Ron Gilbert Interview, Pt 1: All Things Cave-Related

By Nathan Grayson on June 1st, 2012 at 12:00 pm.

This is also an exclusive reveal of the eighth playable character: a campfire.
You should be excited about The Cave. It is, after all, Monkey Island maestro Ron Gilbert’s latest brainchild and – startling revelation that brains can have children aside - it looks to be a pleasant reminder that Double Fine’s far, far more than just a one-trick Kickstarter pony. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, the cave talks. So, after seeing it in action last week, I crept back into Double Fine’s offices for a nice, long chat with Gilbert himself, who – much like your average magical cave – also talks. There, we discussed the game’s parentage (Is Maniac Mansion the father? Shocking reveal on page 17), real life inspirations, why there’s an odd number of main characters, the Cave’s voice, and the reason Gilbert can never go on a whirlwind tour of the world’s finest caves. Oh, and more, of course.

RPS: How direct is the link between The Cave and Maniac Mansion? Because there’s the big similarity in terms of the multiple character dynamic. But was that a conscious decision, like “I want to revisit this thing that I did once and do it better”? Or is it purely coincidental?

Ron Gilbert: I don’t think it was a very driven, conscious effort to revisit it. But I think for me, having multiple characters to go through something is just something I’ve always been interested in. It allows the players to experience something in a slightly different way the second time. They may play it, but then the replayability and… You know, you can tell the story slightly differently if you have different characters.

So I think it’s something that’s always interested me. The fact that there’s seven characters in The Cave and there’s seven characters in Maniac Mansion – that wasn’t on purpose, but I think it falls out of the fact that seven is a really nice number. It just works so well in so many ways that I think it’s just kind of the way that things naturally want to fall. Six doesn’t feel like enough, eight just feels like it’s too many. But seven! Of course.

RPS: During the presentation, you mentioned that you’ve been working on the Cave for about a year. But you joined up with Double Fine in 2010, right?

Ron Gilbert: I don’t remember the exact dates…

RPS: Well, Wikipedia tells me 2010… [laughter]

Ron Gilbert: Well, well.

RPS: And it probably knows you better than you know yourself, so…

Ron Gilbert: Yeah, I’m trying to think, it was… Yeah, I don’t remember exactly. But there was probably a six-month period from when I joined Double Fine and I knew I was to make the Cave, to when we actually got it signed by a publisher. So during that time, I was working on the design, pushing stuff out, but I don’t really consider that “working on it,” because at the time we had no team, we had no anything. It was just me. So that’s probably where that six-month gap in my record comes from. [laughter]

RPS: How inspired is The Cave by real life experiences? I think at one point someone asked you a similar question during last week’s presentation, and you said that you weren’t sure exactly where it came from. But I would figure this sort of thing – something so human and emotionally grounded – has to come from someplace real, right? 

Ron Gilbert: I’m very claustrophobic, so I certainly don’t go into a lot of caves myself. Maybe I’m just acting out some latent fantasy by making a game about it. But I do think the thing about caves that’s so interesting to us as human beings is just that I think they’ve been a part of our lives for hundreds of thousands of years, you know? They were shelter for us for a long, long time.

There’s just something about caves that people find fascinating and mysterious. They’re underground, which means they’re dark and you’re going down and there’s all those metaphors of descending and going down into something that I think are just creatively really fun to play with. And also, one of the first adventure games I really got into was Colossal Cave, you know. On the old college mainframes. So that was kind of an early genesis, an early version of this game. It’s, I don’t know, 25 years old, but I came from really liking Colossal Cave and playing that a whole lot.

RPS: This one has been bugging me. There are seven characters. As you said, it’s a nice number. But in terms of the structure of the game, you do three characters at a time, and so, in theory, you’d have to play the game three times, but one of the times would have two redundant characters. Is that how it works?

Ron Gilbert: Yes, I think mathematically that is how it probably works. I mean, you could play it with three and then you could play it a second time with one of the characters you played before and two new ones. Kind of mix and match that up. But yeah, you have to play it three times to see every single thing, and there is going to be some redundancy because of the characters. If we did nine characters instead of seven, then it wouldn’t do that. But nine is just an odd number.

RPS: Are you worried at all about that, though? It seems like the type of game where once you’ve solved a puzzle, you know how to solve it. Wouldn’t that hurt replayability?

