There lurks a darkness in all of us. It might be something small, like taking the last piece of candy at a kid’s party. It might be bigger, like poisoning the candy supply at a kid’s party in order to destabilise the company his parents work for by capitalising on their grief. Society keeps most of this in check, teaching us to push the dark thoughts and actions deep underground, where they can fester quietly and never bother us again.
But what if all that terrible and very human desire manifested somehow? Became a physical place? Welcome to The Cave, a place apparently existing outside of space and time where visitors can gain that which they most desire. Seven strangers from different walks of life stand at the entrance of this living metaphor, staring down at what their future could become. Or has become. Or didn’t become. It’s all a bit confusing, but perhaps that’s the point.
The Cave is the result of an idea that Ron Gilbert (formerly of Double Fine) had rattling around for twenty years. Players choose three characters from the roster of seven and venture underground, solving puzzles and exploring the backgrounds of their chosen avatars. You can pick from the Knight, Monk, Time Traveller, Hillbilly, Adventurer, Scientist and the Twins, with each having their own particular useful ability. For example, the Hillbilly can stay underwater for long periods, while the Twins can leave a ghostly version of themselves behind to hold switches and stand on pressure plates. This combination of powers ties into the general air of cooperation that permeates The Cave; most sections require the three characters to pool their efforts to overcome the challenges present.
It’s almost counter to the message of the game, working in a group to achieve selfish ends. But this coming together of like-minded psychopaths perhaps has its own message: we’re all terrible, and complicit in each other’s awfulness. Especially adventure gamers. Maybe I’ve just been in the cave too long.
The Cave is split fairly evenly between common areas — those all players will pass through — and sections specifically designed with one character in mind. The latter are recreations of events in that character’s life, and their special ability is the only thing that grants access, meaning multiple playthroughs are required to see all corners of the underground. These special skills, unfortunately, barely ever come up apart from in very scripted puzzles in their set area. Because much of The Cave needs to be accessible to everyone, none of the puzzles rely on much more than pressing buttons, pulling levers and having the right thing in your hands.
The areas themselves range from a medieval castle — complete with dragons and princesses — to a nuclear testing base, to a travelling carnival, all created with a loving attention to detail and comedy. The aforementioned carnival has animatronic carneys and a man of normal strength, while the Twins’ family home has a suspicious and inert plant in one room going by the name “Chuck”. This charm is not lasting, however, and coming back to the same sections in order to see all possible stories will begin to grate pretty quickly.
Any rich story and character potential laid out in this world full of science gone mad, madness turned profitable and a cave which is alive and speaks in an ominous-yet-sultry voice from beyond the 4th wall is undermined by the gameplay itself. Self-described as a puzzle-platformer, The Cave presents players with a lot of distance to cover and then forces them to cover it often. There is no inventory in this adventure, just the ability to carry one item per character and a very strict idea about what does and doesn’t work. Areas aren’t massive, but only being able to carry one thing at a time means that testing a theory on whether a bucket, or a hot dog, or a can of paint is the solution to puzzle A, B or C leads to an inordinate amount of running back and forth, climbing ladders and flipping from character to character.
There’s a sense of relief, rather than accomplishment, when you finally put together a solution. None of the puzzles are bad, per se — you won’t have to figure out that the hat stand needed to be turned counter-clockwise while the Time Traveller holds a wrench and stands in the rain — but the process by which you complete them is needlessly drawn out. In a similar vein, the platforming is functional but not great. The animations for the characters are wonderful and bursting with personality, but they can’t aim at a ledge to save themselves. Literally. Some blame for this seems to lie with the controls, depending on the platform you choose. I was playing on PC, mainly with a mouse but with a little keyboard thrown in, and there seemed to be a little reluctance for the characters to actually do what they were bloody told. It’s not a game where reaction time is key, but it was an irksome punctuation in the experience.
As I think over the experience, I keep coming back to the same conflict: the presentation of the game is fantastic, but the execution is limp. It’s a game about the depths of the human mind and the lengths that people will go to in order to achieve their desires, but it has no imagination. The animation work is superb and the locations are rich with details, but you’re forced to wander aimlessly back and forth until they smear together.
When I first saw The Cave before it was released my initial response was that it didn’t look right. I couldn’t pinpoint why I thought that, and shortly after I started actually playing I reversed my opinion. I was enthralled by the tiny, cartoonish character archetypes and the whole concept of diving into the Earth to find yourself. But the tale is too linear to be a commentary on choice, and the puzzles are too uninspired to keep you playing long enough to immerse yourself in everything the world has to offer. In much the same way as its seven plucky visitors, The Cave turns a promising situation into a regretful mess.