Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
LucasArts was known for their comedy adventure games, but The Dig turned out to be a much more serious sci-fi affair.
The Dig (PC)
(USA 1995, developer/publisher: LucasArts (defunct), platform: PC)
A large asteroid is on collision course with Earth, and when a group of specialists try to prevent the catastrophe with a bomb on the surface of it, they’re suddenly pulled into an alien world.
A story not from this world and time
The original story was written by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, but it was thought to be too expensive and too ambitious to put on the big screen. After a prolonged time of development and various changes in concept, it was finally turned into an adventure game with quite a few narrative changes. What remains is a classic sci-fi story about exploring a new world, including all sorts of strange phenomena, and a crew that doesn’t only struggle with the hardships of this strange new and dangerous place, but also with their own personalities that soon turns into more than just arguments. The team comprised of the practical Commander Boston Low, the rather condescending German archaeologist and geologist Dr. Ludger Brink, and the more emotionally involved linguistics expert and reporter Maggie Robbins is the perfect starting point for involving the player in sympathizing with them. The dialogues are mostly well-written, although some of the humor feels forced. It’s certainly not a comedy adventure, and some of the witty remarks with dry humor work, but there are a few instances when certain comments simply feel out of place in more serious situations.
An alien world to explore
The alien world is big in scope and ambition, taking the concept of open world as far as a classic point-and-click adventure game can go. Without spoiling too much, suffice to say that it’s a perfect place to evoke wonder and invite curiosity by making the player unravel its mysteries. There is even an alien language that provides background information and clues to solve the puzzles. The more one progresses in the story with its various unexpected twists and turns, the more the alien world opens up, making it often difficult to remember all the locations. Without any map and puzzles that require constant backtracking, this can be rather overwhelming. But it also creates an immersive atmosphere by letting the player feel as if everything is strange and new, with only slowly discovering more and more of it. Being able to travel with a unique underground tram system only adds to the feeling of being just a small part in a world one gradually begins to understand.
The story is still amazing to experience today. While people being stranded on an alien planet and trying to communicate with its life forms is as old as the sci-fi genre itself, it’s just done in a very subtle way. Pulling the player in with just enough clues, building up to a climax and turning into something much more epic is testament to the high quality of writing. Admittedly, the game can become rather text-heavy on exposition in the latter stages, but overall it remains a wonderful, scary, and also quite emotional journey due to some surprisingly brutal scenes for a LucasArts adventure game, as it doesn’t shy away from blood and violence. Two different endings, depending on specific choices one makes before, is also a very nice way of rewarding other approaches, although what these are can only be surmised afterwards.
Strange puzzle beings
Despite the huge world one traverses, one usually knows what to do, often with various goals to achieve. One is slowly introduced to each new location, as one first needs specific staffs that show symbols for doors one has to open, showcasing the great mix of linear progression without taking the freedom of exploration away from the player. The puzzles are varied and logical for most of the time, but items can be easily overlooked and the solutions aren’t immediately obvious. Fortunately one doesn’t carry around too many objects and their combinations aren’t too obscure. Only a planet system and a very annoying fit-together-the-right-pieces-of-a-skeleton puzzle are bad exceptions to the rule of logical thinking. The aforementioned alien language gives clues with images, but these are rather cryptic, so that trial-and-error moments rear their ugly heads at times. Triggering certain story events is also frustrating, as one soon checks every screen for items or clues, only to find out that something happened somewhere else and one needs to be there in order to progress the story.
Classic presentation with timeless audio
The pixel art style is still nice to look at. Even if it’s not always easy to make out some objects, each background is full of small details, often with impressive depth which creates vistas that are alien and beautiful at the same time. Despite having low-res sprites, the characters’ facial expressions and movements are enough to carry most of the more emotional scenes. The cut-scenes might be pixelated, but the hand-drawn animation pieces are great all the same.
The other-worldly atmosphere is further enhanced by a fantastic soundtrack that is as moody but also as distinctive as the best of sci-fi movies. Not simply copying pieces as from the Alien movies, but presenting something unique, the musical score jumps between emotions of curious exploring to foreboding horror, sadness, and even awe-inspiring wonder. Combining synthesizers as well as the sounds of wind, rocks falling, and alien creature sounds, the music is the perfect accompaniment to a unique sci-fi experience. Very good voice acting complements the positive experience, with well-known actor Robert Patrick (of Terminator 2 fame) being Commander Low, but also other characters doing their roles justice.
A classic sci-fi adventure in the best sense of the word
The Dig is one of those rare games that is successful in creating a unique atmosphere, telling a great story with memorable characters, while still offering enough interesting gameplay for adventure game fans. Despite only taking around 8 hours to complete, one won’t feel that it should be a longer game. It’s just the right amount of puzzle solving, exploration and NPC talk. Even if it has its flaws in forced humor, some trial-and-error passages and constant backtracking, this is a sci-fi game that won’t be forgotten and has to be played by anyone who thinks LucasArts only did comedy adventures. It’s also further proof that games can tell stories that are as impressive to play as they’re immersive to read and to watch.
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