Ron Gilbert: Well, I’m not that worried about it – just based on my experience of looking at how people played Maniac Mansion. Maniac Mansion was a game that I think people kinda grabbed on to characters they really liked. They liked Razor, they liked Bernard, nobody liked Jeff. But you know, they liked one of those characters. And so they would want to play with them. When they played Maniac Mansion again, they’d always bring Razor. They might bring some different characters, Michael or Wendy or whatever, but they always brought Razor because that was their favorite character.

I think people may do a very similar thing with The Cave, where they latch on to their favorite character. They love the Hillbilly or they love the Scientist. They’re going to play it again, but they’re going to play it with the Scientist, because they loved her area of the cave or they just loved her. Yeah, if you’re min-maxing the completion of the game, then there’s probably a couple of redundant ones. But I don’t know that that’s the way normal players really think about stuff.

RPS: So the cave talks, and that’s really amazing and hilarious. But was that always the plan from the beginning? Or did that come out of some ridiculous brainstorming session at Double Fine or something?

Ron Gilbert: No, that was always part of the plan. That the cave really talks, that’s he’s kind of like the soul of the cave, this weird kind of omniscient presence that has witnessed through hundreds of thousands of years of people liking to go into caves. He’s witnessed all of human evolution. It just seemed like an interesting character. Because of the amount of people that he’s seen coming down here and their descendants, nothing surprises him anymore. Everybody’s been down here at some point or another. I just thought that was an interesting kind of thing to play with from a story standpoint.

RPS: I think you mentioned that you haven’t actually finalized a voice for the cave yet – even in terms of male or femaleness. So how do you envision The Cave as a character? Because those voices would bring a lot of different connotations depending on what you went with. What are you aiming for, and how would a different voice actor enhance that?

Ron Gilbert: It’s kind of been a really hard search, because you want somebody who can embody that spirit that you think of as the Cave, but it also has to be a voice that has a certain weight to it. Not weight as in deep or resonating – just a weight to it because it’s such an important character. Finding the right person for that is something we spent a lot of time trying to hone down and figure out.

RPS: If you’d started designing The Cave after the success of Double Fine Adventure, after that really took off, do you think it would still be an adventure platformer? Or do you think it would be more of a straight adventure game?

RG: Well, it’s not really a platformer. It depends, I guess, on what your definition of a platformer is. The Cave, when you’re playing the game, you are jumping, you are climbing up things, but that’s really not the game. Nobody’s going to miss a jump in this game, unless you’re just completely screwing around. I very purposely do not want to make it a game that’s about jumping, that’s about barely grabbing ropes at the right time and getting all that stuff. The traversal part of the game is really just a fun activity.

I think one of the things that classic point-click adventure games were always criticized for was that walking around is boring. You had to walk from one end of Melee Island to the other end of Melee Island, and it’s just boring to do. When we were developing Monkey Island, we had little cheat keys that would allow us to run as fast as we wanted, just because it was boring for us as the designers to run around the damn game. And so I think that kind of world traversal is something that’s always been a little bit boring in adventure games.

Having the Cave be something that you’re running around and you’re jumping, you’re climbing up things, wasn’t really a way to add this whole other level of gameplay. It was just about making traversal fun and interesting and something you enjoy doing. If I had to run over here to get something, it was kind of fun to actually move over there and get that thing.

RPS: The puzzles that we’ve seen at this point are fairly simple, and they had to be, because you were just introducing the basic dynamics of the game. But how complex would you say they get? For instance, Fez recently came out, and that game had people stumped for days. But that was a very key part of the experience, and people ended up liking the fact that they were challenged so much by it. Would you say that The Cave is in that realm, or is it a bit less demanding?

Ron Gilbert: It’s going to be a lot less demanding than that. And I think some of that just comes from who I am as a person now, you know? I have a lot of things that tug at my free time, and I don’t enjoy games that I’m just stumped on for days on end like I used to. To me, having a game that’s a good X hours that’s just a really enjoyable experience to work your way through and learn about the story and learn about the characters and just see all the wonderful environments – to me, that’s kind of what interests me a lot about gaming, rather than just incredibly hard, obtuse puzzles to work your way through.

I think Limbo did a really good job of that. I don’t ever remember being stumped on Limbo for more than like five minutes or something. It’s something that me and somebody could puzzle out in our heads in a few minutes. But it was just thoroughly enjoyable, because it was this wash of an experience that went over you while you were playing with it. It was really great.

RPS: Cave’s playable characters – not the Cave obviously – but the characters you control, they’re not voiced, right?

Ron Gilbert: Correct.

