I like to take my time. I'm not in any rush. I don't need to be hurried along, pushed from behind, or told time's running out. Let me wander at my own pace, I'll get there in the end. Adventure games let me do that. They're in no hurry. They've a story to tell, and they'll tell it to me in my own good time.
LucasArts' re-emergence from the Star Warsy mire is a beautiful thing to witness, and I couldn't describe it any better than Will Porter did last week while celebrating the chunky fun of Republic Commando.
For me, it's seeing the 15 to 20 year-old point-and-click adventures appearing in Steam's top sellers that warms my heart more than anything else. 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. Something that time has erased, letting it stand alone, not sold as the trumpeted missing Steven Spielberg project that would change the world as we know it. Um, did I do all that damage again? Forget I said all that. But be assured that the following discusses the whole game, describing events including the ending.
Just in case that wasn't clear: spoilers lie ahead! Be warned!
The Dig was indeed based on a Steven Spielberg idea. He gets various credits for story and creation. But this was eventually (after previous aborted incarnations) the project of Sean Clark. Clark was one half of the team, along with Mike Stemmle, who wrote and built Sam & Max: Hit The Road, and programmed for Fate of Atlantis. For The Dig, Clark designed, directed, programmed and wrote dialogue (along with Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card), and I believe remains one of the most unsung heroes of adventure development. Because despite the fractures of a fraught development, and a rather conspicuously rushed ending, The Dig is often brilliant.
An asteroid is hurtling toward Earth, and it's going to collide. Bigger than the meteor that took out the dinosaurs, it has to be stopped at all costs. A team of specialists in specific fields (retired astronaut Boston Low, archaeologist/geologist Dr. Ludger Brink, reporter and linguist Maggie Robbins, political candidate and NASA technician Cora Miles, and shuttle pilot Ken Borden) are sent up to investigate the asteroid, tasked with placing explosives on the rock to force it into orbit around the Earth. If this premise sounds incredibly familiar, it's important to note that the films Armageddon and Deep Impact didn't come out until three years later.
But The Dig has almost nothing else in common with their occasionally bombastic, sentimental cacophony. When it comes to cinematic comparisons, films such as Soderbergh's 2002 remake of Solaris seem much more appropriate, alongside deserved comparisons with Kubrick's 2001. This is a game about the gaps between the noise, the fear in the silence, the danger in the wasteland.
For, once the charges are placed on the asteroid, successfully redirecting it into Earth's orbit ("Earth's new moon"), very quickly it becomes apparent that this is not a random chunk of space rock, but an alien technology. Exploring the surface you take the team of Low, Brink and Robbins through a cavern into a designed, geometric centre, triggering the interstellar spacecraft to take the three of them (leaving Miles and Borden behind), well, somewhere else in space.
This opening, briefly interactive as you place and detonate the charges, and then discover the reality of the asteroid, is vividly alive with character establishment. The superb opening sequences show a rare subtlety, the careful, deliberate speech of a press conference delivered over realistic hubbub of excited press, underlined with Michael Land's mesmeric orchestral score. It's underplayed, modest.
Then when in space, against a background of Land's ambient music, five characters are convincingly made real through realistic, unforced dialogue that doesn't rely on clumsy exposition. The strong sense of a long friendship between mission leader Low and technician Miles is the most evocative, as they warmly tease each other over the radio comms. Brink is quickly established as the prissy, awkward member of the team. A German accent is perhaps lazy shorthand for his portent of rebellion, but he's quick-witted and self-assured, and his place on the team is believable. The outsider is Maggie Robbins, a member of the press and seen as a threat by the others. The others gently haze her into their trust, constantly implying she's armed with ulterior motives, half in jest, half in concern. Just through this brief banter, so much is told and so much history is conveyed.
A large part of this success is thanks to the quality of the voice acting. The lead role, the exquisitely named Boston Low, is voiced by Robert Patrick (there's even a Terminator 2 reference hidden in there), who gives warmth and life to his character. Mari Weiss's Maggie captures a perfect mix of confidence and disquiet. And Steven Blum never lets Brink's accent descend into moustache-twirling pantomime, but instead acknowledges the complexity of a man doomed to be the bad guy, while a fairly decent person.
