LucasArts' Secret History: The Dig: Sean Clark's Recollections of Joy

10 Mar, 2009

Developer Reflections: Sean Clark

The Dig was a game notorious for its particularly long development cycle which included a number of failed incarnations. As the project leader of the version of the game that actually got out the door, could you give us a brief overview of the game's history and how you ultimately got involved?

Originally, Noah Falstein had put together a story around a concept that Steven Spielberg had mentioned. I actually worked on that version with Dave Grossman and others. That version was put on "hiatus" when it became clear that the studio wasn't capable of supporting 3 SCUMM games in simultaneous production. So we were split up to offer help to Monkey 2 and Indy Fate. When it was time to revisit The Dig, Brian Moriarty assembled a team and basically started from the ground-up. New story, new art, new engine. Things were going well - then Brian left the company. Dave toyed with the idea of taking over the project, but eventually decided not to. Management asked if I would take it over. By this time I was in the final throes of Sam & Max, and being of weak mind, agreed.

To my knowledge this was your second game at LucasArts in the position of project leader, only this time alone. How did that experience compare to Sam & Max Hit the Road?

It was about as different as it could have been. All the basic stuff was the same -- same company, same process, etc. Everything else -- different.

What, essentially, was wrong with the previous incarnation(s) of the game that you had to come in and fix? Were you given complete freedom to make the changes you thought were necessary, or were there some specific ideas from the management (i.e. simplifying the storyline) that you had to carry out at their behest?

My plan when I came in on the final incarnation was to take a game that was in production and finish it. The general consensus was the game was in a first playable state and had about 6 months to go before being ready for launch. I had other game ideas I wanted to pursue, so was keen on keeping momentum and getting this one done. As I brought myself up to speed on the project, I started to realize that trying to just complete the game in 6 months wouldn't have met the standard for a Lucas SCUMM game. It wasn't that there was anything inherently wrong, but it seemed production had gotten ahead of some key decisions that needed to be made which had put the project on the wrong trajectory. I didn't get a lot of pressure or specific objectives from management, and they were generally supportive of the choices I was making, which I appreciated. I think they were mainly interested in getting the project done so they could finally have a product plan that didn't have "The Dig" listed on it.

Did working on a game that had a pre-existing story and a lot of in-place elements make things easier or did you find it creatively stifling? Was there anything about the project that you were particularly attracted to?

It was a little of both. Starting with a bag full of parts and seeing what you can make out of it is a creative process as well as stifling. I really liked the core idea of the story, the art direction, and to a point, the challenge of trying to tell a dramatic story in an adventure game.

This game is the only graphic adventure LucasArts put out that is truly serious in tone. What sorts of challenges did this introduce when it came to writing the dialog and designing the puzzles (which clearly couldn't involve rubber chickens) for the game?

As you would imagine, a lot of the things you can do in a comedy game just don't work when trying to remain serious. You can't cover up a bad puzzle with a funny line of self-referential dialog. Er, not that I ever did that. But anyway, it was also a challenge to maintain the tone and some semblance of a dramatic arc. Another challenge was cultural -- we were trying to build this game in an environment where everyone else was building funny games, telling jokes, and being pretty outlandish. It was like trying to cram for a physics final during a dorm party. It would have been a lot easier to join the party.

Did you feel particularly pressured by being responsible for a game with Steven Spielberg's name slapped on it? Were there ever any meetings with Spielberg regarding the story? Do you know of his feelings toward the final game?

Yeah, at times I felt pressure. It was clearly important to the company that Steven be happy with the game, and with all the false starts there was concern that he had given up on us. Oh, and yeah, here's this guy that is considered to be one of the best story-tellers of all time reviewing my proposal for a story based on his concept. No pressure.

There were a couple of meetings to present the new direction of the project as well as subsequent meetings to demo the game as it began to solidify. Steven took a great deal of interest in the project. He actually called me at home one evening as he was playing through a release candidate. He was all excited and having fun, but was frustrated because he had gotten stuck on a puzzle and needed a hint. After we got through the puzzle, he told me he was really enjoying the game. At the end of the project, he actually sent a letter to the team saying as much.

It's my understanding that while the final game runs on a version of the SCUMM engine like all LEC adventure games made before Grim Fandango, this was not always the case, and that a new point 'n click engine called "StoryDroid" was created during Brian Moriarty's version before ultimately being scrapped. What's the story behind that?

I think Brian felt constrained by the SCUMM engine and really wanted to create an engine that uniquely supported the story and presentation he wanted for The Dig. When I took over after Brian's departure, I took a close look at the work they had done and what it would take to finish it versus migrating to the SCUMM engine. A lot of the work that was done on StoryDroid was quite good, and it certainly did some things better than SCUMM at the time. But it was also under-resourced and unproven which added a lot of risk to the project. So I made the decision to move to SCUMM, but under the condition that some upgrades were made and some of the StoryDroid work be incorporated.

I always appreciated The Dig's streamlined one-click-does-all interface, which I'm reminded of when I play Telltale's contemporary point 'n clicks. Was an effort to make the adventure game mechanics more accessible a priority at that time? Oh, and is it true that The Dig at one point had a pop-up interface similar to that of Full Throttle (only with a glass pentagon instead of a tattoo)?