RPS: That’s interesting, because Double Fine is a company that’s always been very writing-oriented. That’s a thing that people have associated with them for years. And also, you know, with adventure games, they tend to have a lot of amusing phrases and words and things.

Ron Gilbert: And things?

RPS: Words and things! Yeah! But I mean, what’s it like trying to tell a story with that type of setup? What sort of challenges has that presented for you?

Ron Gilbert: Yeah, it’s a real challenge. It was a much bigger challenge than I thought it was going to be when I first started. I actually thought that this was going to be super easy, because there’s only one main character. But it ended up being really, really challenging, because you have a character where you’re basically writing this kind of internal, running monologue that they’re having. To kind of keep that interesting [was very difficult]. And there are other characters that you come across in the cave, besides those seven people, and those characters are fully voiced. So there is opportunity for other people to be talking and all this stuff, which helps a lot.

But I just felt that having those seven characters not talk was an interesting thing that lent a little bit to the mystery of who they really were, why they were here. It felt like if they never really verbalized any of those things, that it felt a little bit more like you were seeing it from the cave’s perspective – of these people who just come in and do their thing. The Cave doesn’t necessarily know exactly why they’re here or what their motivations are either. It just felt nice to sync that up a little bit with the players. That the Cave and the players were on equal footing in terms of not really knowing who these people were or what they were doing.

RPS: There’s no online multiplayer, right? So how is that going to transition onto the PC? Are you going to have a setup where everyone uses the same machine?

Ron Gilbert: Well, you can plug a controller into the PC. So if you do want to play with a controller you can play with that. If there’s a second person, the second person will play with a controller while the other person plays with a more traditional interface.

RPS: The people who made Journey always went on about how they went and stayed in the desert for days before making the game. So clearly, you have to face your fears and go sleep in a cave for a week, right?

RG: Do you think that’s really true? Did they really go out and stay in the desert?

RPS: I’m pretty sure they did. I talked with Robin [Hunicke] and she was very adamant about how much that influenced them.

Ron Gilbert: Well, you know, I’m really claustrophobic, so I can maybe stay in the mouth of the cave. That’s about the most I can really get into a cave. I mean, I’ve been to caves – touristy caves, Carlsbad Caverns and stuff like that. And there were these really cool ice caves when I lived up in Seattle. Up in the Cascade mountains, there were these caves that were just these big, giant ice caverns that I went into a couple of times. But no, I don’t plan on spending the night in a cave. Sorry. I guess I’m not true to my art.

PR representative who’s been there the entire time: What if there’s treasure?

Ron Gilbert: Oh, well then, [obviously]!

Check back tomorrow for part two, wherein we discuss everything non-Cave-related. That’s right: everything. Ever.

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35 Comments »

  1. Luke says:

    I liked Jeff.
    I think I just thought it was hilarious that he was a surfer and couldn’t swim, though.
    He was useless.

  2. Premium User Badge DrScuttles says:

    Maybe the Chauvet caves will be some kind of unlockable level for a new game+ ?

  3. Tretiak says:

    Why make a “well, it’s not really a platformer” instead of a proper adventure game?

    • SurprisedMan says:

      Doesn’t he answer that in the very question that you’re referencing?

      ” I think that kind of world traversal is something that’s always been a little bit boring in adventure games. Having the Cave be something that you’re running around and you’re jumping, you’re climbing up things, wasn’t really a way to add this whole other level of gameplay. It was just about making traversal fun and interesting and something you enjoy doing.”

      Also, every single one of my favourite game designers have a healthy disrespect for ‘proper’. Proper is an ugly word. It’s a way of telling people they should do things one way without having to actually give a good reason why. I’d much rather he made an adventure game that he thought was awesome than a ‘proper’ one.

      • Tretiak says:

        That isn’t answer to anything. Just to evident decline.

        Ron Gilbert is dead.

        • MOKKA says:

          My condolences

        • SurprisedMan says:

          Right. This is what I’m seeing:

          “Why doesn’t Ron Gilbert do things like the old days?” “Well, as he explained, this is his thinking behind that.” “But why doesn’t he do it like the old days?”

          At this rate, we could be having this conversation for the next million years.

          • Teovald says:

            I don’t have the reference but I remember an interview where he explained that adventure games disappeared (at least from the mainstream trends) because they simply were not really good. The gameplay mechanics were often frustrating, you could be blocked because you lacked a 2 pixels item or because you thought of a solution to a puzzle but the developpers did not predict it, …..
            I think that Psychonauts is in many ways the successor of those 90′ adventure games but with a better gameplay and I have very high hopes for The Cave.

