As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it may contain spoilers.
Video games are a hybrid artistic medium, combining visual art, sound, narrative, and interactivity into unified creative works. On its own, each component of the game wouldn’t have much to say, but in concert with the other components, it becomes an important part of the experience. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – a phenomenon known as synergy. Often, a video game fails to attain greatness because its parts fail to come together in a seamless fashion. Perhaps the soundtrack is in the completely wrong genre, or the narrative is tonally at odds with the game’s art style.
That’s not the case with The Cave, the new adventure game from Double Fine Productions. If anything, The Cave is the perfect example of synergy at work, with each of its components perfectly complementing the others; it’s obviously the result of a clear artistic vision from start to finish. However, none of those components is particularly great to begin with, so what results is a game that is often engaging and fun to play, but rarely attains greatness.
The Cave comes from the twisted mind of adventure game legend Ron Gilbert, best known for creating the Monkey Island series. But rather than recreating a traditional point-and-click experience, Gilbert opted to make a sort of puzzle-platformer/point-and-click hybrid, and for the most part it works. I became accustomed to it pretty quickly, but I imagine point-and-click junkies will have a bit of trouble at first. The Cave dispenses with many of the mainstays of the adventure genre, such as inventories and dialogue puzzles. This removes much of the complexity of traditional adventure games, but a different kind of complexity is introduced in its stead. The platforming introduces a spatial component to puzzles that is often lacking in adventure titles. Large, twisting maps often require backtracking and a solid memory. Further adding to the game’s intricacy, the player controls three characters, and often, solutions to puzzles rely on placing each of them in the correct location. This complexity remains satisfying throughout the game, but further reflection reveals that it’s quite shallow; it consists mainly of placing one character on a platform while another does something else. The inventive environments keep this from feeling like a chore, however.
While the platforming mechanics serve mainly to introduce spatiality into puzzles, they also encourage exploration. As such, they present no real challenge. The Cave treats running and jumping as means to an end, not as ends in and of themselves. The movement mechanics usually work quite well; you’re not likely to miss a jump or accidentally run off a ledge. However, they tend to become unreliable when mixed with object interaction. Clicking around (as opposed to using the WASD keys) also moves the player character, but the WASD keys can’t override a stray click, so you have to wait until your character is done moving to where you clicked before using the WASD keys again. Other times, object interaction is inexplicably limited. For instance, there’s a puzzle in the time traveler’s section where a character has to hold a rolling log. Switching to a character in the same time period causes the log to drop, but switching to a character in the future causes the log to stay in place. At another point, in the island puzzle, it’s possible to push or pull a boat into water; however, it’s only possible to pull the boat out of water. At times like these, it feels like the player is fighting the game’s mechanics instead of finding the solution to a puzzle.
Of course, in an adventure game with such a heavy emphasis on exploration, story and setting are paramount. The Cave excels in that regard. Its setting is at once quirky and sinister, and its characters are a loathsome group of individuals, all selfishly seeking to gain something shallow. Their stories are told through a series of drawings unlocked by finding them throughout the titular cave. They’re well-drawn and humorous, reminiscent of Psychonauts’ vault memories. For the most part, the game has no deeper message linked to these stories. Maybe the lack of commentary is the commentary, in that we would usually expect bad deeds to be denounced, whereas the game subverts our expectations in that regard. But I’m probably overthinking it.
Where the narrative flounders is in how it’s related to the player, i.e. the script. Don’t get me wrong: the narration provided by the sentient cave is impeccably delivered in a soothing yet malevolent bass voice. The problem is that the jokes themselves aren’t very funny. Gilbert and Chris Remo, the game’s script writers, seem to be convinced that every joke needs a punchline. Lines that would be funny on their own are invariably followed by additional lines that either explain the joke or serve as the punchline to an entirely different one. Sometimes, less is more, and in this case, the extra lines actually detract from the subtle humour of the script.
Still, despite their apparent lack of quality, all the parts add up to more than the sum of their whole. The game’s offbeat tone and setting draw the player in, and most of the puzzles are challenging enough to keep the player engaged while not being so challenging that they frustrate the player. In that way, The Cave is reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed series; its unique, lovingly detailed settings attract the player, but the mechanics at its core are shonky. Still, the AssCreed games – yes, I refuse to refer to them as anything but “AssCreed” – somehow come together through the power of synergy to become moderately enjoyable experiences. The Cave is certainly much better than any AssCreed game I’ve played, but it suffers from a similar problem: the game is enjoyable on the whole, but it never achieves greatness, because its components aren’t all that great to begin with.