During the golden age of graphic adventure games two companies dominated the industry: Sierra Entertainment and LucasArts. While Sierra had the more prolific output with series such as King’s Quest and Laura Bow, and founder Roberta Williams was responsible for essentially creating the genre, I always preferred LucasArts’ games more. I felt that they had more entertaining storylines, better puzzles, and more engaging characters than those found in titles offered by their competitors. This is thanks to the work of a pair of developers who are today considered legends in the field – Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer. This duo, separately and as a pair, created some of the greatest adventure games of all time, including the first two Monkey Island games, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. Gilbert also revolutionized adventure games by implementing a point-and-click interface for action commands to replace lengthy, sometimes troublesome text-based parser input, a change which would soon become an industry standard thanks to its greater efficiency. The two have taken on several separate projects after leaving LucasArts, but recently came together once more to collaborate on a new project, The Cave. Directed by Gilbert, developed by Schafer’s Double Fine studio and published by Sega, it’s another testament to their talent in crafting humorous, challenging, deep interactive stories.

Legend speaks of a massive cave that will grant anyone who traverses its passages his or her greatest desire. Many have made the trek through its caverns over the millennia; few have succeeded in finding what they seek, and even fewer have made it out alive. Tonight, seven individuals from throughout time have come to the cave, willing to brave its depths in order to obtain what they yearn for most: a knight on a quest for a prestigious sword that will prove his worth, a hillbilly desperate to win the affection of the woman he loves, a time traveler who has journeyed to the past to correct a great wrong, a scientist on the verge of the greatest breakthrough in her career, an adventurer seeking ancient treasure, a pair of twins who simply want to have fun free from the restrictions of their parents, and a monk who wishes to become the master of his order. Each of these explorers will face many trials in pursuit of their dreams, testing not only their bodies and minds, but their spirits. Do their hearts’ desires come at too high a price?

The Cave was inspired by an idea Gilbert conceived more than 20 years ago. He had always been fascinated by caves; the claustrophobic nature frightens him, but also intrigues him. He was also interested in the parallel between how caves, and humans, have dark secrets hidden within their depths, a metaphor explored through each of the protagonists. All seven playable characters (the twins count as one character since they’re controlled together) have a less than noble or sinister motivation driving their desires. As their histories are explored through sections of the cave, as well as paintings tailored for each character, it’s revealed that the explorers are actually horrible people, or at the very least otherwise good people led astray by their obsessions. Some players have even suggested that each character represents one of the seven deadly sins of Christianity: the scientist embodies greed, the hillbilly lust, and the adventurer pride/vanity, just to point out a few. Their trials in the cave represent what lengths they will have to go to in order to obtain what they desire, who will be hurt as a result of their selfish pursuits, and if such sacrifices are truly worth all the pain in the end.

While the central narrative is mainly focused on how drastic the consequences of the choices we make can be, it’s not completely dramatic. The game is rich with the style of humor that is a staple of Gilbert and Schafer’s past works. Much of the comedy comes from the narration provided by the cave itself; the sentient cavern frequently provides subtle jabs at the dark nature of the characters exploring its recesses, dry commentary on situational puzzles, and the occasional bad pun. Coupled with its analysis of the characters’ pursuits and the dark twists that they take, the cave comes across as Rod Serling channeling the Crypt Keeper. The various NPCs encountered are all given bizarre personalities with fitting dialogue to make their behavior even more humorous. While the playable characters are all silent, there is some dark comedy to be gleaned through their actions, primarily in the callous ways they do away with those standing between them and their goals. You can almost hear Hugo Myatt from Knightmare utter “Ooooh, nah-sty!” following every death scene. Finally, there are some clever comedic touches in the items encountered through the cave, from the still-squeakable nose on a clown’s corpse to descriptions of torches such as “flamey wamey” and “ouchie burny thing.”

Gameplay is reminiscent of Gilbert’s earlier title Maniac Mansion. While there are seven playable characters in total, only three can be used for each playthrough. Every character has his or own unique skill that can be used to solve puzzles, most frequently used in their specific sections of the cave, but which can also be implemented to get through other general areas. For example, the knight can create a force field that protects him from any damage, while the time traveler is able to teleport a short distance. Like most adventure games, some puzzles can only be solved by the use of a certain item, many of which follow a strange yet reasonable logical path, though there are a few that operate according to cartoon logic (such as how placing a Wet Floor sign will make any floor slippery) Unlike other adventure titles, there is no inventory system. Each character can only carry one item at a time, requiring frequent changing of characters to solve puzzles with multiple steps. The Cave also incorporates puzzle platforming into its gameplay, which also makes good use of the need to control all three characters. Much like The Lost Vikings, players will need to switch between characters and use their respective skills, either solo or in conjunction with others, in order to bypass obstacles or reach new areas. For example, if a gate needs to be opened by pulling three levers but will close if any of the characters let go, the twins can create ghostly dopplegangers to hold their level and then get through the gate to find another entrance for the remaining two explorers. While there are several situations like pitfalls and traps that result in death if done incorrectly, the game is rather forgiving by respawning any characters that are killed in a nearby checkpoint area.