          • Apples says:

            @Teovald: those are just problems with games in general, though. You can get stuck forever in GTA if you don’t have the reflexes to shoot everyone, or in Mass Effect you might think “well why can’t I just say…” but the devs didn’t think of that dialogue option, etc. Sure, some adventures pulled assholish stunts like screwing you over hours later or making you pick up like a single pixel, but LucasArts were usually exempt from this, so those issues aren’t really inherent to the genre. From this and other interviews with him I kind of think that maybe neither Schafer not Gilbert really LIKED adventure games the way that fans of the genre do, but it was the best type of game to make with the limitations of the time.

            They seem to think ‘better gameplay’ is the answer to making adventures relevant again/more modern, but better gameplay is just undefinable – Psychonauts had more dynamic and ‘gamey’ gameplay, sure (and the cave looks like it is going for the same platformer-lite mechanics), but I still enjoyed Grim Fandango more, so which could I really say had ‘better gameplay’?

          • MOKKA says:

            I think maybe we should also keep in mind that this game is funded by a publisher so maybe the decision to use some kind of ‘non-traditional’ gameplay mechanics was also influenced by this.

          • InternetBatman says:

            I would say that Stacking more clearly an evolution of adventure games than Psychonauts. The platformer in Psychonautes was more visible, and probably more present second to second than the adventure elements. Of course, when you take the adventure elements out you get the Meat Circus, but I would say there was more jumping and punching than problem solving.

            Stacking on the other hand is just puzzles. Your character walks around the map and interacts because it’s fun, but the only gameplay challenge is a series of puzzles.

            @Apples You’re absolutely right that gameplay is nebulous, but I think that Stacking had better gameplay than the old adventure games. Bumbling around the world is more engaging than clicking to move each screen and pixel hunting. It keeps you more engaged because your progress is continuous rather than segmented. Using people as visible inventory is also more engaging than keeping a large inventory beneath the screen and guessing.

      • Apples says:

        Traversal was always a massive pain in the ass that got in the way of solving puzzles. Making it be more involved MIGHT work, but only if you engineer simple puzzles that require very little backtracking to previously seen environments – which means that all the objects you have to pick up/use are going to have to be very obvious and that a lot of puzzles are going to have to be “blocking” (you have to finish the one in your current room before moving on). And those things are the antithesis of old-school adventure games. Traversal was boring but the best games minimised it by having double-click-exits interfaces and then focused on the puzzle-solving, not tried to fix it by making it the forefront of the gameplay. No matter how fun the jumping/climbing etc feels, if you have to do it constantly inbetween puzzle-solving, it’s surely going to get annoying.

        I dunno, it could be a good game but I feel like it end up as an unhappy medium between full-on platformer action and complex puzzle-solving… with nice environment backgrounds.

        • SurprisedMan says:

          I do think fast travel and stuff definitely helped, but I feel like there are drawbacks to that approach, too. Adventure games have always been about exploration and taking in a world, and if you provide lots of ways for the player to jump quickly from one end of the space to the other, suddenly the world seems a lot smaller and stops being a place to explore and becomes more just stand to hang puzzles on. So quick-exits are one potential solution, but I can definitely see the motivation to try another solution, which is to make the act of actually moving around enjoyable. As you say, it might not pay off, but it seems super-worth trying.

      • Janto says:

        Yeah, how much fun was walking around in Dreamfall? Not very.

        I think there’s two different game design principles here. For a tight, linear story, restricting the player’s options is vital. It’s basic editing principles, cut the boring journey unless the journey has narrative importance. Otherwise it’s bloat, needlessly running through busywork that’s carried out on autopilot. Forcing the player to move their character around every virtual inch of your world, and carry out every interaction, is a bad way of telling a conventional story.

        For a game that’s more about exploring, the player needs freedom of movement, they need to hunt for details, secrets or bonus challenges, whether you’re combing an ARPG map for random loot drops, trying to find orbs in Crackdown, or running around in Assassins’ Creed. Exploring the world’s secrets is the real ‘story’ here, even if there’s a more conventional plot in the background.

      • Urthman says:

        To me, that solves the #1 problem of adventure games – clunky, boring movement.

        Grim Fandango’s world is fantastic to look at but very, very dull to move around in.

        Give me a game that’s as fun to move around in as Spider-Man or Mario or Prince of Persia, but replace the combat and platforming challenges with adventure game puzzles that don’t suck and I think you’ve fixed adventure games. Don’t require adventure gamers to have twitchy reflexes, but let them enjoy the feel of good platforming movement without any of the frustration of falling and failing.

