I furthermore think he's taking that approach because he himself doesn't like the game, which, if you know his tastes, should come as no surprise.
The author's aesthetic for adventure games is that the puzzles have to be fair and solvable without hints. https://www.filfre.net/2015/07/the-14-deadly-sins-of-graphic...
I've argued with him in the past that this attitude closes him off from enjoying games that are pretty good but have a couple of unfair puzzles. (You can see the argument there in a comment thread on that 2015 article, and again recently on his Full Throttle article.)
Thus, the key paragraphs from this article are when he points out that the alien skeleton puzzle is unfair (and, isn't it??) and the "alien control panel" (where you move the lens to the light source by programming a little robot, but there's no hint/clue what you're "supposed" to make the robot do).
I think he's spot on that those puzzles are unfair, but, in his mind, that means the whole game sucks as a game.
His criticism of the acting and plot are a matter of personal aesthetic, but I think I agree with him that Dig's ending is not great, especially when you consider what happens to the NPC five minutes before the ending.
I mostly agree with you, but I would add that deeply illogical puzzles where a much much bigger issue in 1995 than today - when I played The Dig first time around I had no internet access and no means of obtaining help beyond me and a group of school friends trying everything we could think of. As such, I didn't finish The Dig until years later in ScummVM with a walkthrough.
The Dig, Full Throttle and especially Grim Fandango are adventure games I still love, but I can't honestly say I love them as "games". I love the atmosphere, setting and story telling in these LucasArts titles, but find the gameplay in Monkey Island, Day of The Tentacle etc to be much better personally. I'd love to read a Maher piece on Grim Fandango actually!
It seems to me like a lot of the people who liked it the best also had read the novelization, which makes sense -- my biggest problem with the game, and I think Jimmy's as well, is that the characters are mostly ciphers. I'm sure the supplementary material helped fill that in.
In some respects, The Digital Antiquarian's take here on The Dig actually is far weaker for mentioning the novel but not including it in the final review, especially when contrasted with the linked Loom review where the Audio Drama is lauded as being usefully central to the project and the understanding of it.
That said, I'm in the group that read the novel first and found the game worse because of it because you could directly see all the holes of "this thing the novel described is probably a puzzle that got dropped at the last minute" and "this scene in the novel of great importance probably was a cutscene that was cut for time" and so forth.
The Digital Antiquarian rightfully mocks OSC's somewhat hackneyed dialog and it is rare for anyone to wish the Alan Dean Foster dialog on a finished project that ADF did the novelization for (and I say that having loved many ADF novelizations nearly as much as the films), but The Dig is probably high on the list where the novel's dialog was far superior overall to the game's and it showed even beyond the internal monologues and characterization that couldn't make it into the game and/or were cut.
(It's also not exactly a surprise that Maher's coverage of The Dig is a little bit skewed toward the parts of it that an ex-Infocom Imp worked on.)
Agreed that the ending could have been a bit better, but overall the atmosphere and experience of the whole game from the shuttle and asteroid to the alien world were superb. I would love to see a remake of this in the vein of the Monkey Island remakes, perhaps with some tweaks to the ending if that didn't detract from the original.
the strategy guide had a "making of The Dig" section at the end, and now I'm going to have to dig my copy out of storage and compare its portrayal of events with the likely more cohesive and truthful story told here.
I have no idea if the game holds up, but for who I was when I played it, it left a big impression. I thought the ending was really great, although maybe it'd have read as hokey if I'd've had another decade of Sci Fi under my belt.
The fate of the alien civilization revealed at the end still has resonance to me in an age where people are talking about uploading their consciousness or living out the rest of eternity in some Ready Player Two digital-ethereal realm.
It is a neat game though, I agree. It deserves props for introducing me to the word “pulchritudinous”.
