Step into a land of mystery and darkness from the mind of Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert.
I don’t know you, I don’t know your family, I don’t know if you prefer Turkey or Tofurkey for Christmas dinner. I wouldn’t know you if you came up to me on the street, looked me squarely in the eye and said horrible things about my pet parakeet and his wonderful array of feathers. Despite all this, I know with 99.9% certainty that you have a debilitating desire when it comes to video games which is actively restricting your enjoyment and that addiction is progression.
When it comes to games you don’t want to wait a second longer than necessary to further the plot, level up or unlock that piece of armour you’ve wanted for a matter of minutes. The thing is, games aren’t just a checklist of things to do in order to make you falsely believe that you’ve accomplished something. No, there’s a great deal of worth in being challenged and prodded in the way that only an abstract logic puzzle can provide. It doesn’t matter if you stare at the screen for twenty minutes pondering how to use the tools on screen, as that wait only multiplies the enjoyment and satisfaction you get when you finally crack the problem and progress.
That’s something adventure games of old, like Monkey Island, Broken Sword, and Day of the Tentacle, understood completely. It wasn’t the result that’s important it’s the journey that got you there which ultimately governed your enjoyment.
It isn’t entirely surprising then that playing The Cave, the next downloadable game from Ron Gilbert and Double Fine, conjures up mental imagery of trying to figure out how to make Guybrush Threepwood’s loogie fly further in the spitting contest or using luckily sprinkled objects to free the wannabe pirate from an early watery grave.
Apart from an emphasis on testing puzzle design, The Cave isn’t anything like Monkey Island. If anything in tone and spirit its design is more a kin to Psychonauts or Trine with a sinister yet quirky atmosphere present throughout and the addition of a snarky narrator to further the plot.
The premise is based around seven adventurers from different times and lands venturing into the titular magic cavern in search of what their heart most desires. The Hillbilly for instance just wants to find a girlfriend whereas the Time Traveller is searching for an method to save her doomed society.
When you first enter the game, you choose from three different characters to join your party, and from there you’re chucked into the campaign, with you able to switch between those three characters at will with help of the d-pad. Unlike Trine each character is physically present in the world, so when you switch from one to the other, they stay in the world ready to be manipulated. Characters auto-warp to new areas so you aren’t constantly moving one character along and then the other. The reason for this is simple, asynchronous puzzle design. This catchy label means that you can be in two places at once for any puzzle, so say you need to deactivate an electrical supply to allow another character to pick up a fuse without getting shocked. You merely position both parties in the right place, switch off the supply, select the other character on the d-pad, pick up the fuse and away you go. This is similar to the sort of gameplay which was found both in Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, and the similarities aren’t lost on Mr Gilbert.
Each of the seven characters have their own set of special abilities with the Hillbilly able to breath underwater forever whereas the Time Traveller can fiddle with live electrical items without getting shocked. These abilities may sound obtuse, but really they’re only used to gate off the game world’s themed areas, with The Cave requiring multiple playthroughs for players to see everything the underground labyrinth has to offer.
Unlike typical adventure games The Cave doesn’t have an inventory system or elaborate dialogue trees. Instead characters can only carry one item at a time, and any item-orientated solution to any puzzle can usually be found in close proximity to the apparatus it needs to be used with. As a result it’s easy to first dismiss The Cave as a simplified, dare we say it, casual experience, but there’s a great deal of logic to be dissected in this downloadable game.
With a co-op buddy we were chucked head first into the carnival zone of the cave, which was themed around the Hillbilly. The straw eating yokel is on the lookout for the girl of his dreams, and conveniently enough he actually finds her, only he needs to give her a pink fluffy bear to win her affection and wouldn’t you know it a vending machine near by held exactly that. The girl’s favour could be won with only 5 tickets, which needed to be won via the carnival’s various dodgy competition stalls. You know the deal, fool a guy who can accurately guess your weight to the pound, hit a weight with a big hammer so that a bell goes off, guess what colour a spinning wheel will land on correctly – you know the spiel.
Oddly every NPC in the carnival area was a cardboard cut-out even the damsel the Hillbilly was trying to win over. There was no story exposition to explain this and no characters called this out, instead they just carried on as if a talking standee was the most natural thing in the world, which gave a rather oddball vibe to the demo.
Fooling the vendors into giving us tickets varied from rather simple activities, like one player character dunking another into water, whereas others involved elaborate traversal and timed challenges. For instance using a well-placed wrench to turn off the carnival’s power supply at the perfect time, so that our fellow co-op player riding the big wheel could jump onto a ledge just as the ride was reaching its apex and disconnect a fuse, which could then be used to activate the “Fully Dressed Exotic Dancer” show stall. Starting up the not-quite nudey show then caused NPCs to move from their position blocking a massive novelty hammer, which could be used to win a ticket from the bell-ringing Strength Tester. That solution actually sounds quite complex on paper, but the way the scenarios are structured gives you enough time to indulge by experimenting and learning the baby steps necessary to get where you need to go.
Other solutions were slightly more crafty, like activating and interacting with the carnival’s clairvoyant so that he told us the next colour to come up on the spinning wheel, and using a magician to make one of the strong man’s dumbbells disappear so that we could the mislead the gentlemen trying to guess our weight. These moments were great, not only because we found the solutions naturally, but also because we had to really think about them without the pains of having to combine items in an inventory or scan the scenery looking for things to fiddle with.
The demo ended with our trio arriving too late on the scene to win the favour of the scantily clad cardboard maiden, as she was already in the arms of a loin-clothed strongman. This act of two dimensional betrayal not only broke the Hillbilly’s heart, but also placed two giant bails of hay blocking our path deeper into the cave. Curiously at this exact moment a lighter appeared in the vending machine next to the newly discovered obstruction, offering an easy albeit destructive solution to our path-finding predicament. Beware a lover scorned.
Prior to the mass burning of all the things, we did have to carefully sabotage a nearby fireman’s hose by diving deep underwater and deactivating a water supply, but after that inconvenience the underground hovel of fairground attractions burned bright and so did all the NPCs with it. As the screams of the burned and burning flooded into our ears, our trio moved pass the hay obstruction and further into the darkness of the void. Didn’t we say this game from Ron Gilbert and co. was a little bit dark?
Despite having a rather enchanting experience with The Cave, there were some game design decisions which made us scratch our heads a bit. The lack of any online co-op is a strange choice in this connected age, and local co-op doesn’t have the option for split-screen play. Instead the camera only follows one character at a time, with the player who last selected a character judged the main candidate to follow. When you first get into the game this takes a lot of getting used to, as one player inevitably moves forward so quickly that the second player gets left behind, a la Tails in Sonic 2. There are two solutions for this, either each player calmly waits their turn, or one just takes up the passive role of follower as the leader streaks on. In 2012, this solution feels a bit backward, but this is a very deliberate choice to accommodate asynchronous puzzle design and encourage team play.
Part adventure game, part side-scroller, The Cave certainly offers a unique gameplay mix. There are some clunky elements in the design of Telltale’s latest offering, but the sheer oddity of the premise and the allure of simplified yet intelligent puzzle gameplay should mean Ron Gilbert’s latest work should stand out against the rest of the downloadable game crowd.
The Cave will be released in this coming January on Steam, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network.
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