script and characters were great, and it’s a nice change of style to the other Lucas adventures. However, MeestaNob has already handily pointed out the game’s biggest problem.

    “I feels like the only way of proceeding is by doing things because a internet walkthrough tells me to – the game itself never really makes it clear why I’m doing some things (unless I missed something, I still dont know why I need a the lightbridge – infact, when I found Brink up the mountain by a relic and I go on a rant about how I can ever repair lightbridges I hadn’t even fixed ONE yet).”

    Since you can get around the various sections without the bridges and there’s no immediate thing you get from activating them, I got very late in the game without ever working out what a lightbridge was, just being confused by conversations like the one you mention (I can’t remember if that was the only one or not). I think in the end, having finally hit the point where they needed to be active and spent hours getting nowhere, I finally looked at a walkthrough to find out what I was missing. I’d never considered holding the button down, it’s something you never do in adventure games, and the reaction to just tapping the button was enough to make me go “well, that must have done something useful” and not try anything else.

  19. lumpi says:

    I got stuck in some cave in The Dig months ago, and never got out of it… After the great intro, you’re facing nothing but puzzles involving colorful shapes and… well, colorful shapes, that’s pretty much it. Also, to make things worse, these puzzles are mixed with random point-and-click mechanics that are as illogical as it gets.

    Doesn’t change a thing about the fact that this game is ten times more enjoyable than most of the junk produced today, though…

  20. Gap Gen says:

    I think there’s a void where more good SF stories could be in games (and film, to some extent). SF in games tends to be space marines blowing the shit out of each other rather than modern-day soldiers blowing the shit out of each other. Something as subtle as, say, Alpha Centauri, is pretty rare.

  21. Clovus says:

    Curse. I did read the “spoilers ahead” sentence. Now I can’t read the thing until I play the game, and I really enjoy reading RPS retros….

  22. Magnus says:

    I picked up The Dig for £4 from HMV a couple of months back.

    Quite the find!

    It plays almost completely from the CD though, which is a touch annoying. Much quicker to make and use an iso, but I have had a crash or two.

  23. Trip says:

    There’s one thing about the ending that I wanted to mentioned, so don’t read this bit if you still haven’t played it all the way through

    ###SPOILER###:

    From the article:
    “The rushed ending… loses all gravitas when both Maggie and Brink are magically brought back from the dead without consequence”

    When Maggie dies at the end you can reviver her again with the crystals before you finish the last puzzle in the game, which alters the ending, giving it quite a dark twist imo, well worth trying if you haven’t already.

    ###SPOILER END###

    Other than that, it’s a great sci-fi and point and click game, only let down by the somewhat annoying colour changing crystal puzzles. Having a lot of focus on the 3 main characters made the game feel as it should, that were stranded, well executed imo.

    I’ve not played through it in a few years, but will have to again with all this talk after its re-release :)

  24. MeestaNob! says:

    (I just finished The Dig with the aid of a walkthrough just then, thankyou Steam, thank you helpful internet folk)

    Lumpi, you’re spot on. Once you descend into the whole from the surface (where Brink initially dies) it almost wall to wall colour/shape puzzles. In isolation they are fine, but once I’d finished the game (and read your comment), it’s surprising to realise that over half the game feels like it relies on using some variation of the same puzzle over and over. And over. I would have been fine with this had the game been designed to at least let me use the coloured rods with the doors, especially when I’d proven I understood how it works as I’d already opened a couple using it as a guide and would merely like to do it this way to save time. Worse still, you couldn’t even right-click to cycle backwards through the symbols. Fortunately there was only 15 of them.

    Re the ending: Quite good, but I dearly wish I could have saved Maggie in one of the endings. Despite them saying they had returned ‘fine’, I still chose to believe something could be amiss with them and that I had chosen poorly.

    Perhaps I was meant to feel like this – perhaps there was scope for a sequel.

  25. John Walker says:

    Trip – I tried to do that, but it would no longer let me interact with the console that had taken my last two crystals. Brink had taken all of mine, and then you only get given two from his crystal-making-o-machine. So where do you get another to revive her? I’d love to see that ending.

  26. MeestaNob! says:

    John, put the eye crystal in Brinks relic a second time and it spits out more life crystals.

  27. PJ says:

    I bought this off of Steam as soon as it went up – it was a game I’d been meaning to play for years. It shows promise, but in my opinion fails to deliver. It’s remarkably atmospheric to begin with, but the rushed and schmaltzy ending ruins all that. It has good puzzles (I actually liked that ‘pick up the lens with the drone’ one, because at least it was logical and just required observation) but the vast majority are more along the lines of ‘rub this alien sparkly thing against all the other countless alien sparkly things that you are given no clue as to the function of until something beneficial happens’. Plus, my suspension-of-disbelief got thrown out the window when Maggie learned how to speak an alien language fluently by starting at a few marks for a couple of hours. Now that would be a useful woman to go on holiday with.

    In short, s’OK, but I can think of at least 5 other point-n-clickers I’d put before it. And I’ve never even played Monkey Island.

