Rebound: The Dig

Unrelated announcement (maybe I do need to get Twitter or something):  New Fiction up in my Works section.  It’s the first part of a series I’ve been thinking about for a while.  Yes, it’s a vampire story, but I am going all Neal Stephenson on you and making you learn the lingo via context.  It’s rough, so let me know what you think.

Normally (i.e. the two other Rebounds) these articles are about games I played a while back and wanted to review to bring out a point.  This one is simply about an old game that I finally picked up recently… which brings out a point.

I was struck with an almost crippling case of nostalgia a month or so ago, and I came across a copy of The Dig, of which I had played only in demo form when it came out in 1995.  Now, I loved the LucasArts adventure games that came out in the nineties on the SCUMM engine.  I’ve played through Full Throttle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, and The Curse of Monkey Island at least three times each, but I never managed to track down a copy of LucasArts’ final SCUMM game.  Until now.

Adventure tends to be one of those catch-all genres that weird games get lumped into, but when someone talks about an adventure game that came out in the nineties for the PC or Mac, odds are good they were talking about a story-driven, point-and-click, style game, usually sprite-based and puzzle-intensive.  If the game was any good, then odds were better that it was put out by LucasArts, back when they could do more than Star Wars:  The MMO or Star Wars:  The Arcade Racer.

These games were not about skill, but logic.  They rarely punished the player for making mistakes (most did not even have game-over screens), and almost all of them had humor.  Rather than kill the player and force them to reload because he/she thought it would be a good idea to put a coat hanger in a light socket, the avatar would simply stand there and reply with a snarky, “Um, no.”  The only real drawbacks with these games were that they were short, had little-to-no replay value, and the puzzles could be maddeningly complex.  Like replacing a bucket of golf balls with a bucket of fish to make a row alligators to walk on to cross a lake complex.

The Dig was a bit different.  While the gameplay was very similar to Sam and Max, the tone was much more serious.  The animation was on-par with Full Throttle, and featured an awkward mix of 3d, hand-drawn sprites, and pre-rendered backgrounds.  While many adventure games take place in fantasy or modern settings, The Dig is a science fiction game featuring a near-future humanity’s first encounter with the remains of an alien civilization.

Unfortunately, the game’s visuals do not hold up today.  I compared the animation to Full Throttle, and the technical style is mostly the same, but the character art is all over the place.  Consider these three screens:

The first screen is taken from one of the final cinematics.  The second is an in-game screen, and reflects how the characters look for most of the game.  The third one is a picture from the in-game communicator.  Oh, and all three pictures are of the same character.  I read that The Dig had an “eventful” development period, and here, it almost looks as if the art teams never got a chance to compare notes before the game shipped.  At least Ben always looked like Ben in Full Throttle.  You never had to sit and wonder who you were looking at.

The puzzles, always a high point among LucasArts adventures, were not quite as memorable here.  I admit I had to consult a walkthrough on a few occasions, and I rarely felt that I was the one at fault for failing to solve the puzzles myself.  It is one thing have a set of controls work an elaborate “claw game” using preprogrammed routes.  It is quite another to have that set of controls, and then put the “activate” switch on a completely different object.  Even then, a helpful, “This looks like it should do something.  Let me look around the room some more and come back to it,” would have allowed me to solve the puzzle on my own.  Perhaps it seems odd, then, to criticize the majority of the game’s puzzles for being too simple, but the game just does not hit that happy balance as the developers did in others.

Interestingly, the dialogue for the game was written by Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game).  The game featured voice-work by Robert Patrick (T-1000 from Terminator 2) and Steven Blum (Spike from Cowboy Bebop), and had a plot based on an idea by Steven Spielberg (really, you do not know this guy?).

I admit, despite this impressive cast and crew, the game had some serious flaws.  Most noticeably, the tone was all over the place, and I never really knew whether I was supposed to feel amused or thrilled.  Take, for example, a moment when the lead female character, Maggie Robinson, is captured by a non-intelligent alien creature.  The game had done a pretty good job of developing the relationship between Maggie and Boston Low, the protagonist and player-character, in a relatively brief span, so this point in the story was relatively tense.  After the encounter was over, there was this exchange.

