Smart games sometimes feel hard to come by. But when you do stumble on a smart game, it's easy to tell how much thought went into its design. Ron Gilbert's The Cave, an adventure/puzzle game made in collaboration with developers Double Fine, is a game that radiates with smart design.
And it's super cute, too.
The setting is a mysterious, talking cave. "That's me, the cave. Yes, I'm a talking cave. Don't laugh. It makes dating hell." Ah, a cave with a personality! For hundreds of thousands of years, people have been drawn to the cave in search of their individual desires.
But the cave is special. It changes dynamically, and it's lively. It's a talking cave, after all. Depending on who enters the cave, the adventurer will encounter a matching setpiece.
On this particular cave adventure, we find seven different adventurers. The monk is diving into the cave in search of his master, and enlightenment. The adventurer is hunting for treasure and her lost two companions. An affable hillbilly is in need of love. The nerdy scientist hopes to carry out a great discovery. Evil, yet adorable twins are searching for their parents. A brave knight is spelunking for a powerful sword. And, finally, a time traveller visits the cave to right a wrong a million years in the making.
Though these are their described intentions, creator Ron Gilbert tells me that you may find these characters' supposed intentions to only be partially true by the game's end.
The storyline you will experience on your first playthrough will depend on the three cave divers you choose to bring along. Our demo at E3 chose the hillbilly, scientist and knight. Not the team I would have picked, but I can see myself eventually playing out every story path anyway.
You'll have to play the game four times to experience every storyline. Why? Because each character can access a new section of the game based on his/her/their skills and specialty. Playing with the knight lets us survive long drops because of his guardian angel ability, but it also lets us explore the area of the cave that holds a castle with a snooty princess and a snoozing dragon.
Watching the three explorers solve puzzles collaboratively, I marveled at how much personality The Cave has. Each adventurer has unique animations to suit their character. The hillbilly trots along barefoot, flailing his arms around carefree. The scientist keeps her hands tight in her lab coat pockets, and the knight fidgets around, observing his surroundings. He holds his hands together up to his chest like an adorable action figure.
But besides the hand-painted-looking art and delightful humour, my favourite part about The Cave is Ron Gilbert's take on death in adventure games.
"I've always disliked death in adventure games. Adventure games are about exploring the story and death feels like a punishment. It's just not fun to me. I don't think death has any place in adventure games."
Death is essential in some games. That idea of punishment works well in certain genres. But in a game that's all about exploration, experimentation and storyline progression, death is a huge hindrance. That's why when characters die in The Cave — and they will die often for doing stupid things — they rewind just five seconds previous. You've learned your lesson, but you won't be penalised. The entire game can be played in one seamless, enjoyable, uninterrupted, commercial-free playthrough. And that's exactly why I imagine myself in 2013, bleary eyed at some ungodly hour realising I just finished The Cave in one sitting without knowing it.