Yes, it really is a talking cave that will narrate your adventure into its own deepest reaches. Yet if having the company of a labyrinthine cave with a gently wicked sense of humour wasn’t enough, you take control of a trio of characters as you journey together, each with a peculiar dark history and stories of desire to be told.
With Ron Gilbert leading the development of the title, it’s interesting that some ideas call back to the first game he worked on, Maniac Mansion – things like picking your three characters from a cast of seven. In fact, during a brief presentation, he stated that The Cave was actually an idea from even before Maniac Mansion. I had the chance to sit down with him and asked if the game was based around a singular vision of his.
“For the game it’s definitely a team effort,” he replied. “I kind of had the original idea, the overall structure, but there were two other people who were designers on the project and we always did brainstorming. Every single puzzle in the game, all three of us have touched in some fashion or other.”
Following on, with regards to The Cave spawning from his 25 years old idea, he said, “[That was] just the concept, that there were these three characters that go into this sentient, talking cave. That was kind of the core of the idea. It’s evolved a lot over the years, so at the beginning it was not an adventure game, that’s something that it slowly morphed into. Having you pick three from seven, that was not part of the original idea, and something very recent. So it’s slowly changed over time, and then went through a lot more dramatic changes recently.”
How can the Hillbilly possibly compete with the Man of Average Strength?
Similarly, there’s an almost total removal of any inventory system, taking away a traditional crutch from point & click adventures, of stashing some peculiar item in your inventory, only to use as an obscure solution to a puzzle half a game later. Instead, each of the three characters you can control can only carry a single item at any time, and they do so visibly on screen.
However, I feel that one of the biggest hooks that will attract players is being able to play it alongside your friends and family. It’s all offline but turn on two or three controllers and you can go about figuring out the puzzles as a more communal effort, each of you taking control of the three chosen characters. I was able to ask Ron about this aspect of the game:
“[It] was a strong motivation,” he said. “One thing that I noticed from watching people play games, friends play games, and playing games round at my house, is that there always seems to be this predominant gamer in a house. There’s this one person that is the main gamer, and then there are other people who enjoy games, play them occasionally, and love to sit on the couch and watch the other person playing Call of Duty or whatever. And what I really wanted to do with that was to allow that second person to help out, but without a lot of pressure.
“I mean, if you’re sitting there with your girlfriend or wife, they don’t have to do anything else but follow you around, but they feel a lot more engaged in the game. They’re not just watching you, and as you’re solving puzzles if they’re like, ‘I know what to do with that fuse!’ they can just seamlessly take over and go do what they thought of.”
So, I sat down with a co-op partner, and played a section of the game designed for the Hillbilly, set at an underground carnival. The fact that it takes place in a cave really hasn’t held the designers and artists back from putting all manner of remarkable things in there, from houses and fortresses to scientific installations.
Getting into the carnival itself required the use of the Hillbilly’s special power, the ability to hold his breath underwater indefinitely, to swim through a passage of water and blow open an entrance with a stick of dynamite so that the Scientist and Twins would be able to follow on and help with the puzzles. Only the Hillbilly’s special ability is needed to complete this area designed for him though, so the rather demonic Twins’ ability to create an apparition of themselves, as an example, goes unused here.
Demonic children don't get any more adorable than this.
The Twins, though, do really show off some of the lovely animation work. Everything in the game is very stylised, with the Hillbilly having a particularly loping gait but the Twins have this extra layer of cuteness to go along with their disturbing glowing eyes. They contrive to almost always have some physical contact, and in one example, the girl clings onto the boy’s leg as he hauls the two of them up a rope, something I remarked on to Ron.
“Right, and I think it’s flipped when they’re climbing up ledges. With ledges, she’s the one that does all the work, and she pulls him along. Yeah, I think the twins were a lot of fun for the animators, because they aren’t actually two characters, they’re just one character with two bodies. Doing that animation, I think they had a lot of fun.”
Once inside the carnival, the Hillbilly’s story develops as he re-encounters the love of his life, the Amazing Two-Legged Lady. She, like all the non-player characters at the carnival, is just a wooden cut out, in another of myriad little visual treats and jokes that litter the game. Of course, being so amazingly… legged, she has no interest at all in the Hillbilly, but perhaps winning her the pink cuddly bear that she desires might win her affections?
To do so you need to collect prize tokens from the carnival puzzles in the area. The first few are simple enough, like dunking one of your characters into some water, but after that it gets a little bit trickier.
As you explore the carnival, you find various items and objects of interest you can interact with. They’re always highlighted with a quick word or two popping up as you walk by, most of which will come into play as you try and solve the tricker puzzles. For one thing, everything at this carnival is stereotypically rigged against you.
A key mechanic as we explore is that any point we can switch characters, just as if we were playing alone, and this just lends even further to the experience of puzzling together.
“It’s just so much fun to watch people play co-operatively in The Cave,” said Ron. “We did a lot of play testing with people, bringing in people to test together, and there’s always this first few minutes where they were a little bit confused. They kind of thought, “Well, I’m the scientist, and you’re the Hillbilly.” because that’s typically how games do co-op, right?
“But the fact that we can just switch at any time and control the other characters, once that couple minutes of confusion went away, they were just having so much fun. It was like watching kids run around the playground. They were just running from one end to the other, following, throwing out ideas, ‘Oh, I know what to do here!’ and then the two of them would run off and do stuff. It’s just so much fun to see co-op be like that, two people that are fused into one two-brained person, who’s just running around solving puzzles.”
For us the strength test never has us hit the bell, the weight guesser is never wrong, and the wheel of misfortune never, ever lands on the colour we picked. Trying to figure these out with a friend next to you was a delight, and as we run around and looking for solutions, we’re just speculating out loud.
One of us spots the set of weights next to the Man of Average Strength, with ideas flowing back and forth constantly. “I wonder if we can use that to trick the weight guesser?”, or elsewhere “How do we get past these Carnies to get that sledgehammer?” leading to “Oh, there’s another fusebox up there. Now, where can we find a fuse?”
Eventually having figured out all the puzzles, some requiring us to split the characters up and interact with items in different parts of the world, it’s time to present the lady with her bear. Sadly for the Hillbilly, it can’t possibly work out for him. Realising this, his desire turns to ire (and other things that rhyme with this), and a delightfully dark and twisted turn of events is required for us to continue and end our demo time.
The small snippet of The Cave that I had the opportunity to play was simply lovely. It’s clearly a game that will be best played with a partner or two, but even on your own there will be a lot to enjoy, from the dark sense of humour laced throughout, to uncovering the histories of all the characters and figuring out all the puzzles over multiple plays.
Thanks to Ron Gilbert for taking the time to chat with us for this preview. The Cave is set for a digital release on PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PC in January 2013.