Exploring The Cave with Double Fine’s JP LeBreton and Chris Remo interview
When Double Fine and Sega announced The Cave last spring, many fans of Ron Gilbert’s adventure games were skeptical. The minute-long trailer showed cartoon characters running around and jumping in what appeared to be a traditional side-scrolling platformer, suggesting that the father of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island had forgotten exactly what an adventure game is. When I first saw that trailer, I was uncertain, too. But after I sat down with Ron and he described the game and showed me an early portion, I was persuaded. The Cave, while not an “old school” adventure in the SCUMM tradition, is guided by the same principles of exploration, puzzle solving, and humor present in all of Ron’s previous adventure outings. And, as demonstrated at a recent press event, it brings something entirely new to adventure gaming: local multiplayer.
Wait… multiplayer? you might be thinking. No! This is even less of an adventure game than I thought! To be clear, The Cave’s multiplayer has nothing to do with competition or facing off against an opponent. It’s a means for two or three players to work together, all on the same computer or console (not over the internet), with each player controlling a member of The Cave’s three-character party to solve puzzles cooperatively. Think URU: Ages Beyond Myst, but the person you’re collaborating with is right there in your living room.
Setting for Double Fine press event in San Francisco
Just like in Gilbert’s first adventure, Maniac Mansion, The Cave begins with players selecting three characters from a line-up of seven. At the press event, these characters had been predetermined: the Hillbilly, the Monk, and the Adventurer. Each character is assigned to a direction button and a graphic at the bottom of the screen reminds you which character is linked to which button. (We played on an Xbox 360; on PC the controls will be mouse-driven.) Using the D-pad, one player can switch between characters or pass control to another player. The camera follows the currently selected character, leaving the others behind if he/she wanders off, then pans back when a different character is selected to help you understand where certain areas are in relation to others. This allows you to freely explore a relatively large area without having to worry about losing your companions.
I sat down with another journalist to tackle a portion of the game where the party tries to break into a carnival to impress a girl the Hillbilly has a crush on. After some initial awkwardness about who should “go first,” we each spent a few minutes running around in different areas of the cave, and a bevy of puzzles in need of solving began to emerge from its depths. The sequence involved cheating at a series of carnival games—surviving a dunk tank, predicting which color the wheel of fortune would land on, fooling a canny carnie into guessing your weight incorrectly, etc.—in order to earn enough tickets to win a prize for the Hillbilly’s love interest. Some puzzles could be solved by any one character or by any two working together, while others required a specific character’s special power (such as the Hillbilly’s ability to breathe underwater longer than the others). Each solution relied purely on exploration, deduction, and logic; in the portion I played, there was absolutely no dexterity or reflex required as in a puzzle-platformer like Braid or Limbo.
Here’s the beautiful part: my partner and I solved these puzzles together. Sometimes a few minutes would pass where only his character was visible on screen. When he wasn’t sure what to try next, I would take control for a few minutes and check out a different part of the cave. But all along we were having a dialogue about what we should try next. He saw some solutions before I did. I figured out where to use some items before he did. Once or twice, we had the same revelation at the exact same time and shared an “aha!” moment. We discussed what to do and laughed or groaned together when the attempts didn’t pan out. (It is possible to die in The Cave, but these tend to be humorous, cartoony deaths and you immediately respawn in the same area, no harm done.) In the end, we solved the chain of puzzles that were blocking entry into the carnival as a team—an experience I haven’t had since I was fourteen years old playing The 7th Guest with my best friend, side by side at my parents’ computer.
Layout of The Cave's Hillbilly level
For those who prefer to adventure alone, don’t worry: The Cave’s multiplayer is completely optional. But after glimpsing the potential for collaboration that Ron and his team have built into the game—not to mention the pure puzzle-solving gameplay—I’m not only confident that The Cave falls into the adventure category, but I also know that it brings something brand new and very special to the genre. (Kind of like Maniac Mansion, the very first point-and-click adventure game, did back in 1987.) A lot of fans may not be convinced until they’ve played it for themselves, but luckily that chance will come soon, as The Cave is scheduled to release for PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U later this month.
Still glowing from my hands-on play session, I sat down with designer JP LeBreton and writer Chris Remo (a former Adventure Gamers staffer) to talk about what it’s like working with Ron Gilbert, how The Cave’s puzzles and story came to be, and what they, as longtime adventure gamers themselves, think of the non-traditional gameplay.
Emily Morganti: What’s it like being a fan of Ron Gilbert’s, and now working on a game with him?