  28. Wulf says:

    I have to say, in earnest, that I feel taht there are some puzzle games which are a bit too short, and the puzzles are bit too crap, and that the underlying content of art and story suffers because of that. I feel that these games would’ve been better realised as animated shorts, because they had an adventure game jury-rigged into them, rather than being an adventure game from the ground up.

    Games of that ilk just don’t have the soul of an adventure game if you will, they’re not Loom or Lechuck’s Revenge, and most of their puzzles aren’t clever, and most of the game is there just to make the story not seem quite as short.

    Full Throttle was one such game, and as much as I love adventure games — and I do love my adventure games — I got that vibe from Full Throttle from the start, that the designer wanted to get that story told in any format, even if it was just an adventure game. And this I feel was part of the reason for the downfall of the adventure game, because people were taking their stories, adding a few puzzles here and there, and then calling them adventure games.

    Recently Full Throttle was turned into an animated short, I remember watching it and enjoying it, and that’s the format it should have been in; a short, animated movie. It’s perfect like that, and so much better without having awkward puzzles (well, with one brilliant one, and we probably all know what that is) thrown in for good measure.

    Now I loved the Turtle Fossil puzzle in The Dig, but it was a one puzzle game, like Full Throttle, the rest of the puzzles seemed to be there purely to delay the story and make it seem longer, and some of the puzzles were very annoying because of that. In fact, I don’t know how many of you know the tale behind The Dig, but it was originally intended to be a movie, but they didn’t have a budget for a movie so they took the script to LucasArts and made an adventure game out of it.

    Now if The Dig had embraced what it could have been, it would’ve been better, I envision something along the lines of Outcast, with a more open World, many more things to discover, and puzles feeling like they’re an intrinsic part of the game, rather than simply feeling as though they were just slotted in there.

    When I play The Dig, and I have, even recently, I can’t help but see what it could have been if the plot had been set aside a bit in order for a larger game more true to the adventure genre, or if the game had been set aside in order for The Dig to be an animated short, but as the entity that is The Dig stands, it seems to be irritatingly at odds with itself.

    I hope eventually that people will remake The Dig as both; an animated short and a less story-bound, less linear exploration game based in a hauntingly alien locale.

  29. Wulf says:

    Thinky footnotes:

    The more I think of it, the more The Dig could’ve benefited from a Myst, even an Uru, approach to its game, because that’s what the atmosphere was trying to portray to me, and for me it just didn’t sit well with a LucasArts game. That story, an open World, and Uru-style gameplay, that would be epic.

    But I still want the animated short, too!

  30. Ozzie says:

    Yeah, I always think of The Dig a bit as an attempt by Lucas Arts to do a Myst like game.
    I could say many things about the game, but I don’t have the time now. I think it’s above average, but not a classic.

  31. lumpi says:

    @Gap Gen: I just noticed your comparison to Alpha Centauri, and indeed, that truly is the main strength of the game: A non-shooter-based science fiction experience. It’s such an incredibly rare genre (nowadays?… has it ever been different?).

  32. Xercies says:

    @Wulf

    I have to agree with you there, to me point and click games are basically interactive movies, but maybe thats why I love them. Your getting a story told very well(sometimes) and your also getting a few gameplay stuff in thrown as well. With me who places story above gameplay, adventures games are pretty much the perfect form.

    @Lumpi

    I to am getting sick of the space marines against the aliens rubbish in most sci-fi games coming out now. If only there was something like a Gattaca or a Dark City in game form.

  33. rod humble says:

    John Walker says:

    I did write at the start of the piece that I’d be discussing the ending. It’s a shame people aren’t reading that sentence.

    That is the new reading, just scan everything until something pisses you off then complain in the comments section.

  34. Annie Carlson says:

    SO GLAD THIS GAME GOT RETROSPECT’D. There’s a reason that the 16 year old me couldn’t get enough of it (even though the first puzzle on the planet was so obtuse I actually thought it was copy protection!), and I think it’s brought across perfectly in the article. Thanks for helping bring this buried classic back. Salud. /raises glass

  35. Black Mamba says:

    Nice article loved the Dig had a play through again when it came out on steam, lands music is just fantastic one of the best scores in game I’ve heard.

    It’s always a shame to see game sites go on about Spielbergs gaming involvement being Boomblox (a fine game) but seeming unaware of this forgotten gem.

    There are videos of the alternate path with Maggie if you revive her on youtube, she of course tops herself as a result, the ending is more or less the same but with different dialogue. Just search for bad ending The Dig and you’ll see them if you don’t fancy playing.

    As for the ending I quite liked it, I didn’t think it was overly sentimental bring the others back to life. I mean aliens in a dimension with access to all space and time cant bring back two dead people almost seems silly.

    What would be cool is a squeal, at the end the aliens do mention that we will meet again but I think the odds are somewhat remote, then again I never thought we would be playing a new Monkey Island so never say never.

