The Dig: in the deep of space, a curse is alive...
First posted on 01 October 2007. Last updated on 26 June 2008.
About the author
Santiago A Méndez (Sam) is the creator and curator of The Dig Museum. His biggest wish in life is to lead a major archaeological exploration in search of a giant bunny. He currently lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
For more information, visit The Dig Museum.
Whenever adventure gamers hear the name "LucasArts" (no matter how long it had been since the company last released an adventure game), they get all excited or nostalgic and immediately reminisce about the golden years of adventure games. Such enthusiasm seems very reasonable, given that the company has literally created and managed to redefine the genre with its vast portfolio of memorable titles.
At the core of this vault of magical adventure games created by LucasArts, there was said to be a curse—a curse that was attached to one particular title, a curse that was named after a troubled project, a curse that wandered across the halls of LucasArts (and maybe still does, even after the company has moved)—The Dig curse.
It is not without a certain amount of fear that I adventure myself into telling this story about The Dig. Removing the dust or lighting the darkness of the past is not always a good idea. Nevertheless, my purpose is to report the events that took place during the long development of this game. And so I will.
For those of you who have never heard of the game, I shall briefly explain what The Dig is about. In essence, it is a serious science fiction adventure game about a crew of astronauts whose objective is to change the course of an asteroid that is about to collide with earth. Eventually they transport themselves to an alien planet that appears to be desolated. This does not sound like the most original plot, does it?
So, what was so special about this game? For sure, it was more than just one thing...
LucasArts was known for making really funny adventure games. Yet, The Dig was a game that dealt with subjects that were more serious, complex, and intellectually interesting. Whether it succeeded in developing those subjects would be another issue.
The dramatic and beautiful background art in The Dig is a sight rarely seen at all in any other game at the time. The music is equally unique and an evolution for game composition. From the emotionless MIDI sounds to orchestral pieces of otherworldly atmosphere that will go through every inch of your soul, the music in The Dig is not the typical video game music but true music in every sense of the word.
What made this game even more special—but also what brought on the curse—was that Steven Spielberg was involved in it.
Now that you know a bit of history about The Dig, it is time for me to tell the story of its development and the enormity of this curse. I can already feel the goose bumps from talking about this forbidden subject. If you are of a sensitive character or have cardiac problems, I recommend that you stop reading right here. For the rest of you, be so kind to carefully join me.
It all began in 1989, when Spielberg (an avid gamer) asked George Lucas if he could visit the Skywalker Ranch to see what the designers at LucasFilm Games (now called LucasArts) were doing.
Once Spielberg met with the designers, he eventually brought up his idea for The Dig, which was in part based on an episode (which was never made) he had in mind for the television series Amazing Stories as well as a mixture of plots from the films Forbidden Planet and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
On 17 October 1989, Steve Arnold (manager of the games division at LucasFilm) scheduled the first production meeting for The Dig, to discuss Spielberg's proposal. Among the present were Noah Falstein, Ron Gilbert, Brian Moriarty, and David Fox.
Soon after the meeting began, they experienced the first sign of bad omens. The whole conference room was trembling deeply as the entire creative team hid under the table. Indeed, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake was the first warning from The Dig curse.
Noah Falstein was the first project leader. His version of the game was quite different from the one that was actually released. To begin with, it was intended to be a role-playing adventure game—an idea that, as you might imagine, would be hard to pitch to the management at LucasFilm Games.
Falstein's game was supposedly set in the distant future about a crew on a spaceship who was to investigate an unknown planet. The role-playing elements of the game were not popular among members of the production team. For example, the players would be required to consume water and food in order to stay alive in the game (although this was not meant to be as disturbing as it might sound).
Even though his game was not so warmly received inside the company, Falstein was eventually offered a new position at the company. Not long after he took up his new job, Howard Philips (the creative director) also left the project. In an ironic twist, Falstein was then offered to be Moriarty's producer for the game and to work on his version of The Dig. Shortly after this change, the company announced several laid offs, of which Falstein was among the casualties.
Falstein's attempt to finish The Dig never made it far at all, possibly due to the terrible curse.
Brian Moriarty was the second project leader. To the contrary of what might be believed or deducted from the facts, Moriarty and Falstein were good friends, getting to work together on The Dig for a short period of time. Possibly, the choice of not continuing Falstein's version had much more to do with perhaps how Moriarty interpreted and imagined Spielberg's idea in quite a different way.
Sadly, the little credit which Moriarty was given in the released game also led fans to believe that his version was also discarded. The truth was that Moriarty was responsible for quite more than half of the game that was released. He created the entire basic plot, developed the main characters, and directed the overall atmosphere and visual style for the game.
Despite all of his contributions, Moriarty's version was possibly the one that suffered the most. Having a celebrity's name attached to the project was putting huge pressure on the designers, largely because fans had big expectations for a "Steven Spielberg's game". To deepen the trouble, there was an increasing internal jealousy and a sort of internal rivalry inside the company, not only between different teams making different games but also between members within the same team, such as artists/animators versus programmers/leaders.
The Dig particularly suffered from a big transition in the way video games were developed. It started with a small team comprised of only a few programmers and a couple of artists, and it ended with a full production that included a lot of artists, animators, renderers, and such. So, it was like having 2 groups of people holding a teddy bear (one group holding on the legs and the other on the arms) and pulling it in different directions. I suppose I do not need to describe for you the ill-fated destiny of the unfortunate teddy bear.
All these were possibly what led Moriarty to abandon The Dig and leave the company.
Dave Grossman was the third project leader. His objective was to take over what Moriarty had left behind, which was a game already in production. It was working and playable, though it was a bit far from finished.
Grossman's brief involvement was to edit and polish what he could of the game. He was possibly the member who suffered the least from The Dig curse, but nevertheless he was not able to finish the game.
Sean Clark was the fourth and final project leader. He reworked Moriarty's version of the game significantly, simplifying the plot and the complex scientific themes that troubled the management at LucasArts (by that time the company had already changed its name). In turn, Clark's version suffered from another consequence of the curse—The Dig fatigue, wherein all those involved with the project inside the company were tired about it. In fact, the game started at a time even before most of the designers and programmers had started working at the company. Eventually it was Clark and his team's determination and willingness to finish their cursed Frankenstein monster that finally enabled them to release the final product—a task that 3 previous different teams had all failed (in a way or another) to accomplish.
It is said that every creative project (such as a movie, a video game, or an album) has its tragic period, in which everybody has lost faith in it. For me, The Dig was the other way around. It was a tragic period all the way through, but a few moments in it were so special and wonderful as to make the whole journey worthwhile. In the end, this magical spark was also a part of The Dig curse—a curse that made a miracle possible.