The Cave: plundering the depths of Ron Gilbert's new adventure game
The Cave is an old fashioned adventure game in disguise. The videos and screenshots show characters running, jumping over gaps and climbing, but these are momentary interludes. There's no inventory, and you play as three characters instead of one, but The Cave is fundamentally about exploration, observation and methodical puzzle solving in the guts of a sentient, talking cavern.
The thought of a new adventure game from Ron Gilbert and Double Fine conjures up certain expectations, but The Cave isn't founded on the nostalgia that inspired the Double Fine Adventure Game kickstarter. This is Gilbert's attempt to modernise the genre for a new audience.
"We need to get out of the trope of point-and-click, massive inventories," he told me at a preview event earlier this week, "we need to evolve a little bit and try to address what modern gamers like in adventure games."
The clickable hotspots and characters that would normally occupy a couple of screens in a classic point-and-click adventure are stretched across several storeys of underground passages. You can switch control between your trio of team members at will and march them to different corners of the chatty catacomb. Characters, signs, stalls and switches based in one corner of the maze will provide the tools and details needed to progress each puzzle elsewhere.
As I explored the triple-tiered zone, criss-crossing relationships started to emerge. I found myself thinking this: "aha! I can ask the magician to make the dumbbell invisible and then carry it up to the scales of the guy who wants to guess my weight so I can fool him, get his golden ticket, buy the pink bear and give it to the woman blocking the exit."
See, I told you it was an adventure game. You can only carry one item at a time, and there's a bit of running and jumping between NPCs, but the bizarre logic sequences that make up the quirky double helix of adventure game DNA is present in every puzzle.
The thirty minute section I played was set in a carnivalesque section populated by talking cardboard cut-out characters. They ran stalls that would grant me golden tickets if I beat their challenges. There are multiple solutions to many of the puzzles, which can be exploited more speedily using your chosen characters' unique abilities.
Let's see if you can guess what each character's power is by looking at them. These are the three characters I controlled during the preview. Highlight the hidden text next to each picture to see if you're right.
Go on, you can guess what the Hillbilly's power is. It's something that ALL Hillbilllies can do. "BREATHE UNDERWATER FOREVER?" That's right! Good job. Have a golden ticket.&nbsc;&nbsc;
This pair can create a ghostly apparition of themselves. It's ideal if you want to hold down a switch remotely. What's that, why doesn't one twin hold down the switch while the other completes the puzzle? I ... er ... look over there! A flying Octopus!
The scientist can … science at things. She strokes her chin, a bleepy bloopy machine giggle sound happens and glowing equations float around her head, hacking nearby machinery.
The powers may be weird, but they're occasionally useful. I felt a bit special bypassing a puzzle with the scientist that would otherwise take longer, but it's hard to see how The Cave will test these abilities in more complex scenarios. Almost all of the cave's challenges are solvable by any combination of classes, which means there's little room to stretch each individual character's puzzling potential.
They're also strangely mute. Double Fine's artists have done a great job of characterising them through their movements and mannerisms, but they feel more like puzzle solving puppets then characters. Why are they there? What links them together? What's the Cave's motive in all this? If it's going to be more than a tactile, roaming puzzle game, The Cave will have to explore these questions and add a bit of narrative thrust to all that spelunking.
My expectations are coloured by Gilbert's prestigious history. When I think about why I enjoyed adventure games so much, it's memories of Guybrush Threepwood and Manny Calavera that spring to mind, not the memory of the time I had to trap a rat in a box to give it to a sailor and get to the next screen.
I asked Gilbert what he enjoys most about making games. "I really like telling stories, and that's one of the reasons that adventure games appeal to me, so they're primarily about stories and I kind of like that side of designing games. I love creating worlds."
The Cave's world is surreal, with a curiously creepy undertone and a welcome dash of morbid humour. Each of the seven characters has been drawn to the cave to realise their most cherished desires, and there will be sections of the catacombs dedicated to each character, but with little narrative framing and no dialogue to chew on, my first impressions were clouded by the perennial uncertainty of a Lost viewer. Is all of this going somewhere? I wondered.
There's an interesting experiment in the works here, though, one that may yet surprise. "I'm trying a bunch of things in The Cave," said Gilbert. "Hopefully a bunch of those will be successful, maybe some of them not so successful. And then as I make new ones I'll just not do the unsuccessful ones, do more of this, try some new things."