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The Cave

The-Cave-Logo

Recently I have been playing The Cave on PS3. I still have a large number of unplayed PS Plus titles (who doesn’t?) and decided to try and knock one off my list.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing how this played. It’s developed by Double Fine but with Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame, amongst others) at the helm. Seeing as Ron Gilbert is seen as one of the best adventure games designers/writers ever, this would be interesting. To begin with, the Cave is not a point and click adventure like you might have expected from Gilbert. Neither is there any opportunity for dialogue. Instead it is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer which frames a dark, often humorous and well-written narrative.

You begin with a selection of 7 characters from which you will chose 3 to enter into the eponymous Cave. The Cave (itself a character that is capable of speech) introduces the varied cast of characters (Hillbilly, Twins, Scientist, Knight, Monk, Adventurer, Time Traveller). Once inside the cave the player is invited to guide the 3 characters through the Cave in search of their deepest desire. The game then serves up a number of sections – some of which correlate to which characters you chose.

Telling a story

The back stories for each character reveal their motivations for why they are there and why they seek what they do, and they make often disturbing reading against the cartoony visuals (which are wonderfully animated) and humorous interjections by the voice of The Cave. These portions of back story are revealed via collectible images on the walls of the Cave and, whilst they do encourage exploration in some places, I’m not totally convinced that forcing the player to hunt down these images works well in this kind of game. They’re implemented like collectibles, and yet the story feels integral to the experience of the game – especially given the clash between their darkness and the games otherwise humorous and light-hearted style.

It’s all about the puzzles

Ultimately, the core of this game is the puzzles – which often involve the usage of all 3 characters to solve. These are hit and miss. Some are incredibly easy – which is absolutely fine for this kind of game and many others seem to tread the fine line of ‘challenging, but not too-hard’ well enough. However, there are a few too many puzzles where it’s really unclear what the solution is, and one in particular (I won’t spoil it, but it’s to do with hats in the Time Traveller’s section) was thoroughly impossible to work out. Even once I’d found the solution online, I didn’t think I could have ever got it – and this sticks out more these days than it might have done 15 years or so ago. It’s not that I have access to the internet in order to bypass thinking about it so much (although that doesn’t help), because I can still choose to not give in and work it out by myself. It’s the fact that impossible puzzles have already been called out and admitted as a design flaw of even the best adventure games of past, and something to not be repeated. Signposting, hinting within the game (either through dialogue with characters or environmental cues) to suggest possible ideas should have kept me, the player, thinking and trying out new strategies.

However, due to the deliberately paired down nature of the mechanics (jump, pick up, use item and pull/push block), there aren’t many options to pursue and you often find yourself wandering around aimlessly hoping that some random inspiration will strike. There were several points in the game where I magically solved a puzzle happening to be in the right place at the right time and pressing the right button unintentionally.

Too much structure

Finally, my biggest criticism of the game is the structure of the whole experience. From beginning to end there are 6 sections to play through – 3 of which are determined by which characters you chose, and 3 which are the same each time. Since there are 7 characters but you can only take 3 with you, this automatically suggests that might want to make a repeat play through with other characters in order to uncover their stories. In this context it then seems madness that you would expect players to want to play through the 3 compulsory sections (which are quite long) yet again just to access the characters’ stories you’ve yet to experience. In a game like this, once you’ve played it once and solved all the puzzles and experienced all the dialogue, there is very little incentive to play it through a second time.

Additionally, why 7 characters? Are we meant to play through a second time where half of the content is the same and then a third time where 5/6s is the same, just to reach that last story? I began a second playthrough and quit when I’d completed the third character’s story. I couldn’t be bothered to play through the final 2 sections, and I certainly couldn’t be bothered to restart for the sake of one more character (whose story I might experience early on, or near the end of the playthrough). It also seemed strange to put in a seventh character. Surely 3 playthroughs of 3 characters each made more sense? A character should have been axed for the sake of  2 worthwhile playthroughs.

What they should have done is offer you the option, after completing one play through, of skipping straight to the section corresponding to whatever character you wanted. This would have:

  1. Allowed you to experience the story for the remaining characters without having to wade through the compulsory sections yet again.
  2. Not left you with the option of having to entirely replay the game to get to the last character’s story.

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Conclusion

The Cave is a very entertaining product, especially on the first time round. But the format makes it difficult to justify subsequent playthroughs due the repeated sections. This is a real shame, since it has some nice puzzles and the graphics, animation, sound and writing all mesh together very well to give a cohesive darkly-comic feel. The stories also touch upon some very interesting and human themes and it would be great if others learn from what they did here with regards to the human condition. A rather short game – it’s certainly worth a first playthrough, but mileage will vary thereafter.

My voice acting stardom (?)

Minor update.

A few weeks ago I got chance to play through a point and click adventure that I was asked to do voice acting for.

You can read more about Nancy the Happy Whore and Perfidious Petrol Station on Technocrat’s website. To go straight to buying it you can go to Fireflower’s product page for it and purchase it for the small sum of 3.99 euros.

Otherwise, I leave you with a screenshot of the credits where yours truly is featured, playing the grandiose role of ‘Mr. Green’ the robber!

 Nancy credits