There is a question you always get asked when you interview for a game development job, at least as a designer – I have never not been asked this question. It’s deceptively simple. “What’s your favorite game?”
I always pause a moment and look keenly at the person across the table from me. I turn it around at them, seeking clarification. “Do you mean what is the game I think is the best, or what’s my actual favorite game?” I ask, pushing my finger against the table for emphasis. “Because those are two very different questions. One is logical, and one is emotional.”
That often seems to intrigue them. Nobody asks for the logical answer. That’s the whole rest of the interview. “Your favorite one.”
All right then.
It’s The Dig, by LucasArts.
Let me tell you about it a little bit. And, because that’s what favorites are about, my life when it came out.
It’s 1996 in Mesa, Arizona. I’m a sophomore in high school, and in the past year, everything I knew about my life is changing. Of course, this isn’t rare or traumatic. It’s called “being a teenager,” but when you’re in the thick of it, it’s all you know, and your frame of reference is very small.
I grew up playing games. It wasn’t unusual, for me or for any other kid in suburban Phoenix. Boy, girl, didn’t matter – games were toys in the post-arcade-crash United States. Even into junior high, slumber parties I went to had a higher chance of throwing down on some Mario Kart than painting our nails. And if you were good at them, good for you – that’s less quarters wasted and more victories at the arcade.
Then in 9th grade things started to get weird. I kicked a kid’s ass at Tekken 2 on a field trip and suddenly there were whispers. Boys who crowed at each other at wins and losses got silent and wary when I stepped in to play. Female friends of mine who loved games either only did it in secret or stopped doing it entirely. The Sony PlayStation came out, and I looked at its marketing, and for the first real time I saw the subtext it whispered at me: This isn’t for you.
In high school, things got weirder. Cliques got bigger, more insular, more difficult to permeate, like everyone had grown thorny shells, and a row of backs turned on you meant danger. Even the “gamer” clique – before that was really a term, and before that term then fell apart into meaninglessness – regarded me warily, sneered at the fact that I seemed uninterested in Magic: The Gathering and LARPing, and let me sit the fringes only, out and looking in.
I love my parents. They don’t know videogames. They got me Myst when I was 21, almost a decade since its release. I don’t think they knew how old it was. Thus it was kind of a miracle that they knew I liked LucasArts games – Sam & Max: Hit the Road was a perennial favorite and constantly played – and when The Dig came out that winter, I got it for Christmas. And it awed me from the start.
I don’t know what it was with 1996-1997 and meteors, but both Armageddon and Deep Impact came out that year, and momentarily Hollywood seemed to have a thing for large stuff falling from the sky and threatening to eradicate humanity. The Dig has that. Attila, a massive asteroid, is heading for Earth, and a mission is created to stop it. The opening credits are like a movie – titles interspersed with shots of a space shuttle entering orbit and the press conference that introduces us to our cast: Commander Boston Low, the mission lead; journalist Maggie Robbins; geologist Ludger Brink. It’s more ethereal than determined or jingoistic. And the last shot, where the bottom of the space shuttle soars directly into the camera – closer, closer, you see the tiles on the underside and then darkness – stole the air right out of my lungs. I was transfixed.
Here’s my secret. I was thinking about quitting playing games. Just giving it up, trying to be whatever passed for normal. I know now that wouldn’t have worked and I would have been miserable, but months of potential misery were obliterated when I saw that opening, heard Michael Land’s eerie, soaring soundtrack. I knew at once – or was reminded – that’s why I loved games and would never stop playing them.
I didn’t even mention: that’s just the start of the game. The mission succeeds in the first ten minutes. And then something goes wrong, the team gets transported untold light years away, and lands on a seemingly-deserted planet that was odd and beautiful and deserted and strange. Land’s soundtrack floats over the landscape; the care of the sound design brings out every echo in a cavern and scrape of a boot. Robert Patrick, voice actor for Boston Low (in the days when good VO in games was rare indeed) brought a combination of wry humor and solemn determination to the role. And I remember the manual reassuring me – In this game, you can’t die. After so many King’s Quest games (which I loved, mind you) where death was one bad click away, it was comforting. “We know exploring an alien planet isn’t like going to the mall,” the manual snickered genially.
