The Dig and other Adventure games.
Exercise 2: The Dig and other Adventures
In preparation for my proposal and first prototype I’ve been trying my hand at classic point and click adventure games. I’m hardly a stranger to the genre; the first computer game I ever saw was Kings Quest 2. The first PC game I ever owned was Quest for Glory I: So You Want to Be a Hero. These games and their sequels, along with the Space Quest saga, will always have a special place in my heart. But the truth is it has been several years since I’ve played them, and when I do play them I find it hard to look at them objectively. Therefore, before writing my proposal I wanted to get myself reacquainted with that type of game by playing something similar I’d missed. There were definitely plenty of titles from back in the golden age of adventure gaming to choose from. I knew I didn’t have time to go in-depth with more than one of them however, so I chose LucasArt’s “The Dig”.
Before I get into my thoughts on “The Dig”, I’d like to mention that I did also try a few games made with the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) engine that I intend to use for my own project. Essentially I wanted to make sure it was up to the task and I was very pleased with the results. The games I tried varied wildly in quality, but the engine ran well in all cases. I was impressed by how customizable it seems to be; some of the games had very traditional interfaces, but some were very different. “A Second Face” uses a traditional interface and seems to be very large and epic in scope; that might be its downfall however as some of the areas seem under-detailed. “A Day in the Future” does quite a bit with a single room though it was apparently originally in French and the translation is a bit uneven. My favorite of the bunch I played was a game simply titled “Automation”. Its very short and the design is very simple, but the art is very well done and the puzzles are clever and logical. Its polished and the limited scope means that a lot of care went into the environment; it even has a clever sense of humor. All these games have one fault in common: linearity. I’ll return to that subject below.
As I said, I chose to play “The Dig”. I had been aware of this game for years and was intrigued by it but never had a chance to play. It is one of the later games to use LucasArt’s SCUMM Adventure Game Engine. For many years, LucasArt’s Adventure Games were known as being Sierra’s main competitor and the only company with as good (if not better) reputation in the genre. Other SCUMM games include the Maniac Mansions, the first two Monkey Islands, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, and Loom. The Dig is the 11th game created with SCUMM, making it one of the last titles created with that system. The original concept for the game’s story was provided by Steven Spielberg , and well-known Sci-Fi author Orson Scott Card is credited with writing the dialogue. Yet despite this “star-power”, the game suffered through prolonged and turbulent development until it was finally released in 1995. Apparently, as is often the case with games that release much later than intended, its look and technology were seen as dated when it finally launched; by this point 3D CD-Rom games like Myst and The 7th Guest had been released and had already begun to alter the adventure game genre. As one online reviewer had it, however, the modern eye can’t easily distinguish 1995 outdated from 1992 outdated, so perhaps in the long run it’s best that I played this game now and not when it was released; though I doubt even then I would have minded the graphics.
So, the Dig. Like other SCUMM games it is a third person adventure game. The action takes place in distinct “rooms” which consist of static artwork, often hand-painted, populated with sprites which make up the objects and characters in that can be interacted with. The main objective in such games is invariable to progress the story by solving riddles and puzzles. Usually there is a clear, narrative objective that becomes the player’s ultimate goal. The Dig pretty much sticks to this formula, but after playing and re-playing several adventure games recently, I have come to realize that it is far too easy to dismiss the genre as formulaic; in many ways it is akin to dismissing novels because they’re all linear books that you read from left to right, page after page to reach a conclusion. What is actually hard to do is evaluate a given adventure as game and as experience, both together and separately.
As an experience, The Dig is a science fiction masterpiece. All of the purely aesthetic elements are superb, both separately and as a whole. The narrative is great Sci-Fi stuff, and a lot of its themes would actually be echoed in later Hollywood productions. It is a tale of a trio of Earth astronauts who go into space to deflect an incoming asteroid, but instead find themselves trapped on a seemingly abandoned alien world. The art, mostly in the form of hand-painted alien landscapes and structures, supports the story brilliantly. Much of the time in an adventure game is spent exploring, and with The Dig I always felt like I couldn’t wait to see what was behind the next corner; in fact, I’ve come to recognize that with this kind of game, simply gaining access to the next environment becomes a kind of reward-system for the player. An interesting note: some pre-rendered CG elements were added to the game, particularly during transitions; this was an attempt to “modernize” the game by the time of its final release. I’ll echo what some have said online here and say that these more “modern” elements have aged more poorly than the lovely hand painted art. CG has come a long way since ’95, but sci-fi paintings have not changed nearly as much, even if perhaps the resolutions they were presented in back then seem limited today. The final aesthetic element I’ll touch upon is the sound. The voice work is quite solid (and Scott Card’s dialogue is excellent) but it is the ambient music that really stands out. Every time I made an new discovery and reached another breathtaking new area, there would be a swell of haunting, inspiring music. To summarize then, The Dig is a tour de force of sci-fi storytelling and art. Its production values remind us that there was a time when adventure games ruled the PC landscape, but beyond that, it’s a remarkable “high” sci-fi construct in its own right.
