As the camera descends from a purple, moonlit sky at the beginning of Ron Gilbert’s newest game, The Cave, you might experience a twinge of déjà vu. Seven characters stand at the mouth of an ominous cave, waiting for you to select three of them to explore its depths. This set-up is obviously reminiscent of Maniac Mansion, Gilbert’s first game and the first ever to use the point-and-click, verb-based SCUMM interface that would become LucasArts’ hallmark. But The Cave is very different than the adventure games Gilbert pioneered and, frankly, very different than anything else out there right now. Adventure fans will argue at length about what genre it is, but one thing’s for sure: The Cave is a brave experiment, a mix of old-school thinking and newfangled execution that makes it well worth a visit.
The game opens with no tutorial to demonstrate the controls or cinematic cutscene to introduce how these seven people ended up here. All we get is voice-over narration, courtesy of the cave itself, explaining that each of them is looking for something they deeply desire. (Such omniscient narration continues throughout the game, with the cave serving both as a tour guide to point out its prominent features and as a commentator to weigh in on the characters’ morally questionable choices.) After waiting a minute or so for something to happen, I started messing with the controller and realized that the motionless characters had been waiting for me. The Cave is often like this; the game doesn’t lead you by the hand. In an era when pre-game tutorials, hotspot finders, and hint systems are standard, The Cave’s unapologetic “figure it out yourself” attitude reminds me of the oldest text adventures, Zork and Colossal Cave, and even a bit of Myst—all games that dropped players into a vast, uncharted world with no explanation or guidance and expected us to find our own way.
I played The Cave on PlayStation 3, where the controls involve using the left analog stick to move and the face buttons to jump, pick up and use items, or employ a character’s special ability. Running is the typical method of conveyance, but you can also walk by moving the analog stick more gently, swim in pools of water, and climb up and down ladders and ropes. Each character is assigned to a button on the D-pad that you can press to switch between them, and a legend in the lower left corner of the screen shows which character is tied to which button. The PC version enjoys all of the same functionality but with more options: you can choose to play with the keyboard (map the actions to any key you want), the mouse (standard point-and-click or a click-and-drag method), or both, or you can plug in a controller instead.
The controls may be different than what you find in most adventure games, but they work well here. It’s more active than pointing, clicking, and waiting for the character to walk across a room, yet simple enough that little thought, timing or dexterity is required. Even if you sometimes make a wrong move there’s no real penalty for doing so; it is possible to die, but your character simply poofs into a bright light and instantly respawns nearby, good as new. Sometimes I inadvertently jumped into a pit of spikes or took a few tries to grab a ledge, but these fumbles didn’t trip me up any more than accidentally clicking the wrong hotspot or triggering a conversation I’d already heard in a traditional adventure—the sorts of ‘oopses’ that happen all the time.
On my first playthrough I selected the Twins, the Scientist, and the Time Traveler. The Twins are peaked, Edward Gorey-looking children who travel as a team. Their special ability allows them to slip through lever-operated doors that other characters can’t, and their big desire is to go outside and play. The Scientist, a large-headed lady in a lab coat who’s on the verge of a massive scientific discovery, can activate certain machines that others can’t. And the Time Traveler, a woman with a glowing suit and hoverboard technology in her shoes, needs to right a wrong a million years in the making; her special power involves warping through obstacles to reach the other side. The four other characters are equally quirky, but I’ll leave their secrets for you to discover.
The Cave is much heavier on puzzles than narrative, but it does have something of a storyline relating to the desires that brought these people here, what they’re willing to do to get the thing they want most, and the role this mysterious talking cave plays in it all. There’s no right or wrong combination of characters; the gameplay and overarching story is basically the same no matter who you travel with. During your journey, you’ll encounter cave paintings specific to your trio that gradually reveal their backstories, and each character has access to a unique area of the cave with a personal side plot and puzzles that complement their desire. Although they do relate to the main storyline, the mini-stories are rather basic and essentially interchangeable. It's worth replaying The Cave once or twice to experience all of the character-specific nuances, but you’ll easily get the point of the story with only one playthrough.
The cave has six common areas that you’ll visit regardless of who’s in your party, plus three that are specific to your selections. You’ll encounter these areas at different points in the journey depending on who’s with you, but the experience is linear within any one playthrough; there are no branching paths where you choose to explore one area instead of another. As you descend, the cave is shown from the side with a cutaway view, like an ant farm. It’s one huge environment that you travel through fluidly without having to pause for new areas to load, but you only have access to a small segment of the cave’s large footprint at any time. The 2D perspective should be familiar to point-and-click fans: you can only move up, down, left, and right, and you can only see the area immediately around the active character. Although a free roaming camera would have been helpful at points when you’re trying to reunite your party across a distance, this zoomed-in view succeeds in making the cave feel like a massive place in need of exploring, with no telling what dangers might be lurking just beyond the sight line.
Unfortunately, backtracking is often necessary, both while you’re figuring out an area’s layout and once you realize what you need to do to solve its puzzles. At certain points the two currently passive characters will catch up with the active character automatically, but in general they don’t follow each other around, so you sometimes need to traverse the same area with all three of them, one by one, to get everyone where you need them. Of course, backtracking is fairly common in adventure games that have a large area to be explored, and it’s no worse in The Cave than in many point-and-click classics, but it is nevertheless a recurring annoyance. At the very least, a “recall party” option would have been extremely helpful to reunite your trio, or a “follow me” feature to keep them together.
The environments are always interesting to look at, with a mix of cave-like stuff (stalactites, waterfalls, phosphorescent growths, interesting rock formations, etc.) and stuff you’d never expect to see in a cave. Within each character-specific area, the world the character comes from and the desire they’re trying to satisfy is reproduced. The Twins’ area is a gothic house with lots of staircases and high walls and locked doors, while the Time Traveler’s contains a portal that gives access to the same caverns in three different time periods, and the Scientist’s is a sterile facility on the verge of a nuclear warhead launch. Other notable landmarks include a medieval castle, a sprawling carnival, a desert island, and a Zen monastery atop a towering mountain. It’s frequently dark in the cave, but the artwork is saturated and vivid, with the light in each area taking on a different tint. The characters are also uniquely depicted, with a puppet-like aesthetic that’s a cross between Pixar and Punch & Judy. My only complaint about the graphics is that the fixed camera angle denies us the close-up views that would show off the grottos and vistas in more detail.Continued on the next page...