Ron Gilbert’s New Game Revealed: The Cave

By Nathan Grayson on May 24th, 2012 at 2:00 pm.

Not pictured: a cave.

Really, there are only two things you need to know about Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion mastermind Ron Gilbert‘s The Cave: 1) It takes place inside a talking cave. 2) The cave is mysterious. And a bit sultry. “Welcome,” the Cave said as the demo began. “Don’t let my sultry and mysterious voice startle you.” Meanwhile, when asked about the titular magic rock formation’s overall role in the game’s proceedings, Gilbert chimed in: “He’s kinda mysterious. Sultry, too,”

OK, maybe there’s a bit more to it than that. Here are the basics: there are seven characters, each of whom has ventured to a time-and-space-transcending cave to “learn something about themselves and who they might become.” So yeah, Mr Cave (whose last name is hopefully not “Johnson” – that could get confusing) gets top billing, but this is a game first and foremost about those seven – with backgrounds ranging from Medieval knight to time-traveler. So you pick any three, descend into the depths of their respective madnesses (and, you know, a cave), and leap between them to advance through an interconnected Metroidvania-style world. Appearances, however, can be deceiving, so here’s the bit that should have you jumping for nostalgic joy: “It is an adventure game,” said Gilbert, quickly pocketing an entire bucket in-game. “You want to pick up everything you can.”

What, though, is actually going on here? Aside from Grues and Batman, what can you even find in caves?

“Well, I think the idea for the story – and really, the Cave in general – is that everybody has this kind of dark spot in their soul, and each of these characters was chosen because of that little dark spot inside them. They really are coming to the Cave to kind of explore that dark place in them,” explained Gilbert during a demo session at Double Fine’s offices.

It’s an almost jarringly somber starting point for a studio that – while not afraid to stroll down humor’s less family friendly alleys – tends to keep things fairly lighthearted and silly. But then, this is, more than anything else, Gilbert’s baby – even if he can’t pin down exactly why. “I don’t know,” he replied when asked where the idea came from. “I mean, I don’t know specifically. A long time ago, I just thought that was really interesting. People have really dark secrets, and going into a cave which is really dark and deep… that metaphor really resonated with me.”

Unsurprisingly, there are definite strains of Maniac Mansion running through this one, too – as seen in the atypically (for this genre) sizable character roster. Gilbert, however, was more than willing to admit that dynamic all-too-quickly tripped over its own clumsy ambition in his point-and-click classic. The Cave, meanwhile, aims to give equal weight to each character you bring along for the ride – whether it’s a Buddhist monk, globe-trotting adventurer, straw-hat-clad hillbilly, all-business scientist, absurdly creepy twin duo, divinely powered knight, or time traveler who’s out to right a wrong one million years in the making.

Once you pick your spelunking party, it’s set in stone, so – in theory – you’ll need a few playthroughs to see everybody’s unique content. Oddly, however, there’s a, well, odd number of characters. Two playthroughs for six would be nice and clean, but seven? Methinks something’s amiss. Could a certain million-year calamity tie the whole plot together? Perhaps, but Gilbert was incredibly tight-lipped when it came to any specifics.

And while repetition may sound potentially frustrating, moment-to-moment exploration comes across as strangely relaxing. The demo, for instance, saw the Hillbilly, Knight, and Scientist encounter a rather cranky blue dragon. Gilbert immediately navigated the Hillbilly to a down-home chicken-fried demise multiple times, but he sprang back to life mere feet out of harm’s way. No muss, no fuss, no busted keyboards.

That out of the way, it was then time to actually solve the puzzle. First, he rang a nearby bell with the Hillbilly and discovered that it got the dragon’s attention. Then, with the Knight, he came across a giant claw machine (think the things that eat all your money in exchange for no stuffed animals ever) positioned above the dragon. Finally, the Scientist found a, er, hotdog vending machine, which – after having water poured on it (Gilbert: “Alright, it’s a dumb puzzle”) – spat out a giant wriggling mass of meat and preservatives.

From there, it was simple – well, you know, for an adventure game. The Scientist tossed the hotdog into a pit near the dragon. The Hillbilly then rang the bell, causing the dragon hop in for a quick meal. Fortuitously, the claw was positioned directly above the pit, so the Knight hung the dragon up by its tail seconds later. “No monsters were harmed in the making of this game,” Gilbert quipped. “Except that one.”

Next, Gilbert and co demonstrated the Cave’s more fantastical side. Each character comes across their own personal space inside the not-so-velvet underground, and for the Knight, it was a giant Medieval castle. Everyone also has their own motivation for braving the Cave’s sentient depths, and in this case, the Knight was attempting to win the love of a princess… mainly because he needed her amulet for, you know, reasons. So, as he saw it, his quest was simple: sniff out some treasure, bring it back, and they’d live happily ever after until he took the amulet and left.