It is much harder to evaluate The Dig as a game, but I will make the attempt. As I have said, it does not stray far from the adventure game formula, nor does it attempt to anymore than Halo: Reach attempted to be anything other than a First Person Shooter. However, the game does make one important departure from other SCUMM or SCI games relating to the interface, or rather the lack thereof. There simply is no menu to be found anywhere in the game, except a single button in the lower left corner to access the inventory screen. There is no title bar, no icons, no list of actions, not even a score tab. The player’s actions are therefore reduced to walk, use, or examine, along with the ability to use objects in the inventory with objects in the environment. Interestingly, there are screenshots from early builds of the game that do have a more traditional interface, so apparently the decision to switch to the the almost interface-less system came late in the development process. I have mixed feelings about this choice. On the one hand, it does free up the screen and removes “artificial” hud elements and icons from view; it therefore does subtly enhance immersion; there is no score bar or icons to remind you that you’re playing a game, which keeps your focus on the story rather than the mechanics. On the other hand, the lack of defined commands to try on objects can actually have the effect of making you feel less in control of the character. You click on something, and context, not you, decides what the character is going to do. This reliance on context to determine action had already started to happen when adventure games moved from text-based to icon-based interactions, but this system takes it one step further. As I said, I have mixed feelings about the results. Control in a mostly linear adventure game is already something of an illusion, but recognizing that, I believe the illusion should be maintained as best as possible. Conversely, there are elements of adventure games that dovetail better with storytelling than many other genres; once thing I’ve noticed is that in adventure games you actually play what in most other genres; including, sadly, many RPGs; is relegated to cutscenes. Linear though they may be, if an alien secret is uncovered, a peace treaty is signed, or access is gained to a new area, its because the player did it, not because you killed a boss and then it happened in an automated story segment. Again, this control is largely an illusion, but it can be very effective at making a player feel like an integral part of the events his character is experiencing. In some ways this mirrors many of the non-combat elements from pen and paper RPGs that are mostly missing from their digital counterparts.
The Dig is no exception to this. As I mentioned before when I discussed the artwork, the game succeeds brilliantly at creating a sense of achievement stemming from pure exploration. At its best, it does manage to make you feel as if you were there, meaningfully affecting a powerful sci-fi story. At its worst, however, The Dig still suffers from the genre’s long-standing pitfalls, and it all comes down to the puzzles. The trick, in my opinion, to a good adventure game puzzle is to make it seem logical and challenging, so the player feels like he successfully used his wits to overcome an obstacle, but not so challenging that it leads to frustration, devolves to a pixel hunt, and brings the game to a screeching halt. Often I think it comes down to what information the game gives the player, but there is always the danger that the player misses the information at hand. Forcing the player to receive it, however, can quickly degrade the exploration aspect and once again perhaps remove the illusion of control.
Puzzles in “The Dig” are uneven. Many rely on alien devices whose purpose is not readily apparent. Often that purpose can be gleaned by context, and these are satisfying. I did became stuck on a couple of occasions, but it’s hard to tell from my experience alone which cases where simply my lack of attentiveness and which were genuinely hard or unfair puzzles. One particularly nasty puzzle, however, involved re-creating an alien turtle-like creature’s skeleton using a pile of strewn bones. There is a fossilized version of the creature elsewhere, which is clearly the clue the game is providing the player to solve the puzzle with. But actual bones are hard to identify and building the creature becomes a matter of trial and error, even though the clue has been received and understood. To my relief, the alien turtle puzzle is much reviled in the online community as well; it does seem to be a definite case of poor puzzle-building. There is art online for an alternate alien puzzle from an earlier build; its a totally different creature that would seem easier to build. Perhaps too easy? I wonder what the exact reason for the change was. I also really do wonder how much playtesting has changed since the golden age of point and click adventures, as this seems to me the only real way to really track which puzzles are problematic/frustrating to players in general.
Finally, a word on linearity. Though the player is generally free to roam through all the accessible areas, The Dig is very linear. Every puzzle in the game, as far as I can tell, has one and only one solution, and the story can progress in only one way, with only one very minor alteration very late in the game. This is a symptom of adventure games in general, but I would note that previous games had at least attempted to alleviate this problem somewhat. The Quest for Glory games in particular had a significant amount of puzzles that could be solved in a variety of different ways, often but not always determined by the player’s class. They also had a number of side quests that were not necessary to complete the game, but which could have a considerable effect on the ending (if only in the text). In fact, even King’s Quest 1, perhaps the second graphical adventure game ever made (after Sierra’s own Mystery House), often gave you an option to either, say, slay a mythical creature, or get past it in a more clever and peaceful manner, giving you a higher score if you chose restraint. These are little things which might not significantly alter the narrative but at least give the player a sense that he or she “played their way”.
In the end, I’m glad I played The Dig. Its is very much the archetypal adventure game; it is very strong where the genre is strong and yet suffers from all of its traditional pitfalls. As a research subject it was very useful, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I was sucked in from start to finish and I became convinced that this type of game remains viable and enjoyable to this day.
I still think that the best “form” this game can take is by feeding from other genres, as Quest for Glory did, or by lending some of its elements to another genre altogether, as with the Metroid Prime series. I believe that the Ultime Game Ever (In the woooorld…) probably contains a generous amount of Adventure Game influence, but that is definitely a topic for another day.