So, first things first. I cheated. Repeatedly. Often. With glee. I cheated my way through The Dig.

Now, I have to take a moment to explain myself. I’ve always been a bit of a cheat with adventure games. So much so that I have created my own workflow for cheating to ensure that I don’t simply ruin the game for myself. I was quite surprised playing through The Dig at how this came back so naturally. Essentially, I turned to Google only when being stumped was driving me around the bend, and it usually took about half a sentence or two to get me back on track.

While saying that… The Dig’s puzzles seemed fine at first but soon enter a rather frustrating range of difficulties that ultimately was unafraid of the utterly obtuse. This was a big problem for my enjoyment of The Dig because it absolutely destroyed my momentum.*

*Truth be told, my momentum was also hurt by an odd bug that refused to save my game and saw me go through about an hour and a half of gameplay again, albeit in about ten minutes (ah, adventure games).

Now, I suspect that momentum is more important for enjoying The Dig than it is for most adventure games. The Dig, you see, trades very heavily on a sense of wonder. Its plot, though resolutely B-movie in origin, transports our characters to a completely alien world that shows off the art design of the LucasArts studio. This isn’t a bad thing. The art design is very good indeed. The music, though a little aggressive in its desire to be atmospheric, was also very good. Overall, I was really enjoying this story.

However, everything started to go wrong. I got stuck here and there. It happens in video games. Before too long, the game became a series of journeys between areas connected to a central hub. All well and good, but the sense of wonder that accompanied the first hour or so of play was gone. I was used to this world now. I just wasn’t all that impressed anymore. Well, that’s not fair: I very much was impressed, but in a rather technical “Isn’t that a lovely bit of work by the art team there” rather than the pure escapism that I had felt in the game’s initial stages.

The game’s lack of humour doesn’t help either. There is humour, and at first I was happy with it, delivered in fairly small doses. As the game went on though, I found that I missed some of the wackier moments in adventure games. I had never thought of such a tone as critical and after all, I was a King’s Quest guy more than a LucasArts guy so it clearly can’t be that critical to my experience. The Dig needed more laughs though, or something anyway to distract me from the fact that I was sick of this planet and sick of Boston Low, however wonderful his name or committed Robert Patrick’s voice acting.

The game’s puzzles, especially towards the end, began to rely quite heavily on visual cues. Now, this could be a particular weakness in the way my brain works (or doesn’t as the case may be) but this ceased to be fun rather abruptly. The puzzles drifted from being a bit harder than I perhaps expected to being utterly beyond any reasonable attempt to put two and two together. I know that adventure games struggle from this problem all the time, and The Dig had some classics, such as remembering this one thing an item did thirty minutes into the game when you arrive at a completely different situation six hours (of game playing time) later. That’s standard, and I made my peace with that kind of thing a long time ago. Having to keep track of which item had or hadn’t been used yet, all these aspects of older PC games that people often lament today… Well, maybe I’m lazy. I was a bit peeved I had to spend a fair bit of time before realizing “Oh that’s right. I didn’t use the red one yet.”

All that being said, I enjoyed my time with The Dig and I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for it, in the way that one does with things that perhaps don’t quite cut it or reach expectations but deliver something interesting anyway. The Dig, despite the relative lack of humour mentioned above, does have an undercurrent of cheekiness throughout. The protagonist is a bit of a smart-ass even in his difficult situation and every conversation includes the option to “say something profound.” The most interesting character is probably not the one you control but Brink, the scientist that goes through the most trauma on the adventure. By some distance.

The Dig tends to be frustrating. Once you’ve made one of the last major breakthroughs in the story, the protagonist gives a brief “this is what you needed to do all along” speech, which wasn’t the most enjoyable thing to be told by a game. It seems like so much in between the two points was fluff, but again… adventure games can toe that line quite often. It’s hard not to feel The Dig isn’t being a bit cheeky here and there though, not least with areas that feel a little off the beaten track usually so well defined by moving the cursor to the edge of the screen.

I suppose you could argue I shouldn’t be quite so lazy, but that was a big part of the problem with the game: I regularly found myself moving the cursor around the screen and clicking on everything that provided a response. This was how I solved the “puzzle” of saving a character late on, finding myself wandering off to another screen for no particular reason and then pushing a rock. Thrilling stuff.

When it comes right down to it, I had a hard time completely suspending my disbelief with The Dig in large part because it was a bit all over place, tonally speaking. B movie schlock, light comedy, survival drama, it’s all there. Spread unevenly, but there. I would have liked to talk about The Dig as a game that made me laugh, made me cry and all things in between, and it did elicit various reactions but it never came together as a whole. I liked the way the game ended, as the drama regained its impetus and the group dynamic came back into play, but the overall journey had been full of dips and swells. It felt more like I had returned to the game I’d been playing hours earlier than anything else.

I liked the ending though. Really, once I had characters talking about “Spacetime Six” I was happy as a pig in sci-fi themed muck. It’s a pity about the mundaneness in between the exciting opening and the equally interesting (and openly nerdy) ending, but it makes it difficult to stay mad at The Dig, even if it does pitch for an emotional moment that feels contrived. I would much rather The Dig revealed its slightly mad sci-fi plot earlier and allowed me to branch out a bit more, and fully committed to what it wanted to do, one way or the other. Then again, I think this game has won me over by refusing to do that, by insisting on being this other type of story. I admire it for that. I don’t think The Dig is a success, but I do feel quite strongly that it’s the game its creators wanted to make, for good or ill. And that’s good enough for me.

So a nice solid start to this Video Game Friday thing. I’d like a break from the LucasArts games, so next week’s game is…

King’s Quest I!!!

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