Wait, I'm sorry. I think you just said, "Maniac Mansion and Metroidvania". Did you say that? Or was I just dreaming? GO ON, I'M LISTENING.
OK, well, yes, Adventure game legend Ron Gilbert's The Cave combines the varied, differently abled cast and single ever-shifting setting of Maniac Mansion with a large, fully traversable world a la Metroid and Castlevania. After seeing the game in action, I can report that: 1) It stars both a hillbilly and a time-traveler 2) There is grog 3) It looks like a lot of fun.
I went by Double Fine yesterday evening to see The Cave for the first time — a bunch of fellow journalists and I all crowded into Double Fine's well-worn media room as Gilbert fired up the TV to show us the game. We saw the title screen, and immediately, a voice began to narrate.
It went on a bit about the mysteries of life or something, and it soon became clear that the narrator was… a cave. A talking cave? Don't overthink it, I guess.
The game itself centres around seven characters — the monk, the adventurer, the hillbilly, the scientist, the adorable twins, the knight and the time-traveler. Well, the game really centres around the cave, who looks to be as much if not more of a defined character than the seven playable protagonists.
The Cave begins in-engine with the character-selection screen that we've already posted, and which you see above. Each of those seven characters is "looking for something" in the cave — Gilbert was vague, but said that the cave represents a the darkness in each character, something that they have to face to move on.
At the beginning of the game, players will choose three players, and will control only those three for the rest of the game. It's possible to play the game in single-player, Trine-style, switching between characters using the controller. It's also possible to play with up to two other different people locally.
The game is a side-scrolling 2D puzzle game; more a puzzle platformer than a point-and-click adventure game, but it seems like much more puzzle-based than action-centric. We watched the demonstrator solve a number of puzzles — in the first one, the hillbilly character had to get past a flesh-eating monster. This involved climbing up to a crane, having the scientist fix the hot-dog vending machine — again, don't overthink it (incidentally, the hot-dog vending machine was next to a Grog2 machine, which is "much better than grog" according to Gilbert) — get a sausage, stick it under the crane to coax out the monster, then quickly flip control back to the hillbilly in time to drop the crane and clear the path.
That may sound like a typical adventure-game puzzle, and to an extent it is, but with three characters under the player's control, puzzles could get more interesting than the typical put-key-in-lock solutions of older adventure games.
That said, the second puzzle we saw… well, it got solved by putting a key in a lock. But also with teamwork!
Each character will have one unique ability, and that ability will come in handy in each character's one designated section of the cave. See, the cave is one giant map — it's seamless, and from the area where characters choose their characters onwards, there won't be any breaks or loading screens.
While most of the cave is explorable by everyone, there are areas (seven, one would presume) that are designed for each specific character. Those areas contain whatever darkness it is the character is trying to deal with. The area that we saw was a castle, with a princess in the top and a dragon below. This was the Knight's area, naturally. It was difficult to get past the dragon, but eventually the Knight triggered his special ability, called "guardian angel," which protects him from all harm as long as its activated. By holding that down and distracting the dragon, he remained safe while the scientist snuck in behind the dragon and stole the gold.
Of course, on the way out, she didn't close the gate behind her, so her trip up to deliver the gold to the princess was accompanied by all manner of hilarious sounds from the dragon's escape and subsequent rampage. "Oh, god!" screams a woman. "Who let the dragon out of its cage?!" All's well in the end though, and the Knight does manage to get the amulet he needs from the princess, though in a funnier way than we had been expecting.
The whole game looks to be a good time, with a rich colour scheme and some truly fantastic animation. Double Fine really does have some fine animators on staff, and it sounds like just about everyone has had a hand in bringing The Cave's characters to life. Both the monster and the dragon looked almost touchable in that way that the muppets in Once Upon a Monster did, and the protagonists all move in humorous, distinctive ways. The Hillbilly's goofy jaunt got everyone in the room laughing, in particular.
It sounds as though the only character that will do any speaking in the game is the cave itself — the protagonists are all silent. So, this won't be a talky game like Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island, but that's probably OK. Too much chatter in this game might rob it of some of its charm, and the characters all spoke volumes through their movement alone.
Gilbert allowed that he wasn't sure yet about the voice casting of the cave, and that the actor they had wasn't final — in fact, he said they'd had women come and read for the role too, which would add another layer of symbolism to a game that's already playing with some deep symbolism. I asked Gilbert if he had considered Plato's allegory of the cave as an inspiration for the game, and was surprised to hear that he hadn't, really.
(After Gilbert's talk, his Double Fine partner in crime Tim Schafer made sure to point out that since Plato's cave was shallow enough to show the prisoners shadows on the wall, and clearly Double Fine's cave was much deeper than that, then Double Fine's cave must therefore be far better than Plato's cave. I feel this logic may be assailable, but I will leave it unassailed for now.)
All in all, The Cave looks like the sort of game I enjoy — creative exploration wrapped up in a gorgeous-looking world with a lot of humour and hidden secrets. It looks to be a much simpler, more focused game than Gilbert's Deathspank, and it appears stronger for it. Rather than covering everything in layer upon layer of goofball schtick, The Cave feels a touch darker and more measured. It's a mysterious cave, Gilbert said, but in the end it wants these people to solve its puzzles.
Hey, that works out; I want to solve The Cave's puzzles, too.
Three enter the cave. Will they live to see the light? Also: the cave talks.