Despite having all the hallmarks of a Ron Gilbert classic—Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, even Deathspank—The Cave is not your typical adventure game.
Developer: Double Fine
Release date: Jan. 22
This was a conscious choice, Gilbert told me in an interview this week. He'd gone back and played some of those classics, and he found them surprisingly boring by today's standards. "Clicking on something and then waiting 30 seconds for somebody to walk all the way over there just wasn't that much fun," he said. So he made The Cave a platformer and let players actively move the characters around. "Give the left brain something to do," he wrote in an email.
So The Cave is an adventure game and a platformer. The platforming isn't terribly challenging, but that wasn't the point. The point was to make it more engaging, which it is. Check.
Next, Gilbert decided to do away with the classic adventure game inventory. He said it made designers lazy. So there's no inventory in The Cave; your tools include the items in your characters' hands and what happens to be lying around within reach. It's less cluttered, and since there are no dialogue trees either, you essentially spend zero time futzing around in menus. Checkmate.
So without all the fat that's been cut away, what actually remains within The Cave?
SPELUNKING OF THE SOUL
There are seven characters in The Cave. Well, eight, since one of those characters is a set of twins. Each has a unique story and motivations. The Knight wants the ultimate sword; the Time Traveler wants revenge; the Scientist wants money; the Twins desire freedom; the Monk seeks to become the master; the Adventurer hunts for treasure; and the Hillbilly is lovesick. Each character has his or her (or their) own unique level to explore, and in between those segments you'll traverse some that appear no matter who you choose.
For every playthrough, you get three characters, meaning it takes three playthroughs to see all their stories. Going down this road means repeating yourself a lot, though the different characters' unique abilities (grappling hook, telekinesis, temporary invincibility, etc.) make each time a little different, even when you're going through the same segments. Still, it gets repetitive.
Okay, I have to correct myself again: there are nine characters, all told. The Cave itself—the omniscient, mischievous, supernatural talking entity that directs these characters on their journey through his own depths—surely counts. Voiced theatrically by Stephen Stanton, The Cave provides a thread to tie together all the stories (not to mention countless sweet one-liners) by making it clear that there's a point to all of this. He's trying to teach these people a lesson, and though none of them wind up learning it, you just might learn one yourself. That's the idea, at least.
You see, these "heroes" are no heroes at all. They're horrible people. And while it's not as black-and-white as the movie Seven, each represents one of the mythical seven deadly sins. That's lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride, and wrath, for those who skipped Sunday School. The slothful Knight stands by as a kingdom burns; the Time Traveler commits a heinous crime against an enviable colleague; the world pays the ultimate price for the Scientist's greed. I'm loathe to say more, lest I ruin the surprises, but suffice to say you won't be rooting for these assholes by the time they reach the deepest depths of The Cave.
WHAT AN ADVENTURE
The Cave itself is a truly wondrous place, filled with untold troves of relics from every age. In the environment's periphery, often just off-screen and glimpsed for an instant, buried UFOs abut sunken Titanics and fragments of Stonehenge-like monoliths. As a sentient antagonist and narrator, The Cave is like the Jigsaw of the Double Fine universe, devising and constructing elaborate traps, puzzles and mind games for our adventurers to overcome (or not).
Unlike Jigsaw, he also provides the comic relief, and the writing in The Cave is as stellar as you expect from these people by now. And without all those typical adventure game mechanics, all that's left is the puzzle-solving, and it's clear that Gilbert and co. at Double Fine enjoyed their newfound breathing room.
In the childhood home of the Twins, recreated deep in The Cave along with the entire 19th century London skyline, dragging a box down to the kitchen from the attic and sending it back up to the third floor in the dumbwaiter provides the children with the boost necessary to reach the roof. From there, they're free to drop down the chimney and find the skeleton key that grants them access to the rest of the house.
Meanwhile, the Scientist is tasked with arming a nuclear missile while fending off the bumbling prevention measures of her colleagues and a terrified security guard. Using a combination of sources scattered around the environment, you've got to figure out the password to the storeroom where the knock-out gas is kept. Throughout all, you're free to switch between characters at will, and multiple pairs of hands are often required to find the solutions.
I really don't want to spoil any more, but you will definitely be challenged by some of these puzzles, which get quite complex, particularly when time travel becomes a factor. I will say that certain sections, and one in particular, were prohibitively glitchy, so much so that I was forced to reach out to the developers seeking aid. I can only hope the appropriate patches are applied post-haste.
Ultimately, The Cave is about the hopelessness of the human spirit. Each of the game's "heroes" committed a grave sin at some point in their lives, and now that they're here in The Cave, it seems to me that they're given the opportunity to make better choices as they relive those formative moments. As is the very nature of humanity, though, they seem blissfully unaware that they've been given a second chance, either willfully or otherwise, and they make the same mistakes again anyway.
Trivial flaws aside, The Cave is a brief but endearing—and, ultimately, rather haunting—tale, with healthy doses of challenge and originality. Oh, and it's even better in co-op with a friend.