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.