I played a lot of games in 2013 but there have been few that have impressed me or moved me enough to write about them (unlike The Walking Dead ;_;). A lot of them felt like chores to do (a feeling I increasingly get as I get older and have little time to indulge such things) but this one didn’t. My game of the year is the puzzle-platformer/adventure “The Cave” which was released digitally on all of the major platforms back in January. While it didn’t get excellent reviews I still enjoyed it tremendously.
The Cave is an adventure where the player gets to take control of three (or four if you take The Twins) characters from a cast of seven people who are lured by a sentient talking cave (who acts as the narrator of the game) into exploring its dark depths in search of what they desire most.
What these characters don’t know is that while spelunking they will encounter an environment which draws upon the darkest aspects of their characters, their greed and jealousy and murderousness. The Cave acts like a surreal dream-like set of tunnels which channel the character’s rotten souls’ and psyches as they replay their worst moment.
It is like a form of hell where the character re-enact their sins over and over.
The cast includes The Knight who is actually a fake who lacks chivalry and is a greedy coward who, in an effort to get a gem owned by a princess, is willing to release a fearsome dragon upon the kingdom. The Monk in a quest for “enlightenment” is a pretty rotten person who cheats and steals (and does worse) to become the abbot of the mountain-top monastery. The Adventurer is a foxy lady who wants fame and glory for herself (at any cost) in her quest to conquer a pyramid tomb.
What I really loved about The Cave was its clever and attractive design from the characters and the environment they traversed to the elegant simplicity of the controls and level structure and the way it harked back to an age of well-written comedy titles I grew up with.
The game was created by Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle fame. These are games I played in the 90’s (and again with my sister in the early 2000’s) which, in my opinion, provided the first well-written and genuinely funny scripts in gaming. In The Cave he has brought his experience in creating point-and-click PC adventures and adapted it well for consoles and controllers. Each story and the Cave’s narration is funny and full of wit and intelligence.
The setting of the game is a bizarre subterranean set of tunnels which envelopes specific areas for each character. To access an area you must have a certain character otherwise you take another tunnel. The tunnels are wonderfully colourful playgrounds lit by glowing ore, torches, lava, mushrooms and lights powered by portable generators and they are littered with incongruous objects and places like gift shops, zoos, vending machines, crashed UFOs, London public telephone boxes and elevators.
The places you visit depending upon which character you select. As you make your way through the tunnels they gradually open up and the atmosphere and weather changes. You may encounter a computer that opens the door to a nuclear missile silo with tense music playing, or an area may open up to reveal a London skyline where a sombre and disturbing funeral dirge accompanies you as you clamber your way into a dilapidated mansion underneath the smog of Victorian London.
Each level is well-realised and gorgeous to look at with lots of great visual jokes and details. My particular favourites are the sunny desert island surrounded by sharks, the mist-shrouded monastery on a mountain and the mansion.
The game simplifies these areas and exploring them with a logical layout that ensures players will never get lost. Also streamlined are the puzzles which are all pretty logical – characters can only hold one object at a time and that object is usually used in the location they are found in. The objects have a single function related to some puzzle and while the solution is not always immediately obvious a little thinking and invention will solve the problem. For the most part the environments guide the player into forming the answers for themselves.
The control scheme for the game is simple to use, relying upon the d-pad, a thumb-stick and three buttons. I played this cooperatively with my sister and we both quickly found the game easy to navigate. People familiar with platform adventures like Super Mario will feel right at home as characters move and jump and climb and drop around the environment in a similar way. Each character has a special ability – The Adventurer has a grappling hook and The Monk has telekinesis – and they are an infinite resource that can be used at any time and allow access to new areas and create short-cuts depending upon which character you use.
I found a first play-through was all about getting used to the controlling camera not the characters. With three characters to control and puzzles involving all three working together in unison to solve them there was a lot of shuttling the camera back and forth as my sister and I used items or pulled switches at just the right moment. Having to switch the camera around never became tiresome as it was easy to use. Indeed it turned into a joke as we stole the screen from each other just as the character we were controlling was in the middle of a perilous jump over a chasm or some dangerous task involving dynamite.
A second and third play-through is necessary to see the fate of each the seven characters and finish the entire game properly. This means repetition but I didn’t mind as I found we were able to finish the game in around an hour. Thanks to the simplicity of the game, I found it easy to work through and jump straight back in. Unlike Monkey Island and the early Lucas Arts games where constant travel and collecting stuff was mandatory, this game favours a breezy and simple play style that means the necessary replays to complete the game and avoid the irritation that repetition brings. Repetition is in most games only here it’s easy to accommodate because it’s soon overcome and the fun writing and design sustains interest.
Indeed we spent more time indulging our darker side by constantly crushing, burning and blowing each other up while feigning innocence and shouting. This is one of the great aspects of the game. It creates a set of well-realised and fiendishly deplorable characters and encourages us to be evil to them and each other in order to complete the game and get the credits. It acts as both a clever meta-comedy about puzzle games and the human condition and creates a great setting for some dark, well-written comedy sketches that will earn a laugh and a wince as we act out the most evil part of somebody’s life.
Why it’s my game of the year is for the ease of play, design, writing, nostalgia and cooperative play. As I spend more time in work, watching films and socialising I appreciate a game which presents a good, well-designed story. It is not the most moving or best game released this year but I personally found it the best for me.