Research Dig has pieces of a good story, inexpertly handled so that they don’t reach their full potential. In fact, the experience of the game was a bit like a real research dig — you have to mine through some errors, clichés, and unclear writing, but you can come away with some pretty good pieces. So let me first focus on the positive. The game has an intriguing premise — you are a beginning archaeology student, sent on a minor dig on behalf of your research center to an old abbey where the groundskeeper has uncovered “something old.” When you arrive, you meet the groundskeeper’s daughter, who whispers to you that the old piece belongs “to the Little People,” who live underground. (Exactly how little these Little People are remains in question, but I’ll get to that in a bit.) From this interesting start the game lays out a sensible map which delivers mystery and magic in reasonable proportions, never so much that it seems like a simple dungeon crawl or D&D knockoff. The writing can be rather atmospheric in several sections and some of the design contributes to this feeling, such as some important red herrings which lead nowhere but help to flesh out the game world. Overall, Research Dig feels like it was written by a beginner, but a beginner with good ideas and a passion for interactive fiction.
That being said, it’s also important to note that the game has a number of problems as well. Though the map was logical, it also felt quite a bit clichéd, with underground tunnels, spooky crypts, mysterious rune-encarved stones, etc. There wasn’t anything that felt very unique once the game got to this point, and it felt like a game with a lot of potential had devolved into another ho-hum underground excursion. In addition, the writing suffered at several points from basic proofreading errors. Spelling and grammar mistakes were not legion, but there were enough of them to be seriously distracting, especially since they sometimes turned up in places that would be read over and over again. For example, from the beginning of the game you find that you have a “referance book” in your inventory. After 10 times reading the misspelled word, my patience started to wear thin. It’s the kind of error that could have been avoided so easily, I have a hard time understanding why it’s there. The same is true for some key coding errors, like the key whose short name is “a key labelled ‘Shed’.” The problem with a short name like this is that Inform already provides articles for objects, so in the inventory the key is listed as “an a key labelled ‘Shed’.” Compounding the problem, there are two keys with this same error. The glitch is all the more aggravating because it comes up almost every time the game tries to refer to the keys. My favorite example: “Which do you mean, the a key labelled ‘Shed” or the a key labelled ‘Conservatory’?”
These mistakes were small, but sometimes small mistakes can make a big difference, and this game had the perfect example. However, before you read it, I should warn you that in order to explain my example, I have to spoil part of the endgame. Read on if you so choose. OK, so at one point you find an urn in the groundskeeper’s house with a piece missing. Then later on you find a rune-encarved “slab of stone, about 2′ square.” That’s two feet square. That’s way too big to be a piece of an urn. However, at the end of the game, you find out that it is in fact the missing piece of the urn. Meanwhile, you see the groundskeeper defeated by “a small person, you guess at about 3″ high.” That’s three inches high. That’s mighty small! However, by this time you begin to suspect that the game confused its notations, and is using ‘ for inches and ” for feet. This may seem like a minor error, but it changes the meaning of the things it affects so completely that it ruins any possibility of building the mystery. There’s something to be learned here: in some ways writing (I mean creative writing) and programming aren’t so far apart. Just as a missing semicolon can cause you no end of misery during compilation, so can a very small change completely deflate your story. Also, in both disciplines the semantic and syntactic errors are easiest to find, and your work is unacceptable until it is free of these. Logic errors are more difficult to detect, and take much more sweat to ferret out. Unfortunately for would-be writers, there is no automatic proofreading service for fiction that provides the error-checking of a good compiler. You have to do it yourself.