Ron says that The Cave’s puzzles are full of this type of logical, hands-on problem solving, often requiring the cooperation of two or all three playable characters to reach a solution. And he stresses that The Cave does not have any physics puzzles. (Even though Limbo is another game he cites as an influence, in his mind the very existence of physics puzzles like the ones in Limbo causes a game to cross the genre line from adventure to something else.) The console controls used to explore the cave and manipulate puzzle elements seem pretty standard: you move a stick to move the character, and press a button to switch between characters. The PC controls are still under development but Ron hopes they will be very intuitive, possibly straight point-and-click. A PC gamer himself, he does not want the PC version to feel like a console port.
Each character has special abilities, which can make a difference in how you approach a puzzle. The Knight can withstand certain dangers that would kill other characters, such as that aforementioned dragon's fiery kiss, and he can “slow fall” in areas where other characters would drop to their deaths. The Hillbilly can hold his breath for a long time underwater. So on one playthrough you might progress by having the Knight descend into an otherwise inaccessible area or by sending the Hillbilly on an extended swim past an obstacle, while next time with a different party, you’ll have to look for other solutions. These abilities may not significantly change the gameplay—Ron says they’re the icing, not the cake—but they should help with the usual adventure game pitfall of replayability, making your second experience a bit different than the first even in the common areas of the cave that all seven characters have access to.
Back up a minute… what’s this about death? Yes, your characters can die in The Cave, but it’s truly painless. If you die, the sentient cave lends a hand by respawning you right next to the spot where you died. A three-second animation stands between death and a do-over. So don’t freak out; death is another of those old adventure game annoyances Ron’s determined to do away with.
On top of the variety provided by its character-specific content, the game itself is non-linear. You’ll be exploring a huge cave that the early screenshots and trailer have barely begun to hint at. Technically, it’s all one big environment that scrolls as you move through it; there's no passing between rooms, no load screens. Though it’s massive, Ron says it has been designed to limit backtracking: your characters may need to travel back and forth a bit within a self-contained area as you figure out how to progress, but as you descend deeper and deeper into the cave, you won’t need to climb back up. Items will be used fairly close to where you found them, so unlike in a punishing game like Colossal Cave or Zork, there’s no worry of losing access to something you really need. The three characters can get separated, but because of the need for puzzle-solving teamwork, they’ll never stray too far from each other. While there’s no map to help you orient yourself in the cave and see where each party member is, the camera pans deliberately when you switch between them, so you should always have a sense of where they are in relation to one another.
Though the whole game takes place inside the cave, it has many visually distinct locales—a medieval castle, an “outdoor” carnival, and a mad scientist-style laboratory, to name a few. The artwork has a lush CG cartoon look reminiscent of a Pixar movie or Shrek. The Cave uses a 3D game engine, but its environments have a 2D perspective; characters move up and down and side to side, but never toward the screen or away from it. With the exception of simple labels that appear over useable items as you approach, there is no interface to clutter up the screen. The characters are vibrantly animated, and I especially liked the visual reward of seeing a character hold his or her one allotted item as opposed to stuffing it down an invisible pocket. At one point during our demo, when Ron made the Scientist pick up a giant hot dog, she tucked it under her arm and it flopped a bit as she ran. Adorable!
Near the end of our meeting—maybe the fifth or sixth time Ron reiterated that The Cave is, in fact, an adventure game—I asked what he thought of the initial reaction to the trailer from people who took one glance and pegged it not as an adventure game, but something else. “It’s interesting, because I remember when Maniac Mansion came out, people were saying that was not an adventure game,” he answered. “It had graphics, and worse than graphics, they animated. I think a lot of the die-hard adventure game fans back then, they were okay with a text adventure that put up a pretty picture, like a storybook, but Maniac Mansion was a game where these characters all just ran around, there was no descriptive text, you were not typing stuff into a parser, you were just picking verbs off a screen. And so lot of die-hard adventure people did not consider Maniac Mansion to be an adventure game.
“I look back on that, and that’s kind of silly, considering that’s the style that everybody thinks of as an adventure game now,” he went on. “So I think people have to broaden their definition of what an adventure game is. It doesn’t have to be flat, 2D, pointing-and-clicking with the mouse, in 320x240 resolution to be an adventure game. There’s this style of puzzle solving and problem solving and narrative, all these things that make up a really great adventure game.”
All of these things, Ron promises, are lurking inside The Cave. Admittedly, I’m one who wasn’t quite sure what to make of this game based on the trailer alone, but now that I’ve seen it, I’m inexplicably drawn to it. I can’t shake the feeling that this living, breathing cave is just biding its time, waiting for me to show up and explore its mysterious depths. And after nearly thirty years of gestation, that long wait is almost over, as Double Fine and Sega plan to release The Cave in early 2013.