The planet on which they appear (generally known as Cocytus by fans, since this was the name given to it by Brink in the Alan Dean Foster novel based on the game) is barren, bearing the scars of a lifeform whose technology had clearly been focused around geometry. For a glorious time you have nothing but four locations in a crater to visit, each equally funereal in their representation. A grave for a horned beast exposes ancient bones. A wrecked spacecraft built of twisted metal and ruined shredded wiring suggests more death, deaths of other species. It's in the wreck that you first witness a "ghost", the remnants of the creatures that once lived on the planet, and gain entry to the underground passageways that slowly give you access to the farther extremes of a former city.
Of course, it's still an adventure game, so throughout all this there's both the pleasure and pain of puzzles. Some terrible hotspotting leads to frustration, and the first major puzzle is just idiotically difficult. Required to recover a lens from the bottom of a vast pit, crackling with an ancient energy source, you are supposed to interpret alien technology to direct a robot to pick it up and place it on its mounting. To explain what this puzzle requires would take up as much space as this entire piece again, but suffice to say it's ludicrous. Perhaps toward the end of an otherwise reasonably simple game it might have made some progressive sense, but to open with something so obscure and fiddly was madness.
However, thankfully the pleasure dominates throughout. Although perhaps that's not the ideal word. For those who assume LucasArts adventures will deliver a constant stream of gags, The Dig is astoundingly different. It's woefully incorrect to suggest there's no humour - there's very many lovely, funny moments between the team as they chat. But it's natural, effortless humour, likely to make you smile rather than laugh. But there's also tragedy.
Brink's early death is shocking. And random. It feels amazingly out of place in a game, to see a central character die so early, and without dramatic reason. He simply falls to his death through misfortune. Of course it also feels suspicious, as if you're being set up for something - surely someone so surprisingly likeable, if officious, can't be taken away from you like that?
And while of course Brink is soon alive again once you've applied the mysterious life crystal to his corpse, the reality is he was taken away from you like that. The reanimated Brink is not the same man, obsessed with the crystals, now a cruel and selfish danger to the other two.
Death in games is always problematic. When Tomb Raider IV ended with Lara's being crushed by a pyramid, what was clearly intended to be a shocking final moment was instead plain idiotic. You'd watched her die five thousand times before that point, and watching her die again just had you instinctively reach for the reload button, not weep with remorse. But adventure games, beyond the peculiar habits of some of Sierra's output, rarely killed you. LucasArts (beyond one famous exception) made sure never to cause you to die. So the loss of Brink, both times, and latterly Maggie's sacrificial death, are surprising moments.
There's two unfortunatelys to attach here. The first is the character reactions to the deaths. Low and Robbins start cracking wise while still standing either side of Brink's corpse. While there's a moment of grief, it doesn't seem to last until the end of the conversation, and then later you're awkwardly stepping over Brink's body as you busily solve the puzzles to reach the various tram points to continue through the game. At the end the reaction to Maggie's death, while cleverly pre-empted, again feels a little perfunctory.
The second unfortunately is far more significant, and it's where the brutal reality of having Spielberg's splendid imagination on board comes back to bite you in the bum. The rushed ending, as Low succeeds in the apparently almost impossible task of bringing the native creatures back from the alternate dimension to their own, by, er, walking through a portal, loses all gravitas when both Maggie and Brink are magically brought back from the dead without consequence.
It's such a great shame. The bleak, morose game, barren in both setting and hope, makes it so distinctive, so interesting. And then to have all the tragedy, all the cost, suddenly and inexplicably undone is a crucially bad decision. It's hard to imagine how much less happy a happy ending could make me.
But it'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.
The Dig's story may eventually crumble away into a schmaltzy irrelevant ending (that then doesn't connect to the opening sequences in any meaningful way), but it bulges with potential. Where Solaris successfully and movingly explores the nature of isolation and identity, and the imprecise - perhaps even meaningless - nature of memory, The Dig ultimately fails to take any of its themes to enough depth. But despite this it still stimulates similar feelings of separation and loneliness. The ambient score and gorgeous hand-painted backdrops (the wonky CGI moments and odd cel-shaded cut-scenes don't fit neatly amongst them, but are never offputting) are moodily evocative. It's a fascinating game, serious and mysterious, and stunningly well performed.