Double Fine's The Cave is a Bizarre New Adventure Game with Wild Twists (But It's How You Get There That Matters)
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
Last week Ron Gilbert and Double Fine's latest game, The Cave, was released for both Mac and PC (as well as the Wii U, XBox 360, and PS 3), and it seems like a lot of gaming critics haven't been quite sure what to make of it since. The Cave is about a group of characters, each with their own baggage, spelunking into a sentient cave. Turns out you can have some surprising revelations hundreds of feet below the earth.
While the game has gotten a lot of credit for its graphics and premise, it's generally only received average to high-average scores. So why am I writing about it? While I understand where those scores are coming from, I think that fans of Second Life will find much more to love in this gorgeous and immersive game than the mainstream audience has. Here's why:
First of all, credit where credit is due. It's unfair for me to mention games that do gender balance wrong while ignoring those that get it right as effortlessly as The Cave does. Characters are split equally between the sexes, while different races are also well represented. At the same time, in what I've seen so far race and gender don't play a significant role. And that's good. When you can't include a female character without having her struggling against the patriarchy or whatever, it undermines the whole effort to have male and female characters shoulder-to-shoulder in games.
For the most part the characters and their stories seem like an (unsubtle) reference to the 7 deadly sins. Inside the cave itself (which often speaks to you like a creepy omnipotent father-figure,) every character has a special power, and an individual area (accessible only with that character in your party, making replaying a must) where they work through their... issues. As you explore, you also find "Cave Paintings" which illustrate their story further.
These little breadcrumbs are the collectibles of this game, and if you explore every available inch of the cave you are rewarded with a complete set for each character in your party. I will say that I wish these cave paintings looked a bit more... cave painting-y... but they serve their purpose, and they're quite fun.
Now, the reason I think that SLers in particular would enjoy this game is because of its environments, and the experience of playing it.
The actual spaces you're moving around in are beautifully-crafted, and although you play in only two dimensions there is a tremendous sense of depth. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd say it reminds me of Trine 1 & 2, 2D puzzle/platform/action/adventure games with some seriously amazing artwork backing them up. There are plenty of moments in The Cave that I found literally breathtaking, all puzzles and stories aside, just because of the design of the areas. Obviously the areas specific to each character are the most distinct and often the most interesting, but the spaces in between are hardly homogenous. Every set piece feels like virtual artwork, and if you're skeptical check out this bigger shot of the area I used for my header image, from Horrible Night's review.
I was also incredibly impressed with the quality of the sounds and animations in this game (which is a pretty dorky thing to be impressed by I suppose,) but both of them contribute tremendously to the game's immersiveness. These things are easy to overlook when they're done well, but when they're done poorly they can completely ruin a gaming experience. You'll never catch me taking the stony click of The Scientist's high-heels on the cave floor or the flailing, dangling climbing animation of The Twins for granted.
It seems the biggest complaint about The Cave has been its puzzles, which can be a pain to repeat on your second or even third playthrough. Each character's special power can take some of the edge off of those repeating puzzles, but I'll admit that the game would have benefited from more branching paths. At the same time... The game's incredibly reasonable $15 PC price tag makes it an easy recommendation. It's not perfect, but if you love good stories and great exploration experiences, you'll definitely get your money's worth.
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Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.