The various puzzles used in The Cave are all quite clever and I don’t want to spoil any of them. But there is a missed opportunity concerning the special abilities of the characters. As mentioned earlier, these skills are primarily used in their specified areas, but the number of times they need to be used varies depending on the area. For example, the monk, knight and adventurer will use their powers multiple times to progress through their respective areas, while the hillbilly and twins only need their powers once. There are also few opportunities to effectively utilize these skills in the more general areas of the cave. This was probably to keep the game balanced since character selection is random each time, but some more chances to use these powers would have been appreciated. Also, since there are seven characters in total and only three can be used during each playthrough, you will need to play at least three times to experience all of the areas, and the final time will require you to go through two previous character areas. This can be a little tedious, however, the atmosphere and comic tone of these levels keep the return treks from becoming a chore. Like all good adventure games, there is plenty of enjoyment that remains strong through replays. Of the seven areas, I found five to be the most enjoyable and would recommend them for needed replays in order to go through each character’s story:

– the adventurer’s stage includes puzzles that make great use of the need to switch between characters and use all three with good timing.

– the scientist’s level is a complex missile base that evokes the setting of Portal, thanks in part to the pleasant voice of the female A.I. that makes humorous yet unsettling announcements.

– the hillbilly’s area has a very bizarre aesthetic; a carnival requiring you to outsmart cardboard cutout carnies by cheating them at their own rigged games.

– the twins’ world, a gloomy Victorian home set amidst a storm, has a design and morbid plot reminiscent of the works of Edward Gorey.

– the time traveler’s section is the most impressive and complex, requiring constant shifts between the past, present and future, changing the time stream in order to progress.

The only real issue I had with The Cave was with its movement controls. I played the PC version, and there was a half-second delay every time I tried to move or jump. This would frequently cause me to miss making a leap I needed to progress, or run past an item that I had to collect. The problem remained even when I lowered the graphical settings. It was more noticeable with the mouse controls; the keyboard still had a slight delay, but it wasn’t as bad. Thankfully none of the other controls had this problem; there were no delays in switching characters or interacting with objects. I don’t know if the problem was just with my computer, the platform, or if it’s a cross-platform issue, but if you’re playing on PC I recommend avoiding the mouse and sticking with the keyboard.

Graphics, as expected from a Double Fine title, have a unique, colorful charm. The characters are all well-stylized, looking like they stepped out of a Tim Burton stop-motion film. Movement animations are fluid with no chopping, though the lip movements don’t always synch up with the spoken dialogue. The cave itself is very well designed, mostly relying on dark purples, browns and grays for the stone, with various subtle touches added to make every section appear distinct. The character-specific levels also possess styles reflecting their nature, from the sandy, time-weathered tomb traversed by the adventurer to the sleek, mechanical build of the missile base the scientist works in. The designers also did a nice job making these areas look distinct, but also appear to be part of the cave’s structure.

Sound design is simplistic, but handles well. Most of the background sound reflects the barren emptiness of the deep caverns, featuring crumbling stone or gusts of wind. Character areas have subdued music that fit the settings, such as gothic tones for the twins or techno/electronic for the scientist. Several of the sound effects are exaggerated for an almost cartoonish effect, which helps enhance some of the more humorous aspects. There is minimal voice acting, though the cast does a great job with their various roles. Lending their voices to the NPCs are notable actors including Lex Lang, Robert Atkin Downes, and Grey DeLisle. The standout performance is Stephen Stanton as the titular cave, his deadpan delivery and gallows humor making the narration a pleasure to listen to each time.

In spite of a few design problems, The Cave still provides an enjoyable gaming experience. While it may not be as groundbreaking in the genre as titles like The Walking Dead, it’s helping move adventure games forward as a medium for telling intricate stories rather than simply being a collection of obtuse point and click puzzles. The challenge, the comedy, and the underlying philosophical message ensure it’s a game players will be returning to frequently to experience its charm many times. Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer have created another stellar title, and I hope the two will collaborate again in the future to make more games of this quality.

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