I first started noticing this with his review of Wing Commander III:
"if you ask me whether Wing Commander III is a good game in the abstract, my answer has to be no, it really is not. It’s best reserved today for those who come to it for nostalgia’s sake, or who are motivated by a deep — not to say morbid! — curiosity about the era which it so thoroughly embodies."
Yet his review of the first Wing Commander ends on a very positive note--despite the game's (numerous) flaws, he calls it a "hugely engaging, hugely fun" game that he still recommends to new players.
Being closely familiar with both games, that's a bit of a hard pill to swallow. The gameplay of WC1 (if you can get it to run at the correct speed) is just so much more rough than WC3 that I would never recommend it to any but the most diehard retro game masochists. I would say that WC3, in contast, is still very accessible and enjoyable (if not the most varied space sim ever).
I think what's happening--and this is all too common in these kinds of retro game reviews--is that he's showing bias for the games he preferred/played first when he was younger.
He really seems biased against the later, big production games of the mid-90s: Wing Commander 3, Myst, Full Throttle... and I suspect we'll see more of this bias as these later reviews increase.
If you think WC3 is varied and you are into space sims, you should try out Freespace, its expansion and Freespace 2.
Better graphics, better missions, much better story, more involved mechanics.
And as the engine was made open source decades ago, it’s still being maintained by the community
Isn't that the entire concept of a review?
I'm claiming the reviewer is couching their review in objectivity but is (seemingly) biased towards games from a certain time.
...the flip side: like all the best criticism, literally the least interesting thing about these essays are the final judgments the author lays down.
was kinda the operative part of that sentence.
At the time, I read the lukewarm reviews, and it wasn't hard to see that The Dig had suffered a bit from being so long in production. That said, while technology-wise it was perhaps a bit behind some other games at the time, as a LucasArts game, it definitely felt state of the art, from the lush music to the high-quality voice acting and the gorgeous pixel art. Only Full Throttle came close.
And while it wasn't a perfect game, its sense of place was superb. To a young adventure gamer seeking fantastic, alien worlds, it did feel immersive.
There was another adventure game that came out around the same time that's now largely forgotten: Heart of Darkness , by Éric Chahi, notable for making Another World (aka Out of This World). It had a similar troubled development process, and had a similarly pretentious marketing boasting of music performed by a real symphonic orchestra (the Sinfonia of London), and it met similarly lukewarm reviews. The game is actually beautiful (except for the horrifically outdated 3D cut scenes), but it's also not quite the classic that Another World was.
(Coincidentally, Chahi also worked on a sci-fi point-and-click for Delphine back in 1989 called Future Wars . It's a beautiful game that has some parallels with The Dig, though modern players are going to be really put off by the horrible user interface.)
What I loved about The Dig: how cinematic it feels (unsurprisingly, I also liked this about Full Throttle, but The Dig feels like a movie at times). That the plot is "serious" scifi. That unlike most point-and-click adventures of its time, it takes itself (mostly) seriously: The Dig is a serious work of scifi, not an excuse to write gags.
That ending where you can choose to break a vow and do something you promised not to -- powerful!
The Dig is hard, true, but compared to one other "serious"
adventure game I can think of it's a piece of cake: it's way easier than I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (which I couldn't finish without a walkthrough).
First, he bashes Full Throttle, an absolute gem, and my favourite LucasArts adventure. Next, he is not happy with "The Dig", a game I deeply loved back then.
If he didn't write an essay on Star Control 2 earlier, at this point I would filly expect him to be unimpressed even by SC2.
It's an opinionated approach, sure, but at least he's open about it and seems to apply it consistently.
You can still like games that have serious objective flaws, dude. It's ok.
opinions are not objective
If you follow through the whole series it becomes clear that this system is actually objective. It's not about opinions.
When he says a game has puzzles that can't be solved using information in the game he's not expressing an opinion.
He plays the game, finds the answer, checks if any part of the game supports that solution, reaches out to any living members of the design staff to talk about how the game was developed, and eventually he says "Quest for Glory IV was released in a broken state, and later patches fixed it only because the patch notes told you which part of the game had broken and what to do to work around it now that it was patched."
