Most SCUMM era adventure games start off with a high concept, a general idea of what the setting and story is going to be, and then work from there. The specifics of the jokes, puzzles and narrative details are often unrelated to one another. The mechanics of the puzzles and the layout of the various areas often have to do with gameplay while the story is told around those gameplay elements. The brilliance of The Dig is that the world informs the approach to the gameplay, creating a fantastic synthesis of gameplay and story.
A group of astronauts venture to an asteroid on a collision course for earth in order to deter its route. The crew is mysteriously transported to an unexpected and distant planet where the player controls Commander Boston Low who begins searching for the desolate alien world for a means of returning home. But after a tragic incident and an astounding discovery, the stakes become much higher than the lives of three astronauts on a distant planet.
By ousting the player into another world, the game immediately separates the player from any familiarity with the way the world works. Now on an alien planet, everything is mysterious by nature, meaning that the player must struggle just as much to understand what they are looking at as much as how they can use it to explore more of the planet and figure out a way home.
This allows the game to be convey concepts, ideas and rules through play as opposed to exposition. At no point does the game directly tell you what to do and since you have no understanding of the basis of the alien technology that surrounds you, it is up to solid design to communicate essential information through other means, whether this be through symbols, cause and effect, or associations.
While this creates for a more cerebral adventure game with complicated steps of deduction involved, in practice, some of the puzzles are too oblique and foreign. One puzzle in particular is cruel, assuming an outside knowledge of anatomy that few players would probably have. If the game found a way to convey this within the world, the puzzle would work, like many of the other puzzles do. And to compound it all, the puzzle is too complex and intricate for trial and error to be a viable approach.
Another minor nuisance is that the graphical fidelity of the game holds back some of the puzzles that involve geometric, 3-dimensional shapes. This could be due to the poorly coded emulator being forced upon the digital rereleases of the LucasArts adventure games which restrict the use of improving graphical quality to your current system dimensions. It’s not a huge issue, but it leads to a bit of unnecessary guess work.
Another core flaw to the game is the ending, which ends up feeling like an easy out given the surprising turn of events that leads up to the finale. The rising conflict, escalating danger and impending threat are all neatly swept away in a tidy little ending. Or is it? There’s a core issue that quickly underpins the entire game and the ending almost seems like a clever little subversion of the issue. Yet still, a more memorable and dramatic ending could have been possible.
It’s the continual stacking of a few poorly designed choices that blight what is otherwise a fantastic and compelling adventure game. The unique approach, the quality of the writing and the clever puzzle designs make it an almost unparalleled adventure game experience. It’s close to being one of the greats, but ultimately ends up being a game that loses itself in some of the execution.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing