The Cave is not an easy game. We know this because we've played it, and we're sure of it because Ron Gilbert, the game's designer and one of the big brains behind Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, reassured us that it wasn't our fault we got stuck.
You see, for every journey through the game's mysterious talking Cave, an omniscient narrator/tormentor, you have to choose three of seven characters. We happened to choose the Time Traveler for our first playthrough, which Gilbert explained was a bold choice—though we didn't know it at the time.
"The Time Traveler area is probably one of the hardest in the game," he told us over the phone. "Choosing her is a little bit like turning on hard mode." Well now you tell us.
Still, The Cave is a wonderfully inventive experience, and we were particularly intrigued by how it throws out most adventure game conventions, from bloated inventories to vapid character movement.
Thankfully, Gilbert "could talk about adventure game stuff forever," he told us, and he was happy to touch on those topics and more. Check it out.
Complex: So The Cave is not a typical adventure game—how did elements like the multiple characters, the platforming, and all that come about?
Gilbert: Well, a lot of that came from, you know, when I really started to sit down and think about making the game a couple years ago, you know, for real, I went back and I looked at a lot of the old classic point-and-click adventure games—you know, that I had made, and that other people had made—and, you know, there are a couple of things that kind of hit me about them. One was that inventory had kind of gotten out of control. That hundreds of items would sit in your inventory. In some ways it was making designers a little bit lazy, because we could just throw stuff in your inventory and then call it a puzzle, that you have to search through the inventory to find something. This was one of the big things that hit me. And so with The Cave, there really is no inventory. Each of the characters can carry one thing with them. And that was, you know, in some ways it was kind of liberating, from a, you know, as a designer, to not have that crutch of the inventory anymore…it was really fun to think about designing without that classic point-and-click inventory.
Another thing that I really noticed from playing those games—you know, going back and playing them—was that just moving around the world was kind of dull. And I don't remember it being that way, you know, back in the day, but I think now with just how gaming has changed in general, you know, clicking on something and then waiting 30 seconds for somebody to walk all the way over there just wasn't that much fun. And so that's why, you know, we decided to put in this very, very light platforming element to the game, you know? We don't expect you to have to get better at the platforming, you know? We're not requiring you to do, like, split-second timing. But what it does mean is it just makes moving around the world fun. So that was kind of the other thing that I really wanted to address with adventure games.
I think the game does a really good job of avoiding typical adventure game logic, where you have to guess what the designers were thinking when they designed the puzzles. You can work out the solutions for most things logically. Was that an important thing for you? Avoiding that convoluted logic?
Yeah, I mean, that's always been very important to me in games, I mean, even going back to, you know, Monkey Island, I did try to make all of those puzzles make sense. And I look at it as, you know, you the player—it should be you versus the game, not you versus the game designer. And so a lot of really obtuse adventure game puzzles, you know, when I'm playing them, I really feel like the game designer is sitting over there laughing at me because I can't solve the puzzle, not that the game is challenging and I just haven't figured out this one thing about the game. So, you know, it's always been important to me that it's player against game, not player against game designer. And so, you know, the thing you mentioned about the adventure game puzzles, that's always been very important to me. You know, when we were designing all the puzzles for The Cave, you know, the other designer, [Double Fine's JP LeBreton], and I, we spent a lot of time making sure the puzzles did make sense. Because I don't think the adventure game puzzles that, you know—it may not make sense to you initially, but once you have figured it out, you should go, "Oh, yeah, I totally should have thought of that!" You know? That's kind of the right reaction to an adventure game puzzle.
So I want to ask you about one specific puzzle, because I'm hopelessly stuck, in the Time Traveler's section.
The Time Traveler area is probably one of the hardest in the game.
That makes me feel a bit better.
So yeah, she definitely—choosing her is a little bit like turning on hard mode.
I get the sense that I need a bucket—or a "Rangfust" as the people in the future call it—but can't figure out for the life of me how to make one appear. I had one earlier, but of course there's no inventory so I wound up dropping it a while ago. And I'm getting the feeling I should have kept it with me—
Well, you don't need to bring that bucket with you. You can bring the bucket with you. It kind of lets you circumvent some puzzles if you do happen to think about bringing the bucket, but it's not necessary. I mean, there's no way in this game that you can screw yourself over, so there's absolutely nothing that you can forget to take that suddenly makes the game unwinnable at the end. So you don't have to worry about that. The thing about the bucket—and yeah, this probably could be, like, the hardest puzzle in the entire game—the one that you're hitting up against…you have to go all the way back in time and make these very small series of changes in order to have a bucket appear in the present. And, you know, it has to do with that whole area with the rock, and you need to somehow get a well to appear in the present, and you need to somehow get a bucket to appear in the future. So it's just kind of going around and doing these things and watching how the past affects the present and the future in order to get a bucket to appear.