He's objectively right. It doesn't matter that QFGIV is one of my favorite games of all time. The art, the music, the humor, the world-building, all are top notch and he gives those a nod. But the game is totally screwed up.
When he says Full Throttle has action sequences that have no clues as to correct behavior, where you have to figure out the correct actions and timing by extended trial-and-error, that's not an opinion. Full Throttle has those sequences, just like Dragon's Lair.
Just because you love something doesn't mean it's objectively well-made.
First action sequence is more difficult, but is solvable, too, once you understand that different weapons have different effect on enemies.
One such criticism is his bashing of the second arcade puzzle (the demolition derby) - he complained about the objective being "unclear". How can it be "unclear" after the player is given a briefing on what to do and is constantly bombarded by voice instructions during the whole event?!
"The problem is that Full Throttle is still a SCUMM adventure game, but layered with bizarre action sequences that have aged like a tuna sandwich someone left in the back of the fridge for two decades. A few motorcycle fights mid-game are awkward but bearable, but a late-game demolition derby sequence is just about as obnoxious and unplayable today as it was 20 years ago." 
A guy I watch on twitch played Ocarina of Time for the first time a year or so ago. I love that game, having played it to death in my childhood.
He hated it.
I asked him why.
He then proceeded to enumerate all of the ways he hated it: Navi's interruptions, time-wasting animations and transitions, and of course the entire water temple , to name a few. I had to tell him that yeah, every single one of his criticisms was entirely valid. I love the game anyway. Is it nostalgia? Maybe in part , but I think it's also possible that the things I really enjoy about it outweigh the things I dislike. Either way, it doesn't make his criticisms any less valid.
It's possible Maher's criticisms aren't very fair, I don't know since I never played Full Throttle. But I will say that I highly doubt that's the case from having read his other work.
 If you played OoT and don't know why people hate the water temple, it's because you played on the 3DS, where they made some changes to make it less confusing and tedious.
 He also hated Outer Wilds, and once again I found no flaw with his criticism but love the game anyway.
(As a player, while I've grown more tolerant of the motorbike action sequences than I was as a kid who didn't play much in the way of action games, I can't say if I've ever completed the demolition derby "properly". Just can't find the interest in me.)
(Personally, I still think more games should have a "I'm bored with this action sequence / boss fight, please just skip it" button and hold up this aspect of Full Throttle as one of the best parts of its design, even if it was offered mostly as an apology that they didn't quite get what they wanted from the aging SCUMM engine in terms of action.)
Then again, I played The Dig much younger as a pre-teen and can still distinctly remember that intro. It was one of the few games that pulled you in just like a movie. The atmosphere was really dense and it felt way more like a movie you could interact with than a game.
I didn't care about the shallow, less coherent story back then and I also don't remember it as a game that was so great I wasted months on like XCOM, but it was definitely pretty good.
I'd argue it's the most atmospherically-memorable of the LucasArts adventures, and am surprised at the article-author's conclusion.
Fun fact: this was one of the first games I ever played that had Portuguese subtitles.
The hype in gaming in 1995 was fully focused on 3D and FPS titles, and I distinctly recall thinking how dated the pre-rendered sequences of The Dig looked.
Still, just because a game isn’t an instant classic doesn’t make it a failure either, as long as you judge it for what it is, not what the hype made you think.
I think I wound up using a walkthrough to finish the puzzle. It was a bizarre thing to include and probably a sign that nobody had bothered play-testing that part of the game although at the time I didn't really care.
I think the laser machine puzzle was in a sense "easier" because it gave a better idea of what it was supposed to do
The puzzles definitely needed more "in-game handholding" and if you see, for example in the Thimbleweed park blog they paid attention to some of those aspects.
Now I badly want a real HD remake of the actual game.