Much hay has been made of pixel style in the last few years. As someone who has worked with it, I can tell you it’s not an easy style to master: it’s the poetry of game art, each item just-so, just the right location, just the right color. An economy of form. But the late 1990s saw games pushing at 3D, demanding its use, cooing at every rough polygon. Certainly games got made that were lovely and used the form right – another LucasArts adventure game, the superlative Grim Fandango, seized on the cons of that art style and turned them into stylistic pros – but it’s hard to imagine how little pixelated games were regarded, once upon a time. I cannot imagine The Dig outside of that style. It is stark, lush, luminous. It has 3D video here and there but the game itself is 2D, even down to the Don Bluth-like animation in the cutscenes.
And The Dig is dark. It is a solemn game about loneliness, spiritual yearning, and death. As someone who was sometimes very lonely and was going through my own spiritual seeking, it spoke to me very clearly. It has sinister moments in there that made me terribly nervous, even as I reminded myself of the manual’s assertion that death was not imminent. You can’t die here, I told myself. You can’t even lose. But still, but still, there is a huge alien critter making these hideous clicking noises and the sound when it skittered raises the hair on the back of my neck even now, over twenty years later.
The Dig can be obtuse, here and there. I’m not too proud to admit I went to the fledgling internet now and then for help. And it was too much for my exhausted computer, who would chug and wheeze to death on an important cutscene about an hour into the game, leading me to take the game to whatever friend’s house could be talked into playing it. And that was the best, really: sharing something you love with someone who means a lot to you. We chewed through puzzles together. One friend and I even got so obsessed with it we did our own fan art for it, we wrote “fic.” We joined our rough fantasy world with theirs, in the awkward and enthusiastic way of teens. It took us somewhere else.
I’ve read retrospectives of The Dig – how it was a mess to make, how it went through so many iterations, how Spielberg was and wasn’t involved – and I was well into my career as a game developer when I read them. They still resonated. I remembered thinking the cutscenes were a little rough, the style a little inconsistent. I was curious about how the planet was said to be called “Cocytus” when that never gets actually said in the game. The game was a beautiful house with the occasional oddity: a stairway to nowhere, a hastily painted wall. But things we love deeply, we love for both their beauties and their flaws. Things I wondered about as a fan came back revealed to me as a developer, linked me closer to the reality of both loving a thing and creating it.
It’s an interesting time to be both a game developer and a fan. Things have changed and yet still, some elements of unpleasantness have persisted. There are those whose disdain is blood-kin to those who sneered at me and girls like me when I said I wanted to play games. There are those who claim that certain genres are “dying” and certain art styles are “old news” – even as fans for both clamor for more and pour their money into alternate sources to fund the things they love.
There’s a lot to say for games criticism, both as it applies within the industry and outside of it. It’s a fine thing to love something and a beautiful thing to share that love. Remembering its issues and pointing out its flaws does not kill it: it’s not spread on an operating table, still and dead, cut wide open and exposed. Taking a closer look at a room in a house does not bring the structure down, disagreeing with the color of the paint doesn't set the walls aflame. When I admit that there is a difference between a game I think is my favorite for technical reasons versus personal ones, I must present it differently. For the former, I speak of structure. For the latter, I speak of meaning. And to assume either of those is a bad thing is to simply say you disapprove of me speaking about it at all.
I don’t have a physical copy of The Dig anymore, but I do have one on Steam, still waiting for me to install it. Someday I’m going to play it again, when I want to be awed like I was when I was 16 and heartbroken, when I need to remember what games can do for someone, and what they've done for me. When I need to feel glad about where I am. And when I need, for a little while, to be somewhere else.