The time travel stuff is a really interesting mechanic.
Yeah, it makes your head hurt. I mean, it made my head hurt designing it.
It's really fascinating to me that you have these seven different characters with their own unique abilities, but no matter which three you choose for your playthrough, you'll never get stuck. There are unique areas for each character, but there are also areas that you'll go through every time, right?
There are a handful of areas that you'll go through no matter which ones you choose.
Was it tough designing those areas so that they're challenging while at the same time making sure you can get through those puzzles with any combination of characters and their unique abilities?
Yeah, it was, you know, it was really challenging at the beginning, until we kind of latched onto this way to deal with it. What we did was, for those common areas—and also even for the specific areas—we, you know, we designed this whole chain of puzzles that kind of got you through that particular area using absolutely nobody's special abilities. Once we had that all designed, then we went through and said, "Okay, you know what? How can we maybe use the Monk's ability to maybe skip over this puzzle?" So, you know, if you have the Monk and you've got that telekinesis, and you can, you know, grab objects at a distance, you know, if we change a puzzle just a little bit, then we can actually use his ability, and then the player would not have to solve these other three puzzles. And so we went through and we just layered in all of these kind of "circumventions," we called them—that was our technical term—these circumventions that the individual characters could do if they used their abilities. And, you know, some characters are super-powerful with their circumventions, you know, others not so much. I think the Monk is going to be a popular character for speedrunners, because he really has the ability to just leapfrog over a whole bunch of puzzle chains. So that's kind of the design approach that we did, was dealing with all those different characters with those different abilities and, you know, not having it turn into a big puzzle mess.
I noticed that with certain characters you can skip entire sections. It feels like cheating almost, but it really makes you want to replay it.
Yeah, and that was kind of the hope, that, you know, you'd play it again, and you wouldn't choose the Time Traveler. And then you'd maybe hit that place where you used the Time Traveler's ability, and you'd go "Oh! I don't have her anymore!" And then it's kind of like, "Oh, there's a whole bunch of new puzzles that I get to solve!" So, you know, that was kind of the reason—the motivation—behind doing that.
How did you settle on these seven characters? Were there a lot of concepts that got left on the cutting room floor?
Yeah. When I first started doing the designs, I had a whiteboard in my office and I wrote down, you know, probably well over 30 different characters. And they were just quick descriptions, and, you know, what their story was and what their abilities was. And then when JP came on the project and he and I started getting the design going, we just went through that list and we just, you know, we crossed off characters that we didn't think were that interesting, or maybe characters whose abilities kind of duplicated one another. It's like, "Ah, we really don't want both of these people because they tend to do basically the same thing," and we'd cross one of them off the list. And then, you know, eventually, we arrived at seven characters who—we knew we wanted to do seven, so we kind of pared it down to seven. But there were some cuts. I mean, we had a character called The Mobster, and we did all the design work for him, and all that stuff, and then he just wasn't feeling right, you know? His ability wasn't that interesting, so we cut him and we replaced him with the Monk, actually. So there was some paring down that we did, you know, even after we arrived at the seven. But that was pretty much the process.
You keep saying there are seven characters, but really there are eight.
[Laughing] I keep getting called out on that on the internet.
Are you talking about the Twins?
I'm talking about The Cave itself.
Oh, I'm talking about the Twins.
Nah, the Twins are like the Ice Climbers. They're one character.
I'm talking about The Cave itself though. It's the most interesting character to me, because it's the one character whose motivations are a little more obscured. It's like this omniscient power that feels like it's really just fucking with you. Do we get to find out more about it?
Yeah, you find out a little bit more about him, but I don't fully reveal, you know, what he really is and what's going on. It's like, I kind of wanted to leave him a little bit, you know, mysterious. But you do kind of understand a little more in the end about, you know, just his motivations for these characters, and is he just screwing with them, or does he want them to succeed? Or, you know, whatever. That becomes a little more clear, but I've always liked movies and books and stuff where there are unanswered questions in the end, because that keeps me thinking about the story…you know, maybe I can puzzle together, well maybe if I go back and beat it again, I can get all these little clues that maybe answer the question for me. So as a storyteller, I just found that stuff to be very interesting, you know, leaving stuff a little big ambiguous.
And whoever did the voice for The Cave did a fantastic job of conveying that.
It's an actor named Stephen Stanton.
So was there anything else you wanted to touch on before we say goodbye?
Okay. Yeah, no, you were quite thorough with all your adventure game questions, and I could talk about adventure game stuff forever [laughing].