        Brilliant.

    • JackDandy says:

      Sounds nice, although honestly- his reasoning for the number of characters isn’t enough IMO.

      • Skabooga says:

        Oddly enough, I was convinced by Gilbert’s weak argument for having seven characters. Six does seem like too few, while eight is just too much. Seven hits that Goldilocks zone, it is just right. Again, not a convincing argument, but I find myself agreeing with him based on gut reaction. It seems like Gilbert is taking a more artistic approach of what feels right rather than using a more analytical method, and I think the former plays to his strengths.

      • jalf says:

        I think it’s a good number. Not so much because of the “feels right” part, but because, as he says, people don’t play through the game with completely different characters each time.

        With 6 characters, you’d be almost forced to do your second playthrough with the characters you hadn’t yet seen. And if you don’t like them, you’ll just get bored and/or ditch the game. And after two playthroughs, you’ve seen everything. Case closed, you can go home now.

        With 7, you have much more freedom to pick one or two of your favorites, along with one or two characters you haven’t seen before. And you can stop after two playthroughs and have seen *nearly* everything (so the game will still be calling to you to do that one last playthrough).

        It’s not as nice and tidy. It’s not just 2×3 characters. And that’s why I think it’s a better choice. It doesn’t push the player so much towards “ok, now you HAVE to play with the 3 “remaining” characters”"

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        What, you’d argue the Cave would make a better game if he’d argued his case differently? Or that the game would be better with a different number of characters?

        It seems rather clear to me that the particular amount of characters doesn’t matter as much as what the characters you choose go through in the Cave.. or how the Cave experiences it, or how you do.

      • JackShandy says:

        7, plus or minus two, happens to be the exact amount of objects people can comfortably keep in their head at one time when solving a problem.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

      • pilouuuu says:

        C’mon! 7 is a lucky number! What other explanation do you need?

    • DarkFarmer says:

      I would have asked the same thing, but I spent a few hours yesterday playing Limbo. And Limbo is “not a platformer” but I feel like it IS a graphical adventure game, see I am old, and Ive played graphical adventure games and I recognize the feeling of overcoming a puzzle and advancing in Limbo, which seems to have been an influence here.

      Technology has advanced. You can use physics for puzzles now, AND to set up an atmosphere and a mood. We have come a long way since the 90s and I think you can make games that have the spirit of old games without eschewing advances that have been made.

  4. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    Talking cave… they need a voice…
    What’s JK Simmons doing these days?

    • Kollega says:

      I think that developers would just dig themselves deeper by inviting an actor based solely on a pun.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      I was thinking Nick Cave, but yes. :)

    • Lemming says:

      I was wondering the same thing…except about James Earl Jones.

  5. DestructibleEnvironments says:

    I would like to order twenty caves, please.

  6. binkbenc says:

    Please make the voice Red Dwarf’s Holly (Norman Lovett era…though you could always switch to Hattie Hayridge half-way through if you like, sex-changing caves might be fun. Come to think of it, caves probably should be female anyway.).

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      “Come to think of it, caves probably should be female anyway.”

      Makes sense

      • The Random One says:

        For what it’s worth: I’m Brazilian, in Portuguese there is no neutral gender, and cave (“caverna”) is a female noun.

    • pilouuuu says:

      I think it should be a mix of the voice of a male and a female… And a dog! Something very mystical and strange.

  7. InternetBatman says:

    I’m excited about this game. It seems appropriate to me that Doublefine is leading the charge in exploring and enlarging the adventure genre. One thing that separates them from a lot of the other adventure games I’ve played (which is pretty few admittedly) is their use of multiple puzzles at once. It’s kept me playing when stumped, and more importantly, kept me from going to gamefaqs.

  8. pilouuuu says:

    Does this game remind anyone of Empire Strikes Back cave, you know, that one where Luke faces himself? Something of a very mystical experience…

  9. RegisteredUser says:

    Of course everyone took Razor, she had the least amount of clothing, the best hairdo, a dog collar AND she rocked your socks off with the grand piano. Which was really my main reason of playing.

    You could also totally rescue the girl with the girl and make a lesbian couple.

    I loved the fact that the characters all created their own solutions(writing, tech, etc) and even allowed different game endings. Now that was a unique game.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Plus, her sheer level of punk helped balance out Dave’s vanilla normality, and Bernard’s nerdiness.