The demo then skipped forward to the Knight, Hillbilly, and Scientist making their way toward a heap of treasure, but – because the Cave apparently doesn’t have an original bone in its body (or, you know, any bones for that matter) – it whipped up another dragon. This time around, however, there wasn’t a single improbably placed hotdog vending machine in sight. Gilbert used this as an opportunity to point out that each character also has a unique power – in the Knight’s case, a literal guardian angel that slows full-on falls into a gentle, feather-on-the-breeze like descent and basically renders him invincible. So, while the Knight absorbed the dragon’s sweltering flames without breaking a sweat, the Scientist crept up behind the dragon and nabbed the treasure.

And after that? Screams. Lots of them. “Don’t worry about it,” Gilbert casually suggested as the party climbed back up to the castle. “It’s probably nothing.” Astoundingly, however, it was, in fact, something. The dragon had barged in through the castle window, and the princess was nowhere to be see– oh wait, nevermind. Those legs sticking out of the dragon’s mouth? Yeah, probably hers. More importantly, though, the amulet was safe and sound on the ground, so the demo ended on quite a heartwarming note.

After that, a brief Q&A filled in a few blanks. For one, The Cave is, in fact, launching on PC day-and-date with consoles in early 2013. The traditional Double Fine delay of yore is officially dead and gone, it would seem. Also, the game features three-person multiplayer, but it apparently won’t be online – instead opting for a contextual single screen setup. Whether or not that will make the leap to PC remains to be seen.

Really, though, Double Fine’s playing this one pretty close to the chest in general. While the multi-character dynamic shows promise, the puzzles I saw were, at the end of the day, incredibly basic. Moreover, how different will puzzle solutions be with the other members of Double Fine’s dysfunctional spelunking family at the wheel? If, say, the Knight isn’t there to soak up a dragon’s fire, what can other characters do to make up for it? And while I got a glimpse of the Cave’s penchant for zany implausibility at the castle, most environments were fairly drab and uninspired. This showcase, however, was very much about the meat-and-potatoes-and-hotdog-vending-machines basics, so I’m hopeful that Double Fine has far more interesting things up its sleeve.

On the upside, though, I’m definitely excited to see more. It’s pretty daring to more or less require multiple playthroughs in this style of game, and I’m interested to see how Gilbert and co weave the plot’s many individual threads into that structure. Also, as is typical (but no less appreciated) of Double Fine, little quirks and details really made the demo’s personality pop. The Hillbilly’s leaping animation, for instance, had a believable uncertainty to it – replete with slight flailing – and the Giant Claw of Dragon-Grabbing’s control system was simply titled “Levers and Such.”

And so, at this point, it seems only fitting to go back to the Cave itself. When asked how frequently it’d pipe up over the proceedings, Gilbert fired back with “Just enough, but not too much.” The Cave, then, represents a new side of Double Fine – uniting its signature strangeness with darker themes and an uncharacteristically measured sort of ambition. No, it probably won’t change the way we look at games (or even adventure games) forever, but dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find some impressively interesting stuff to sink your teeth into.

Also some mystery. And a bit of sultriness.

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49 Comments »

  1. Zanchito says:

    I love stuff like this: original, a bit crazy, possibly even deep. Thank you for covering this, RPS people.

  2. pakoito says:

    So it is Trine by Double Fine.

    • jimboton says:

      Hope not, that game was so dull. I’m going to remain optimistic and think a cross between Maniac Mansion and The Lost Vikings.

      • Gnoupi says:

        I hereby revoke your gamer card for that first sentence.

        • pakoito says:

          I am with him. It felt like the pretty cousin of a flash game, at least the first levels I was able to cope.

          • Kryopsis says:

            To be honest, I forced myself through the first 20 minutes of the game and gave up. ‘Boring’ doesn’t even begin to describe Trine.

          • MordeaniisChaos says:

            It gets much more interesting (ie less of cakewalk) later on. It’s also more of a coop game.

        • Shooop says:

          It is if you play it alone.

      • jamesgecko says:

        You were playing it wrong. The proper way to play is to use the thief for absolutely everything. Put every item and upgrade on her. Things are way more interesting when you have to aim and move around to survive. When played in this manner, some larger areas take on a feel not unlike Super Smash Bros.

        The elastic grappling hook is one of the most fun mechanics available to platforming games. It’s a shame it’s not used more frequently.

        • tyrsius says:

          I would extend this. The first Trine was an enormous amount of fun, especially when restricting yourself to either the thief or the wizard for the entirety of a level. Fighting by dropping boxes on people is both challenging and hilarious.

  3. TsunamiWombat says:

    It’s Ron Gilbert and Double Fine. All anyone really needs to know.

