With The Cave, esteemed game designer Ron Gilbert and Double Fine Productions set out to solve the age old adventure game problem: traversal is boring. Gilbert prescribed a puzzle-platformer combined with the characteristic intelligent goofiness that we’ve come to expect from the dudes who brought us Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. The goal was to create an adventure that doesn’t weigh itself down with the monotony of point-and-click traversal, counterintuitive item combinations, and incessant backtracking.
The Cave is a game about the dark and quirky pasts of seven personified fiction tropes — a shoeless hillbilly, a cowardly knight, an adventurer, a time traveler, a set of creepy twins, a scientist, and a monk. Each one of these chaps has a dark secret or desire that can allegedly only be reconciled by a wise-cracking and (somehow) all-knowing cave. The Cave himself likes to teach a lesson, Twilight Zone style, and he’ll let you know about it quite frequently.
You get to choose three of the seven characters to take with you, and each one can carry one item at a time – there is no traditional inventory system. Every character has the ability to unlock character-specific portions of The Cave that reveal the characters’ true motivations and desires. These levels elaborate the characters’ backstories and tend to exude a bit more charm than the rest of the cave. Each tale is fine on its own, but these sections are typically the only opportunity you’ll have to use a character-specific ability. Take for example the knight’s invincibility power – it’s used to deflect arrows and expunge the flames of a dragon in his section, but once you’ve moved on, the knight is just another empty suit for the remainder of the spelunk.
The Cave is certainly styled with the traditional Gilbert-esque humor and wit, but it often likes to dabble on the dark (read: downright evil) side of the spectrum. When The Cave is churning out multilayered jokes and double-entendred puns at high rate, the game is as delightful as can be. In several key sections of The Cave, the writers masterfully walk the line between demented and light-hearted about as well as I’ve seen. The game doesn’t mind an untimely murder of an innocent character, as long as it sets up a solid punchline. It’s at times like these that the game feels comfortable with itself, setting up hilarious puzzle solutions that often end with a dose of demented humor.
The puzzles within The Cave aren’t lazily implemented, but there are some notable areas that feel more like wasted opportunities to use the abilities of the characters more creatively. While switching between the three different characters, there’s a reasonable amount of backtracking and re-exploration to be done. Even more disappointing is the fact that you’ll have to play the game three times to see all seven character sections, meaning repeating the less-interesting common areas three times. There’s was a strange mental see-saw occurring as I played through the game: when I’m solving creative puzzles (such as looking for interesting ways to cheat at carnival games), I feel engaged, but when I’m moving from one room to the next, I get bored.
The Cave collapses upon itself when it attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t necessarily exist. Pointing and clicking to move around can be drab in the adventures games of old, but the right visual and sound design can distract the player from the more monotonous task and actually enhance the game’s overall equity. By changing the grammar of movement into a two-dimensional platformer, The Cave creates even more problems for itself by simply missing the point of what makes platformers great.
The Cave is deceptive about its means of traversal — it’s structured like a platformer, but I never felt like I was actually playing a platformer. There’s no illusion of danger, no player-skill development, and no mastery of the mechanics required, even at a basic level. The characters lack fluidity of movement, especially when jumping; and getting from one point to the next ranges from cumbersome to downright annoying. I’ve never had less fun climbing a ladder in a video game – and there’s so, so, so many ladders.
The goal was seemingly to spice up the act of movement, but in doing so, The Cave abandons every notable advancement of the puzzle-platformer from this generation – there are simply too many levers, too many buttons, and too much box-pushing. For every cleverly designed puzzle solution, there’s a bunch of useless ladders and ropes to climb, giving your previously-occupied brain plenty of time to check back out. The Cave didn’t convince me that adventure games need to be reinvented – it almost feels that the decision to turn this into a platformer caused the developers to lose sight of some of the finer nuance required to make the journey just as interesting as the destination.
And while the dark humor and quirky attitude help to embellish the environs from time to time, there is a poignant lack of discovery or wonder generated throughout the exploration process. The distinct lack of moment-to-moment feedback, whether it be visual, anticipatory, or otherwise is extremely disheartening because there’s so much charm to consume at critical points of the game.