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Looking back at The Dig

What I remember most clearly about The Dig is my associated feelings of disappointment. The 2D point-and-click adventure game—released in 1995, soon after Myst—had beautiful, painterly, 1992-era graphics. That is to say, upon its release, The Dig was already dated as hell.


I was 13 when I played it—The Dig had been in development since I was 7—and it was the first time I’d played an adventure game so “on rails,” so “cinematic,” so a series of narrative moments and cutscenes, each one waiting for your trigger. I remember consciously thinking, “This game doesn’t even need me! It can just play itself if it wants to!” I’d felt, at the time, that the game was, somehow, overly directed, somehow too controlling and too, too linear, and I’d wondered if that wasn’t maybe because Steven Spielberg (!!!) was too protective of The Dig’s storyline. I was frustrated.

What’s interesting, though, is how well the too-dated parts of the game have aged: the 2009 eye can’t tell the difference, I guess, between 1992 and 1995. And contrarily, as John Walker notes in his excellent Dig retrospective for Eurogamer, the 1995-era stuff—those little moments of then-impressive CGI—look comparatively cheesy next to the game’s painted backdrops and setpieces.

Perhaps other aspects of the game have withstood time, too. Maybe the game’s painstakingly planned moments of revelation, and all its meticulous exchanges of dialogue—which, in 1995, were irritating and aggravating for an old pro with her very set ideas of how an adventure game should play and feel—can be accepted and amended by a 2009 eye and ear as simply part-and-parcel of “the way adventure games were back then.” In his article, John Walker even applauds those moments for their capability at pushing a story forward.

It isn’t that I feel at odds with John Walker’s retrospective—I really don’t—but I do wish I hadn’t played The Dig in 1995. If I hadn’t, perhaps I could play it now with Mr. Walker’s fresh, wide eyes.

John Walker writes,

But [that’s] not what I’ve taken away. What I’m left with is the feeling of isolation, the ambient loneliness, and most of all, of a sense of the potential for gaming to slowly, carefully tell a story.

I will say this: I do remember that feeling of alienation, some intrinsic melancholy, in playing The Dig. I’m relieved that Mr. Walker felt that, too, because for years after, I had—perhaps narcissistically—misattributed those feelings to simply being a 13-year old girl, and to being the sort of 13-year old girl who sits all cooped up, hours at a time, with a CD-ROM spinning and spinning in front of her.


Edit: Chris “Papapishu” Person left a really incredible, illuminating post about The Dig in the comments. I’ve never done this before, and I apologize: I edited his comment, albeit only slightly, and I’m linking to it here.

2 responses to “Looking back at The Dig” »

  1. Chris Person says:

    Aside from the fact that the game was in development hell for three different builds, one of which was a survival game in the vein of Metal Gear Solid 3, Spielberg initially envisioned the project as a mash-up of two equally brilliant—yet hokey—movies: The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Forbidden Planet (itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest).

    The salient elements from Madre are obvious. Humphry Bogart’s personal struggle with greed as the character Dobbs was translated over into Ludger Brink’s brutal addiction to the Life Crystals, as was as his lashing, junky-like suspicion of his companions (a theme that Ren and Stimpy also copied). Also adapted was the premise of a group of explorers in wild, harsh environment and more importantly barren world.

    Forbidden Planet’s influence is more subtle. The sweeping vistas that provide the game’s backdrop are not only influenced by the architecture (note the trapezoidal door in 2:50) and matte paintings of the film, but also there is the theme of a world haunted by both the hubris of its creators and by technology gone awry. Doctor Morphius (and by extension Prospero) and the beings that created the Life Crystals come from the same mold—alchemists dabbling in arts that can consume their very souls.

    All that mid century influence though, has a toll: the delivery of Boston and the gang sometimes comes off a bit flip and nonchalant, even when Maggie is about to be eaten by a giant spider.

    We’re doing a Dig retrospective soon (or did, I think it got canceled). You should join us.

    Now I’m gonna go eat a torta.

  2. Chris Person says:

    Flattered! Some things I forgot:

    The original article that I read all of this in, including some Alpha screens, are available below. VERY illuminating. Apparently before Moriarty from LOOM took a crack at it, Noah Falsteen (Co-designer of Sinistar and Fate of Atlantis) had a crack at it for 18 months before getting shitcanned and the project was completely reset from scratch.


    Mix ‘n Mojo also has the first script where the main character’s name is (groan) Major Tom. Worth reading. (Password is babypig)


    Also, there is an Easter Egg in The Dig where you can get Boston Low to say this:

    Okay, I’m done. Also, I’m groaning at a typo I made, but whatcha gonna do?

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