Desire can make people do some funny things. In the world of The Cave, the new graphic adventure from Double Fine Productions, seven characters are driven to violent extremes in order to acquire the objects of their desire. The cave itself is a sentient being with a mellifluous voice, who mordantly narrates each character’s descent into depravity. It can be charming, hilarious and surprising. But if your desire is to see Ron Gilbert once again attain the creative heights of the Secret of Monkey Island series, then dealing with The Cave’s baffling design decisions and fundamental flaws may also drive you past the edge of madness.
To start with, players select three playable protagonists from a pool of seven. They’re a motley crew, ranging from a shoeless hillbilly to a futuristic time traveler. Each is venturing into the cave to seek that which they desire most. As they descend, a tale unfolds that shows how each character’s ruthlessness ultimately results in dire consequences—only for themselves, if they’re lucky. There’s a section of the cave dedicated to each one’s private torment, and one of the game’s pleasures is the way it integrates the nightmarish renditions of familiar milieus—such as Arthurian legend, Victorian repression, and Cold War-era nuclear scares—into a contiguous world. The bedrock of the cave is never out of sight.
As an adventure game, The Cave relies on its writing as much as its puzzles, and the script, co-written by Gilbert and Chris Remo, doesn’t disappoint. It’s chock-a-block with wacky characters (Gilbert’s fascination with filthy castaways hasn’t waned), and clever quips, frequently juxtaposing the cave’s portentous musings about the darkness of the human heart with, say, worries about its insurance premiums. That said, the script can rely overmuch on self-conscious jokes about the tiresome gaming tropes it nevertheless doles out on the regular. It’s kind of funny when a character makes a big show of demanding you bring him three items that he doesn’t really want or need before you can progress. But it would be preferable if the designers could come up with something more clever altogether.
Which is not to suggest that The Cave lacks cleverness. Its puzzles are challenging without ever seeming obtuse. Longtime adventure gamers might be relieved to know that found objects in this game are typically used for their intended purpose. (Or who knows, maybe you’d find that disappointing.) In fact, characters can only carry a single item at a time, so this isn’t the sort of game where you try to brute-force your way out of a jam by trying each one of a dozen inventory items to solve a puzzle. For the most part, puzzles are eminently logical, and require thorough exploration of the map more than leaps of logic.
Some complexity comes via the multi-character system. Players can change on the fly between their three heroes, who throw the usual switches and stand on the expected pressure plates in order to open paths for one another. While, again, there’s nothing revelatory about the puzzles that develop out of this conceit, it’s still used to impressive effect in places. In the time traveler’s portion, for instance, you also need to juggle your avatars between three separate time periods, leading to some truly fiendish puzzles.
So far, so good. But there are some deep fissures running through this cave. For one thing, the structure makes no sense. You need to play through the game three times in order to see every character’s story, but because there are seven characters, that means you’re repeating two of them—and they don’t change the second time through. Besides the individual segments, which are the meatiest, there are three other sections that play the same every time through, no matter who’s in your party. True, each character has a unique special ability that might allow you to take advantage of different shortcuts, for example, but the puzzles themselves don’t change. It’s weak stuff.
Making matters worse, the play control is abysmal. The Cave is a sidescroller, and while it’s not an action game, simply navigating its platforms and ladders is a nightmare. You’ll fall off platforms, grab ledges you were trying to drop past, find yourself unable to place your character in the correct spot no matter how hard you try. When you’re plodding through at a deliberate pace, it’s not a big deal. You’re too busy trying to figure out what to do. By your third run through, when you know how to solve the puzzles you’ve seen before and just want to get to the next damn story segment, it feels like you’re the victim of a prank.
At the bottom of it all, one wonders what the cave is supposed to be, exactly. A metaphysical recreation of these characters’ deepest flaws, sure, and presumably some manner of pan-theistic afterlife. But it’s also a tourist destination with a gift shop. And despite repeated references to how nobody is allowed to die in the cave, the skeletons of past visitors which you frequently come across would seem to suggest otherwise. Thematically, the game is a little confused. Then again, maybe it’s the perfect metaphor for itself: If you come to The Cave seeking adventure-gaming nirvana, you may not like what you discover.
Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata and on his blog Insult Swordfighting.