What? It is. There's a special type of anxiety that arises when you have to solve one of Ron Gilbert's puzzles in front of him. This is the guy who made Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, for gosh's sake. And here I am, poking and prodding at a new puzzle he made, stuck but not wanting to ask for help.
On Wednesday, I visited Double Fine to play through the PAX build of Gilbert's new adventure game The Cave. As I played, I found myself stuck on the first major puzzle. I switched between my three characters, poking and prodding at objects in the environment, trying to figure out the best way to remove a fire-breathing monster from my path. As minutes passed and I made slow progress towards an eventual solution, I began to suspect that The Cave is going to be a larger, more finely wrought game than I may have thought.
Eventually Gilbert chimed in and helped me solve the puzzle. And thank God, really.
Okay, let's bullet-point this sucker. Some of this stuff is already known, and then I'll get to the new stuff I played.
- When it was first unveiled, The Cave looked as much like a puzzle-platformer like Trine or even Shadow Complex than a traditional adventure game like the ones with which Gilbert is commonly associated. I described it as Metroidvania meets Maniac Mansion. Which, yeah, OK, THAT SOUNDS COOL.
- In the game, players take on a crew of three of a possible seven avatars. There's the monk, the knight; the time-traveler and the adventurer, the hillbilly, the twins, and the scientist.
- Each character has come to this mythological cave for a different reason, and must puzzle their way through the entire underground labyrinth.
- The map contains one unique zone for each character that only they can explore — and find what it is that they really want.
- None of these characters speak — in fact, the only speaking character in the game is the Cave himself.
- The cave is, in fact, a man, and will be played by Stephen Stanton, who played Agent Nein in Psychonauts.
- There was some question as to whether the Cave would be a man or a woman, but in the PAX demo I saw, Gilbert confirmed that the voice actor I was hearing was the final voice actor.
- The Cave will be the narrator of the tale, and regularly interjects with humorous asides and observations about the group's progress. For example, when you "die," the cave will joke about how he's the only one who doesn't seem to want someone to die, before quickly bringing your character back from the dead.
- From the very beginning of the game, you'll be in-engine — there are no loading screens, menu screens, or any other type of general user interface. The camera begins looking at the nighttime sky before panning down to a clearing in a forest, in which stand the seven protagonists.
- Character selection is nifty — you'll be able to cycle through the characters using the D-pad, and hitting Y will give you a clue as to each character's special power. For example, the Knight sprouts a set of angelic wings, and the Time traveller shoots out a beam of blue light.
- As you select a character, The Cave will tell you about him or her, giving a hint as to what they're looking for down within.
- In a humorous touch, the first thing you do in The Cave is head into a room and grab a crowbar. Because of course the first thing you do is grab a crowbar! After that you'll come up against a set of boards described in the game as a "shoddy barricade," which of course easily comes apart with the crowbar.
- One of the linchpins of The Cave's design is that you're controlling not one but three characters. My time-traveler broke open the shoddy barricade with the crowbar, but then she climbed down a little ways and came to stand upon a weak but not-quite breaking set of boards. Clearly I'd have to send down some more characters.
- I used the D-pad to hop back to the character-selection screen, and quickly I chose two more characters — the monk and the adventurer. Each character was assigned to one of the top three points on the D-pad, making it a snap to navigate between them. Once I had all three standing on the boards, they broke, and my three protagonists went tumbling down, down, down, down into a pool of water far beneath the earth.
- Gilbert told me that at this point, the three characters for the playthrough would be set, and players couldn't turn back.
- I was expecting to find another puzzle, but I wasn't expecting to find another speaking character — and yet, as I climbed my adventurer out of the water, that's just what I found. I heard a man crying. I came out into a large, gaudy "THE CAVE" gift-shop. Something about it felt, well, entirely appropriate for this kind of game. "I hope you're not here to visit the Cave," a ruddy man behind the counter said through tears, "because.. we're closed!" There had been a horrific accident, and they were forced to close. What was the disaster? Oh, they had "no trinkets to sell."
- Guess what? I had to go get some trinkets.
- I then had to bypass a gate that forced me to use the three-character setup: First, two characters had to pull a lever at the same time — after I'd pull it, I'd switch to another character, and the character I'd been using would keep pulling the lever. It was a good warm-up for what will doubtless be the game's defining mechanic.
- With that, I was off to the left and face to face with the monster-bypass puzzle I'd seen in a demo back when the game was unveiled.
- The setup was classic adventure game: There's a monster, and if you try to get around him, he'll kill you instantly. There's a huge crane-claw located above him, and clearly you have to lure him underneath the claw and catch him in it to proceed.
- I had: A sparking fusebox that killed me when I touched it, two wells, a pit in front of a monster, a broken-down crane, and a vending machine with no power. Sound adventure-gamey enough for you?
- The eventual solution was simple enough, but after I poked and prodded at it for a while, Gilbert walked me through it in the interest of time. (Or at least, that's what I'm telling myself).
- "I like when people are stuck and confused, I find that more fascinating than frustrating," Gilbert said.
- Here's the solution: Take a bucket from the well, put it over the water to stop the fusebox from shorting out, take the fuse down to the other fusebox next to the vending machines, plug it in, buy a hot dog, carry the fuse back up to next to the crane, plug it in, get the crane set, and then — I'm ready.
- Now here's the thing — two things made this all more interesting than standard adventure game fare: One, I had more direct control of the characters — I could run and jump with them, which simply makes the game a bit more involving than pointing and clicking. Second, a lot of the puzzles required hopping between my characters in mid-action.
- Once the claw was powered up, I had my adventurer toss the hot dog out into the pit. When the monster came running out to eat it, I hopped up to my monk, who was standing up at the crane's controls, and had him drop the claw. It snagged the monster, and I was free to go on my way.
- I was struck by how complex this first puzzle was — I asked if the game would feature a lot of these more involved puzzles, and designer JP LeBreton confirmed that yep, it would. Some of the character-specific regions, he said, would feature several of them at the same time, and players would be able to tackle them in whatever order they want, like the hubs in classic adventure games.
- Since each character has a special ability — the adventurer has a grappling hook, the time-traveler can warp through walls, etc — there are multiple solutions to each puzzle. Gilbert told me that he wants the game to be about experimentation and discovery — as you play, you'll figure out things you can do with special abilities that you didn't think were possible.
I was impressed with the depth of the first major puzzle in The Cave, and have a feeling that this game is going to be bigger size-wise than I'd anticipated it would be. Particularly given the fact that there will be seven large, distinct puzzle areas, not all of which will accessible on a first playthrough. Gilbert's Cave appears to run deeper than I thought.
Man, it's really hard to say that with a straight face.
Hey, OK, here are some screenshots!