  4. Valvarexart says:

    Hmm, the character set-up reminds me of two games: firstly the (quite disturbing on some levels) I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. That game required you to play through the game with five different characters, and depending on how well you did you could get different endings.
    On a more bright side, it also reminds me of The Book of Unwritten Tales, which sometimes utilized multiple-character puzzles, in a surprisingly well-done manner (for anyone who missed that game, I really do recommend it: it’s one of the most charming and memorable adventure games of the decade).

  5. Skabooga says:

    I am interesting in hearing more about this cave’s story.

  6. Maldomel says:

    Very interesting.

  7. Premium User Badge

    BlackestTea says:

    This whole thing of exploring each character’s inner darkness in a personal cave-world in which to resolve some sort of inner struggle reminds me a lot of Psychonauts. I’m definitely looking forward – also for that specific reason. I don’t need a Psychonauts 2 if we have a mysterious cave of similar cleverness. I just really do hope for a game that’s a little bit darker and deeper than Double Fine’s usual fare.

  8. Furius says:

    phewf lucky you put that Cave Johnston link. None us would have any idea who he is!

  9. JackDandy says:

    This sounds unique as all heck. Loving it.

  10. Scrooge says:

    “seven characters, each of whom has ventured to a time-and-space-transcending cave to “learn something about themselves and who they might become”

    I’m now imagining Into the Electric Castle as an adventure game.

  11. derella says:

    Cannot wait to play this.

  12. Premium User Badge

    JoeyJungle says:

    I’m confused, is this their kickstarter game? Or something that was already in development when kickstarter happened?

    • Premium User Badge

      Man Raised by Puffins says:

      The latter. Details of the Kickstarter game (“Double Fine Adventure”) are, for the moment, restricted to the backer only forums on the Double Fine site.

  13. Dizzard says:

    I like the sound of this!

    I think I would bring the scientist, creepy twins and the time traveller.

    Pretty sure this isn’t their kickstarter game.

    • Contrafibularity says:

      Nope this is a different game you unfortunately can’t throw your money at just yet, but it is the one announced in the actual puzzle pieces sent to various press a few weeks (week?) ago. Can’t wait, this sounds great.

      edit: Oh wow the trailer.. it looks absolutely stunning (both in terms of visuals and the interactivity and.. superb)

    • pakoito says:

      So it is not Trine but “indie puzzle platformer” by Double Fine.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I love the Hillbilly animations.

    • Urthman says:

      Words cannot express how much I love the artwork in this. It’s like Trine and Torchlight (who’ve been hanging out right next to each other on my Steam list for so long that it will be quite a shock when Torchlight 2 comes between them) had a beautiful baby.

      So I’ll just say that I think I’ll feel I got my money’s worth if I just get to see that fossil Double Fine logo every time I start the game.

  14. tyrionlayton says:

    Does the story remind anyone else of Lost? Random people have dark secrets and find themselves in a magical Island/Cave where they go on a journey of self-discovery. Plus time traveling. Ok maybe it’s a stretch.

  15. Saiver says:

    The last screen … Dragons and a palladin bubble. Epic.

  16. Bobby Oxygen says:

    “If, say, the Knight isn’t there to soak up a dragon’s fire, what can other characters do to make up for it?”

    The way I understood it, this specific area wouldn’t be available unless you had the knight in your party.

  17. sonson says:

    Immediatley causes me to draw paralelles with Psychonauts; Inner darkness, thematic mental/personal exploration, “strangeness”, adventure game from Double Fine…Not that this isn’t a wonderful thing of course, just can’t believe that the comparison dosen’t seem to have struck the majority

    • Urthman says:

      I absolutely thought of Psychonauts immediately while watching the trailer.

  18. Fearzone says:

    As far as the puzzles being really basic, I hope they are at Myst level.

    That hit the sweet spot: logical and straightforward once you understood the system and had all the information, and it made for a quick game I finished in part of a weekend, but a satisfying and memorable run, despite not being particularly hard. Limbo and Braid were good too, in that regard.

    Dialing puzzles back to “brain dead” that we see in Skyrim and God of War 3, to name a couple examples of puzzles in a triple-A game–I hope we don’t see that here.

    We have the fortune cookie hint system from Deathspank that worked well those occasional times I got a little stuck and just wanted to move on. While puzzles in Deathspank were really easy, a hint system would be good for somewhat more difficult ones.

  19. Shadrach says:

    I *Really* hope this is coming for PC…

  20. pilouuuu says:

    I want it now! I get the feeling this is like Luke entering the cave in Empire…

  21. sirdavies says:

    Really well written preview. I’m so exited about this game.

  22. kukouri says:

    I love the entire idea of this. This is what gaming is about to me.