Boston Low:  Did you do anything to attract that monster to you?

Maggie Robbins:  I don’t wear perfume, and heaven knows this outfit isn’t exactly alluring.  I was just sitting there.

Boston Low:  I guess that’s enough.

Maggie Robbins:  That’s usually enough for lonely men in bars.

-via IMDB

The above lines are delivered in the same playful bantering, yet almost lazy tone that permeates the game.  It is fine when the characters are going through the initial Armageddeon-esque sequence at the beginning, because it just seems like well-trained experts easing the tension while they go about their difficult — but expected — tasks.  In the situations that follow, however, as Low and crew explore a new world and defy death (sorta), it breaks the atmosphere the game is trying to create.

This would not be such a big deal, but it detracts from the reason I am writing this Rebound.

(Hypocritical segue ahoy!)

Thanks to my recent acquaintance with writers like Neil Gaiman, I have started thinking about the sense of awe and wonder that comes with what I think of as “adult fairy tales”.  Pan’s Labyrinth, Neverwhere, Big Fish, American Gods; these works require maturity (in the sense of “responsibility, attention to nuance, etc.”, not “boobies, blood and guts”) to fully enjoy, and I realized that I had never really gotten that feeling from a video game.  The aforementioned titles take a warped, yet oddly beautiful take on the world in which we live, and in-turn, force the readers/watchers to reconsider what is around them.

Yet The Dig pushed hard to make me feel that way, mainly through its interpretation of transhumanism* and xenoarchaeology.  By tapping into Man’s need to improve himself, and to discover, which has not been significantly satisfied since the Americas’ depths were explored, The Dig‘s plot managed to create (at times) that sense of wonder and discovery… just not consistently.

*I do not claim to know the vagaries of the muck that is the transhumanist philosophy, if I am using the term incorrectly, then be sure to comment, harass, and stalk me until you feel you have made your point.  I love that kind of stuff.

The game toys with a great, meaningful storyline, if only the voice-work could have been directed to match!  I do not know if Patrick and company were just in it for the payday, or if the project lead, Sean Clark just did not have enough experience with voice direction (keep in mind, fully voiced dialogue was a major selling point for this game, and rare for the time), but the dialogue could have been so much better.  Patrick sounds like a rough and weary survivalist, struggling to make the right choices in an alien environment when his crew’s lives are on the line.  I know Blum can deliver deep, emotional characters as well.  They just fail to convey the sense of awe that players really should be feeling as they move through the game.

Contributing to this disappointing disconnect is the brevity of the game.  While most LucasArts adventure games may be run through in short order once the player knows the solutions, The Dig felt way too short even the first time I played it.

I get the feeling that the game could have held on a bit longer had they developed a solid antagonist, or some similar plot device that could crop up from time to time.  Brink, one of Low’s two fellow explorers, seems to fit this role, but he ends up tooling around in one area for the majority of the game, and is more of an unhelpful dick than an enemy.

It seems self-defeating to use The Dig to make this point, because any attempt to recreate this game in anything other than a strict update or sequel would probably be wide of the mark.  It would probably end up with another faceless Space Marine blasting his way to victory, or some-such.  Despite that The Dig is the only game that comes to mind when I think about self-reflection inducing games, I would start from scratch before trying to create the feeling again.

It is unfortunate that I have never had a chance to play any of American McGee’s games.  When I described the altered view of movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, I instantly thought about how instantly familiar folk tales, like Alice in Wonderland and the Grimm tales, would be perfect fodder in place of a near-real world.

As it stands, at least in my experience, game developers are worried about doing different things.  RPGs want you to fall in love with their characters.  Shooters want you to feel the rush of being in an action movie.  Even BioShock falls short of that self-realizing moment, mainly because the environment (while beautiful) is so alien.

I have been reading too many “call for research” papers lately, but I am going to conclude with a request.  Devs, make me feel that way.  Put me in a world that looks a lot like my own, but make it fun.  And make it weird.  Not LSD trippy, but maybe pot weird.

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