THE CAVE - AN INTERVIEW WITH RON GILBERT
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Inventory systems in adventure games have “gotten out of hand”, industry keystone Ron Gilbert firmly asserts as he leans into the arm of a dark leather sofa in an underground cavern near Waterloo that’s been decked out with fake camp fires and real fir trees. His face, though eerily lit by a builder’s light, shows he’s proud that his latest game The Cave is an adventure title with no inventory at all. As we chat, he also reveals that this decision was one of the things that worried him most. “I think we’d gotten to a place where people were spending huge amounts of time in their game, sifting through collected items to find, perhaps randomly, the right one before slotting it into place. That’s not an adventure. I thought that getting rid of the inventory and making traversal fun would make for a great game and…, well, it’s just one little step forward hopefully, in mind of how adventure games are made. I’m really pleased that it’s turned out so well but I was worried. It sounds horrible, but I’m always surprised when people enjoy something I make, because at the back of my head I think ‘This is just rubbish, this is horrible, nobody is going to like this, they’re going to take away my game designer licence, I’m not going to be able to do this!’”
It’s refreshing to see that Gilbert, despite having been responsible for several classic Lucas Arts titles like Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island and Deathspank, would sincerely display the humble worries more associated with first time developers when thinking about how their game will be received by the public. A self-proclaimed grumpy gamer, Gilbert has garnered many fans over the years thanks to his contribution to the unique humour, style and experience that defined what adventure gaming was back in the late 80s. Now he aims to re-examine the genre with an idea that he’s been cultivating for over 25 years. “I’m very slow at making games!” Gilbert laughs. “It was never really fully formed and was about these three rip off Indiana Jones characters, this talking cave and they go into it. That was it. I’d drawn this big map – I love to draw big weird maps – and I thought about it for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, not a lot, every year. It was more of a Limbo style game with environmental puzzles and slowly it morphed into an adventure game. Then very recently I added the seven characters.”
Borrowing ideas from his earlier Maniac Mansion game, players select three different characters from a cast of seven with each character able to carry only one item at a time as they bounce, scuttle, fly, march and traverse deeper into the winding, puzzle filled cave. “My favourite character is the Knight, I just like him. I like the puzzles in the castle, the dragon and his animations. He’s a knight and he always looks afraid; I kinda like that and it’s kinda fun. If I was knight, I’d be totally afraid. I don’t think being a knight was all sitting around a round table, drinking wine, there was this danger element.” Our favourite character of course is the time traveller.
During a typical run through, there are sections of the cave suited to each respective hero – the Hillbilly searches for his true love at a carnival, the knight seeks a sword hidden in a castle. Each has a unique ability that helps them progress through The Cave’s tunnels whilst at other times, all three chosen characters have to work together to complete the puzzles, though The Cave can only be fully explored with multiple play throughs. There’s a very light platforming element to the game with the focus being on simply having fun running around rather than expertly timing jumps or levelling up a character to progress. That’s not to say The Cave is dumbing down the experience as there’s some darn tootin’ thinking to be dun! Back with the Hillbilly at the carnival, we were stumped on a wheel of fortune style colour guessing game that was impossible to predict without the help of a fortune teller sat in a remote booth on the other side of the level. Using one character to find the teller’s desired item and having another back at the wheel to stop it at the right time was part of a long chain of puzzles that happily linked together with humourous results. “Gamers today are very interested in that moment by moment gameplay.” Gilbert observes. “What are you doing this second? What are you doing that second? Traditional point and click adventure games lack that moment by moment game play. It’s a lot about thinking, meditating as you stared at the screen, which was very enjoyable in the day. If you’re stuck with a puzzle, the thing you experience when you’re playing The Cave is that you don’t put the controller down, lean back on the couch and puzzle over the problem. What people do is they take the character and they just run the character around the level. Just that action of running and jumping distracts part of your brain and allows you to subconsciously work on the puzzles a little bit.”
For the most part this works really well in the couple of sections we have played so far. It has the charm of a classic adventure game but feels up to date whilst all the tools you need to solve puzzles are within the intentionally confined area. “I really did want this to be just a classic adventure game. When I look at a game like Limbo, I think what a brilliant game, but it wasn’t an adventure game. Those kind of environmental and physics puzzles were tonnes of fun to do, tonnes of fun to solve and I’m surprised that more people don’t pick up the comparison. When we first announced the game with the trailer, it’s true that everyone said ‘Oh, it’s a puzzle platformer.’ I’m like ‘No it’s not a puzzle platformer, it’s an adventure game!’ As people have finally been able to play the game, it’s really nice to hear people come back and say I totally understand now, it’s an adventure game and that just makes me feel really good, because it kind of means that we’ve achieved our goal.”
Gilbert is not only attempting to redefine what an adventure game might be, but what a cave might be! Sheltered dwellings of stone for humans and animals for thousands of years, Gilbert’s cave is more like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole as you feed hungry dinosaurs and ride Ferris wheels underground. “I don’t know what caves you visit, but mine have Ferris wheels and evil castles in them! I’ve always thought that adventure games work well in confined environments; Monkey Island for example. If I’m playing a game where I can fly from LA to NYC and I’m looking for a pencil and apparently the only pencil on the planet is in NYC, I think ‘Why can’t I just run to the stationary store and buy a pencil?’ The Cave provides this nice constraint that doesn’t break your suspension of disbelief; you buy the fact that we’re constrained and that’s why there’s only one pencil in the world!”
Clearly one with a close affinity to confined spaces, we leave Mr Gilbert in the dark and damp bowels of London and head out in search of light fun. For some super speleology adventuring, go down below and download The Cave - out now via Playstation Network, Xbox Live, Wii U e-shop and Steam (PC, Mac, Linux).