The Cave Hands On
Developer: Double Fine / Publisher: Sega / Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PS3 / Release Date: January 2013 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
Twenty-five years—that’s one hell of a dev-cycle, all right. That’s how long it’s been, according to Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert, since he first sketched out the initial kernels of what would ultimately become the forthcoming Double Fine adventure game, The Cave—which Gilbert now modestly talks about as “the evolution of the adventure game.” And after several months of teases, talk, and eyes-only demos, we finally got our hands on a playable version, in the dungeonous depths of…um, the Temple nightclub in San Francisco.
The Cave, then, is an adventure title (primarily intended as a single-player game, albeit with significant action and cooperative elements) wherein you (and a friend) can choose from a roster of seven adventurer-hero archetypes to explore the game’s single, massive, contiguous-environment titular Cave—with the stated goal of searching for what each of said archetypal characters secretly desires most in his/her heart of hearts.
Don’t let the fancy-schmancy new 3D visuals and press-the-button-to-jump controls alarm you unduly, gentle adventure-gamer: Despite its ostensibly platformer-esque mechanics—running around, jumping, and wielding items, for example, and what Gilbert describes as the game’s ‘Metroidvanian’ exploration/control scheme — The Cave is at its spiritual core still a proper Adventure Game in the traditional (or at least, Gilbertian) sense.
Those familiar with the tropes, humor, and mindset of the classic Monkey Island series will soon find themselves settling into reasonably familiar puzzle-logic country. Even the seemingly out-of-place, newfangled multiplayer option makes total sense, if you think about it for a moment. The Cave comprises the culmination of Gilbert’s notions of what it really means to sit around gaming with friends. He fondly recalls sitting “around the terminals”—which should give you some sense of the geologic time-scales we’re dealing with, here—with his friends, playing classic text-based games like Zork or Colossal Cave (!) Adventure, solving the various brain-straining puzzles together; for Gilbert, that’s the heart of what ‘adventure’ games are and always have been about. To that end, The Cave can be played and enjoyed equally well with one, two, or three players.
The setup then, briefly–the game’s seven playable character-types, drawn to the titular Cave from far-flung places and times, include: The obligatory high-fantasy Knight in armor, seeking a sword of unequaled power; the monk, searching for his master on a journey of Enlightenment; the backwoods Hillbilly, looking for love in questionable places such as caves; a young female all-purpose Adventurer, on a quest to find her lost companions (and/or possibly some ancient treasure); the Scientist, who is on ‘the cusp of a great discovery’; the so-called ‘adorable Twins’ (who naturally look just the tiniest bit creepy), searching for their parents; and last but not least there’s the Time-Traveler, seeking to ‘undo a wrong that is a million years in the making’.
While you can explore the vast majority of The Cave with any three-character combination of your choosing, there are certain segments that are specifically, thematically geared to each of the seven character types (indeed, there are sections that are only accessible to certain characters, depending on their special abilities—such as the Hillbilly’s ability to hold his breath underwater). For our hands-on exploration, we were tasked with playing the Hillbilly’s ‘story’: It involves his One True Lost Love, and also prominently features a…well, a carnival. Yeah, like cotton candy, ferris-wheels, and guess-your-weight hucksters. A carnival, underground, in the depths of a Cave. Never mind why; just roll with it.
Once we got used to the control scheme—particularly the, ah, particulars of switching the characters on which the game-camera would ‘anchor’ and subsequently would follow—it soon became pleasantly (if a little overwhelmingly) clear that we were once again in a Ron Gilbert world.
As with Monkey Island, one soon discovers that a straightforward item-fetch quest actually isn’t quite as straightforward as it initially may seem: You’ll need to acquire a carnival ticket by winning a carnival midway game…but the midway game in question is clearly, brazenly rigged; in another instance, you’ll need to fool the guess-your-weight huckster by adding some additional weight onto the weigh-scale… but any additional heavy thing you try to sneakily put onto the weigh-scale will also be in plain view of said huckster, and he’s not having any of that nonsense; you’ll need to stand at one place while a switch gets thrown in a distant locale…but now you can’t remember where the hell the switch actually is.
The mental bulk of any Ron Gilbert game is often found in the bizzarro-yet-perfectly-reasonable, tortuous (and in some cases imagery/wordplay-oriented) ‘logic’ required to solve the puzzles, so it just wouldn’t be right to give away any specifics here–but over the course of our extended hands-on sessions, it wasn’t uncommon to hear a litany of repeated, frustrated profanity from one of the nearby curtained-off gaming stations…followed by a sudden, conspicuous, protracted silence, and finally a delighted, triumphant “OOOhhhhh–!” of Dawning Understanding as some player finally made the crucial (and in retrospect amazingly obvious) connection to solve a puzzle.
Added on top of all this, of course, is the actual movement/exploration button-pushing mechanics, and here it must be said that we did encounter some minor issues; occasionally, the uninterruptable animation-cycle of a character would make certain otherwise-easy jump/timing operations more challenging than they strictly should have been—and hopefully, these minor irritants will be addressed before the game launches.
In terms of The Cave‘s purely movement/exploration-based dangers, you need not worry overmuch: While it is possible—not easy, but possible—to technically ‘die’ from say a long fall or triggering some unpleasant mechanism or other, the game takes a page from the Little Big Planet playbook, and simply auto-reincarnates the character some short, manageable distance away from where he/she met his/her demise to try, try again. In other words, it really is fundamentally about the puzzles, and you needn’t fear fighting the game environments.
Finally. there’s one other ‘character’ that we haven’t talked about yet—and that’s The Cave itself. No other way to put it: The Cave talks. Not in an artsy, high-minded, metaphorical sense, but in a “Yes, I’m a talking Cave” kind of way. The Cave actually has a pleasant, sonorous voice, which serves to counterbalance the fact that the characters themselves do not speak at all.
This is more than understandable, not only as a device to make you figure out the underlying motivations of the characters in a problem-solving sense, but to enhance the overall dramatic sense that each character has some deep, rock-bottom Secret that remains to be unearthed… and the sense that The Cave has been patiently waiting these hundreds—nay, thousands!–of years, for just these people, and perhaps many others…
All the while, the chosen trio of adventurers/players can work cooperatively—activating separate switches, holding open doors, distracting Cave-dwelling creatures while fellow adventurers sneak safely past, and the like. As we mentioned earlier, the game can be played by a single player swapping out his/her three chosen characters, but the clear appeal is for each of the players to have their own character—to evoke a little of that ‘players huddled around the terminals’ puzzle-solving gamer- camaraderie that Gilbert remembers so fondly.
The Cave will yield its secrets, its challenges, and its lovely speaking-voice in January 2013. Time to limber up that puzzle-solving brain—be ready to accept that, just because one finds a Wrench, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one must now be looking for an accompanying Nut or a Bolt: One MAY need to keep one’s eyes peeled for a freakin’ Monkey.