Do Not Digg Here

I see that Digg’s application for a trademark registration on DIGG is being opposed by Lucasarts, who released a computer game entitled The Dig in 1995. I found out from Marty Schwimmer, who found out from Techdirt, who found out from WebProNews, who found out from Digg.

The opposition is, as many have noted, silly. (It’s also a gleaming example of the problems with the incontestability rule, but that’s an issue for another day.) Lucasarts has done next to nothing with The Dig in the last decade, and the fact that so few of those commenting on the affair have heard of it is a fine indication of just how few people would be confused by the DIGG mark. The marks, while textually similar, apply to such dissimilar goods (“computers and stuff” is about the extent of the commonality), that the confusing similarity is all in the mind of Lucasarts’s overzealous trademark attorneys.

I don’t buy, as some have, that this is simply an attempt by Lucasarts to gain publicity for the game in the hopes of doing something with the property. You see, I have a critical point of personal knowledge here that the above-linked notables don’t: I’ve actually played the game, and it sucked.

The year was 1995, and adventure games were in decline. Talkies had kept the genre going a little longer, but the writing was on the wall. FPS games, RTS games, sports games, and consoles were all gaining ground, and they were pretty much eating adventure games for lunch. The Dig was a too-late attempt to do a high-production value sci-fi epic, and from the news that leaked out through the gaming press, its ambitions led to all sorts of production troubles. It shipped late and with all the indicia of being well over budget.

Still, I played it. Why? Because that’s what I did. I played adventure games. Particularly LucasArts ones. They’d had an amazing run of success, and particularly after the brilliant Day of the Tentacle, my hopes were high. And then dashed. I knew from the moment I noticed that the box was shimmery that something was wrong, a feeling the actual game did nothing to dispel.

The plot was an alien-artifact/first-contact/space-madness pastiche. Had the makers of 2001 or Carl Sagan (author of Contact) wanted to sue, they might just have had a colorable claim of copyright infringement. They say that Orson Scott Card wrote the dialogue, and while I didn’t believe it at the time, in light of some of his more recent books, I’m prepared to admit it was possible. The puzzles were all fairly easy, some of them nonsensical, and none satisfying. The whole thing went by quickly and unhappily.

My sense of things was that most players agreed with me. This was early on in the Web, mind you, so there wasn’t the kind of aggregated online feedback we have now. It came out, it sat on shelves for the minimum socially acceptable interval, and then it sank out of sight like a stone. Perhaps I’m wrong and the sales figures really were good. But I doubt it. I’m honestly surprised that Lucasarts bothered to continue filing the paperwork with the Trademark Office to keep their registration on THE DIG active.

Perhaps there’s simply no one at the company now who remembers the game and how awful it was, how embarrassing for the company, and what a turkey in the marketplace. It’s possible. They made a few more fine adventure games up through 2000, but they also made a long series of games under the Star Wars license, some of which were excellent, but many of which were truly atrocious. For far too many years, I’d check their web site excitedly every year around E3 to see the announcement of new titles, only to end up like Charlie Brown as the football was yanked away yet again. I even applied for a job as a programmer there when I was graduating from college. I’m glad they circular-filed my resume; the disillusionment of doing an interview and learning that their next big project was Star Wars: Moisture Vaporator. My point is that that kind of corporate soul extraction tends to be associated with some personnel turnover.

I mean really, Lucasarts, what are you thinking? You cannot possibly want people to remember The Dig, can you? You should have buried it in the desert, like those E.T. Atari cartridges. But I guess it’s kind of an Eternal Sunshine problem: if you erase all your memories of The Dig, sooner or later you’ll forget just why it is you were trying so hard to forget about it.

I seem to recall that Card (of whom I was never the huge fan many of my friends were, leaving quite aside his odious personal beliefs) also penned the recent, and violently panned, Advent Rising.

I loved The Dig, both when I bought it back in 1996 and when I replayed it during law school. It had gorgeous animation (including a wonderful opening cinematic that was the most movie-like I’d ever seen in a computer game), decent voice-acting, some neat puzzles, and excellent music. And it at least tried to tell a complete story, rather than being a complete puzzlefest like Monkey Island 2.

I think The Dig suffered a bit because it was so different from the games being produced by Lucasarts and even Sierra at the time — I’m thinking primarily of the complete absence of humor. But I enjoyed it more than I did a number of its contemporaries: Monkey Island 2, King’s Quest 4 (or maybe 5, I forget), Quest for Glory 1-3, and something called Dragon Lore (now that was a bad game).