  36. Premium User Badge

    Sagan says:

    I started reading your article, until you warned of spoilers. Then I bought the game, played it all the way through (with the help of a walkthrough sometimes) and then read the rest of your retrospective.

    I must say it was a great way of spending a Sunday.

    The best part really is the beginning. Until you dig down into that cave. They really shouldn’t have had the characters split up after that. And the environments start to become boring about an hour after that.

    And now, thinking back, I wish that it had been in another genre. Most of my annoyances stem from it being an Adventure. Like getting stuck because I missed hotspots earlier. Or the game being frustratingly slow because I have to wait until my character gets somewhere.
    But then again I don’t know a genre that could have told the story.

  37. Sunjammer says:

    My biggest issue with The Dig is that the game quickly becomes less about the dead, alien world and more about 3 loosely antagonistic characters’ reactions to isolation. The latter is simply less interesting to me.

    I anticipated the game horribly when it first came out. The lucasarts newsletter i subscribed to was being very kind to it, and the demo was a fantastic introduction, so it practically sucked that the game itself often devolved into myst-style IQ-test puzzles and went from being a strange alien world to a place of simple desolation. It’s a desert island story, and the aliens themselves are largely unsympathetic and uninteresting, leaving you with a tough-but-sensible lead, a somewhat annoying sidekick (Maggie), and an antagonist in Brink that seemed designed to lose my interest.

    I’d describe the game as a wonderful peak followed by a hard drop followed by a steady decline. It begins on an amazing upper and becomes a slog punctuated by a daft ending (unless you used the crystal on maggie and she came back hating you. That was wonderful).

    I love me some good Sci-fi, and the The Dig *is* good sci-fi at its heart, but the gameplay and dialog surrounding that heart makes the game tough to swallow.

    And jesus christ i HATE those rods with the shapes on them. Puzzles with items that are designed to fit into exactly THAT puzzle are ghastly inventions. Nearly no item you pick up in The Dig feels like it truly matters beyond some future puzzle. Hell, even picking up a pot in Monkey Island makes you wonder about possibilities.

  38. a says:

    Never got what people saw in this, myself. I gave it a try and the characterization just came off as cliched, and I thought the puzzles were shoddy. Oh well.

  39. michau says:

    Just a little note, Solaris is originally a book by Stanislaw Lem, written in 1961.

  40. tikey says:

    And there was never a movie with George Clooney, and I’m pretty sure I’m not trying to erase all memories of it.
    There is a fascinating movie made by Tarkovsky in the ’70s, that’s for sure.

  41. squadman says:

    I picked this up, along with many other LucasArts games, when they were recently re-released on discs. They were cheap (even for Australian games) at $10 each. Still no where near the end of the game, so I haven’t read the whole article… but it’s a nice reminder that I need to go back and finish it. I think that this game and Full Throttle are the only two LucasArts point and click adventures I have yet to finish.

    Glad to see they are getting some love again these days from a new audience!

  42. Dzamir says:

    @John Walker:
    If you use the machine 2 times, you can have other 2 crystals :-)

  43. John Walker says:

    Zero tolerance for the mindless snobbery against Soderbergh’s interpretation of Solaris. It’s an absolutely stunning film, Clooney’s remarkable in it, and those dismissing it because of Tarkovsky’s are being ridiculous. You may prefer the original film, but it’s completely ludicrous to pretend Soderbergh’s is bad, let alone deserving of such derision.

  44. Tricky says:

    Fired this up last night for the first time in years, thanks to this article – nice one, John.

    Oh, by the way John, I realised last night that we knew the planet was called Cocytus, not just because of the novelisation, but because when you look on the back of the original CD case insert, it says “Greetings from Cocytus”!

    By the way, for those of you complaining that the game is too slow because you’re waiting for your character to walk somewhere:

    a) Have some patience
    or
    b) Did you realise that if you double click on an exit, instead of having to wait for the character to walk there, the screen will fade to black and immediately take you to that location? It’s something Lucasarts started doing in all of their later point-and-click adventures.

  45. MeestaNob! says:

    Tricky, add to that you can press escape to skip animations like the tram close-n-roll.

    Almost makes you wonder why they didn’t include a map that you could use to hop to previously visited areas quickly rather than via the arduous trams (or even the frustration lightbridges, especially when you forget which spire is which).

  46. LionsPhil says:

    I have to say that I hated The Dig. It was a po-faced, melodramatic, Spielburgian mess (hello, forced happy ending), with writing so clumsy you’d think George Lucas himself were behind it.

    I honestly can’t figure why you people like it, other than chronic starvation of LucasArts games which are not zany.

  47. SPEEDCORE says:

    Wow 1995? Has it been that long?!?!

    Ahh mid 90′s gaming :)

  48. Lucky Main Street says:

    As a person who has only played some of these games, I’m absolutely dying with curiosity: what is the other “famous” LucasArts death?

  49. Ozzie says:

    Yeah, I’m curious, too.
    Does he mean the one in MI1? The fake one in MI3? Or the countless ones in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis?
    Not to forget, every Lucasfilm Games adventure before MI did let you die quite often.