There was a strong culture surrounding improving the way our players interacted with the games. You can credit Ron Gilbert with a lot of that, considering it basically started with abolishing the text-parsing "Go North" interface other adventure games used. We had all been pushing for more stream-lined interfaces and had experimented with various concepts. For The Dig, we had done some experimentation with a pop-up style verb interface based on what Tim was doing. For me, it was a great concept for Full Throttle, but felt intrusive in the atmosphere we were trying to create for The Dig.

In my opinion, this game's heavy and effective atmosphere is its strongest suit. What sort of direction did you give to the background artists and Michael Land to capture the game's unique, moody feel?

By the time I came along, a large chunk of the background art was done. Brian had been pursuing a very dramatic feel, so the art was very moody and exotic which was needed to support the more serious tone of the game. Bill Tiller (lead artist) and I moved some pieces around and added some new shots, but generally kept the look. The story with Michael was different. No work had yet begun on the soundtrack, so we had a blank slate. Michael told me about some ideas he had been exploring in Grad School that involved editing together a piece of music based on samples of recorded music. The twist, and what really gave The Dig its tone, is that the samples were sometimes played backward. As envisioned for The Dig, it would sound strange and yet slightly familiar. I loved the idea and trusted Michael enough to try it. He got recordings of some Wagner pieces, wrote and recorded his own samples, and built a fantastic tapestry with all these little parts.

Why do you think the company was so committed to completing the game after all of the failed attempts, instead of just outright canceling it?

Everyone wanted to cancel it at one time or other. At about the time I realized it wasn't a 6 month sprint to the finish, but a fairly major overhaul, I even tried to have it cancelled. I got a lot of resistance, which surprised me. For some it was hard to resist the potential to have a game out there with a name like Spielberg's on it. But there was also a fairly large group of folks within the company that saw something unique about the concept and felt it was compelling enough to keep trying to deliver against it.

According to LucasArts, The Dig sold more units than any other adventure game it ever put out. Do you know if the company was ultimately able to recoup the no doubt staggering productions costs? Did the game's success ever prompt the discussion of a sequel that you're aware of?

The game was profitable. There were a few ideas being proposed for a sequel, and I had a concept, too. But the first project had taken such a toll, I don't think it would have been practical to try to build a team around a Dig sequel.

The story goes that late into the project's development, the voice actors were replaced and the majority of the game's dialog was rewritten (the former evidenced by the fact that the actors in the game's demo are different). If this is true, what prompted it?

That's only about half right. The real story is much less interesting than the rumor. What really happened was we had to put a tradeshow (I think it was still CES) demo together before we were ready to cast the game. So we did a kind of "dress rehearsal" with some local voice talent to get the demo together. It was a decent first approximation of what I was looking for, but not quite what I wanted for the final game.

Any cut idea or wacky production story that sticks out in your mind that you'd care to share?

I have a hard time associating the word "wacky" with the production of The Dig. There were a bunch of cut ideas -- all lost in a fog now. As you know by now, it was common for us to take characters from other SCUMM games and use them as placeholder while the artists were making new art. There were some pretty odd moments early in production seeing Bernard walking around on a desolate planet. Other than that, I've got nothing.

Explain to me what these LucasArts "pizza orgies" that I keep hearing about were.

The Pizza Orgy was a milestone of sorts. Once the game reached a state in which it was fairly playable and there was enough put together to get a sense of how the game would turn out, we would invite pretty much everyone in the company to come play the game after hours and eat pizza. The catch was they had to provide feedback on the game and their experience playing it.

Were you happy with the game, overall? With the benefit of hindsight, what's one thing you would change about the game if you could?

Initially I was just totally relieved that it was finally done. But yeah, I'm happy with how it turned out. There are always a million things I want to change once a game is out, but there isn't one large, looming OMG moment I wish I could go back and change.

Although I know you weren't involved in the game's earliest stages, I'm interested in what you know about Spielberg's initial idea for the game and how much the final version resembles it from a story perspective?

The lore goes that Spielberg had an idea for a story that involved blending elements of Forbidden Planet with Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He had considered making a movie, but to do what he was thinking would have been cost prohibitive. Then there was some thought about a short TV story. Over time I think it became more interesting to him as a game concept. He had a lot of ideas about different play styles and puzzle elements that ought to be in the game. Some we got, others not so much. In the end, though, I think the story supports the initial concept fairly well.

The Dig always seemed like it might have the potential for a film adaptation, and I know that before it was decided that a game should be made the notion was toyed with. Were there ever any mumblings about a game adaptation after the game was shipped?

There was a game, a book, a book on tape, and a soundtrack, and now you want a movie, too? I never heard anything (mumbling or otherwise) about a possible movie based on the game. At the time, no one was making movies based on games. And I still haven't seen a good adaptation of a game to screen, so maybe it's best that The Dig remained on tiny tube-based screens.

What were you up to between the culmination of The Dig and the next game you were project leader on, Escape from Monkey Island? Were there any super-secret canceled adventure projects in your past whose existence you can finally reveal to the world?

I don't own anything I worked on that wasn't released, so no, sorry, I can't tell you about the XXXXXX or the XXXXXXX games. And certainly not XXXXXXX.

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