As individuals, how far are we willing to go to get what we want? This is the question players are greeted with at the onset of the titular cave. It is a line of inquiry that can lead to some truly disgusting sides of the human psyche, something creator Ron Gilbert wasn’t afraid to explore.

The Cave is a bold statement about the human condition disguised as a silly puzzle-platformer. Although quite fun and solidly designed, the gameplay is secondary, functioning more as a palette cleanser when things are about to get too dark. Usually I frown upon design that doesn’t diligently try to marry story and gameplay, but either of these two elements alone would be more than enough to lure me into the deepest depths of The Cave.

the cave screen 1

The plot follows seven strangers who each seek to have their deepest desires fulfilled by venturing into a mystical cave. This ensemble cast is comprised of various caricatures from across the entire breadth of literature (a knight, a scientist, a monk… etc). Although it sounds fairly generic on paper, each character has an interesting and selfish motive. Throughout the game, players come across cave paintings that offer glimpses into their tragic pasts. Every character has a sad tale that initially earns your sympathy, but eventually takes darker and more morally objectionable turns. It is brilliant narrative formula that effortlessly compelled me to play through the game with everyone. This doesn’t mean The Cave requires seven separate runs to see everything, as each playthrough is completed with 3 characters of your choice.

the cave screen 3Gameplay consists of guiding the 3 strangers deeper into The Cave by solving contextual puzzles. Most obstacles require separate inputs from all 3 strangers to overcome. Using an Xbox 360 controller, switching between characters is seamless with the D-pad, so there thankfully isn’t much to management. However, each character will only move if you take control of them. I dreaded that this would lead to unnecessary treading back and forth, but quickly learned the benefits of scouting out a level first, then placing everyone where they need to be. Also, the lack of autopilot makes solving harder puzzles far more gratifying. Following the “build a better mouse trap” architecture, puzzles usually involve each of the strangers being wildly scattered across a map, carefully chaining a sequence of events that will climax in the terrain being modified to allow progression or retrieving a pivotal item an NPC wants.

Yet, there were a couple caveats to these otherwise brilliant triumphs of the mind. One being that it can take too much trial and error experimentation to figure out goals. The other that finicky automatic platforming makes traversing mazes of tunnels unnecessarily cumbersome. In general, both of these issues merely meant I had to do a bit more grunt work to get from point A to B. It can be irritating if you are impatient like me, though the payoff of solving these brainteasers far outweighs any inconvenience.

[quote_center]the payoff of solving these brainteasers far outweighs any inconvenience[/quote_center]

Visually, The Cave is one of the prettier downloadable titles ever crafted. I played the Xbox 360 version and was incredibly impressed how effectively Double Fine exploited the hardware. Even with a clean and simple art direction, the game features an appreciable amount of raw detail. To complement the 2.5D perspective, every object and feature of the world has a sculpted look. The added depth lends so much more personality to the characters while cementing a look that feels unique to The Cave’s style. If I had a single complaint, it would be that it can be a tad too easy to lose your way because the default wall texture is recycled too often. Other than that minor gripe, I feel The Cave should be treated as a graphical benchmark for indie developers to aspire to.

the cave screen 2

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t hold the audio in such high esteem. The only outstanding aspect here was a particularly humorous narration by veteran voice actor Stephan Stanton. His ongoing commentary of your actions and the bizarre inhabitants of The Cave never cease to delight. Every line he speaks is timed impeccably and laced with a flavorful tinge of black comedy. None of the additional voice work, music, or sound effects were as inspired and comes off as generic. This is especially disappointing in a title with so much charm.

Wrap Up

Looking past the middling audio and few nagging gameplay flaws, The Cave is still an outstanding experience. How it offsets its own mature narrative with charming humor and gameplay is nothing short of genius. And for those concerned with the price versus content proportion, The Cave is of decent length. To complete the game with all seven strangers will require three runs and at least a ten hour investment. I started again immediately after finishing my first playthrough, because I was genuinely excited to see what twisted fate Ron Gilbert had penned for the other strangers. Heck, The Cave even got me thinking about what dark turns my life will inevitably encounter as well.

score of 9
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