Chris Remo: It’s been awesome. I think about this a lot because [Double Fine studio head] Tim Schafer was actually one of the first people I met in the games industry, like a decade ago, and then the first game I ever worked on was Psychonauts as a tester. [Double Fine]’s not the first studio I worked for, but now working for Tim’s studio and with Ron on a game has been really crazy, because those are guys whose names I knew when I was a kid. One of the greatest things about playing LucasArts games back in the day was that they always put the designer’s name on the box. So Monkey Island would have Ron Gilbert’s name on there, and Full Throttle would say “a heavy metal adventure by Tim Schafer.” So I’ve known those guys’ names for 20-plus years. A lot of games, at the time, you wouldn’t know the people who worked on them. So now being in a position where I work for Tim’s company on a game with Ron Gilbert—it’s out of control.
Emily: If you could tell your ten year old self—
A very surprised Chris Remo
Chris: I would have no conception of what that would mean. If I had told myself that—well, first of all I’d be confused as to why a version of me was present and talking to myself, but assuming I had the stoicism to get past that, I would still have no conception of what it would mean to say “I work [in game development]” because I never knew game development was a thing that people did. I didn’t actually grow up wanting to make games. That was never an intention of mine. It was never something I even considered as a thing that was done. It wasn’t until I was out of college that it was something I even thought about. So when I started working at Double Fine [as community manager], at a certain point Ron just came up to me and said “Hey, do you want to help write The Cave with me?” And I said okay. [laughs] So that was cool. ‘Surprising’ is a better word.
JP LeBreton: I guess I played Maniac Mansion, probably not quite 25 years ago, but pretty close to that. So a good 20 years of my life or so I’ve known Ron Gilbert’s name… well, I’m sure I learned who he was back in—
Chris: The Adventurer.
JP: Well, yeah! I probably did, although he might have been gone by the time The Adventurer started coming out.
Chris: That’s true, actually. I think you’re right.
A much more composed JP LeBreton
JP: That started in like ’92 or something. Anyway. [clears throat] Ron Gilbert existed as a concept for me, for many years. And then I actually started learning more about game development and considering it as a career, and then I ended up in game development. So I guess my development as a player of games and as a game developer has had a few different phases over the years, but adventure games were definitely the first major thing, playing Maniac Mansion on the Commodore 64, and a lot of the definitive LucasArts games on the PC. And then I got into Doom and Quake, and started making maps for that, and Half Life in the late ’90s, and then I kind of got a job—my first job in the industry—on the basis of that stuff.
Then fast forward several years, I worked on the BioShock games, but I was looking to make a move and find a cool place, and I was looking at Double Fine. Ron needed a designer for his new secret project, so I was like, “That sounds awesome, I wonder if I could actually design an adventure game?” Because I don’t think, technically, I’d worked on one before. So the part of my brain that knew a bunch about game design, and then the much older part of my brain that played adventure games and appreciated them and remembered them fondly—The Cave was all about mashing the two of those together and saying, “Okay, I’m a game designer but I’m working on an adventure game. What’s that like?” So for those first several months that Ron and I and [animator / designer Dave Gardner] designed all of the puzzles, that was a crazy experience.
Emily: What did you have to do to get hired? Did you buy a present for Ron?
JP: No, I didn’t resort to bribery or anything. I was at 2K Marin before this, and I applied and then we did the first preliminary interview where I got to meet Ron and Tim; I’d never met them before. And then I had a follow-up interview scheduled that was supposed to be like “the big interview” where I’d meet a lot of the team, and I actually ended up in the hospital like, the day before, with appendicitis.
Emily: So they hired you out of pity?
JP: I like to think so. [laughs] Anyway, it all worked out. It was pretty conventional… I mean, I guess I’d been making games for 12-plus years at that point, so I was just able to say, “Hey, I’m a game designer, I’m legit. I’ve worked on this and this before.” And the other usual interview process where you talk about stuff and try not to embarrass yourself. So yeah, I guess they liked me enough to bring me on, and now I’ve been at Double Fine for coming up on a year and a half, and it’s been fantastic. I adore working there; I’m leading a project for Amnesia Fortnight, that’s crazy, and I’m just working with fantastic, awesome people. And working with Ron was a total pleasure.
Emily: For this game, I wonder if not being an adventure game designer was a positive? Maybe Ron’s approach to this game was different than it might have been for a Monkey Island-style game, since The Cave is not a traditional adventure game?
New Ron Gilbert adventure... New Grog!
JP: I think he was looking to do things differently, which is cool and commendable. There are other people who have been making games as long as he has who are sort of more set in their ways. But I think one thing about Ron’s designs, like the first two Monkey Island games and Maniac Mansion… his initial decision to make Maniac Mansion an adventure game was sort of a considered decision. … He’s always brought a game designer’s rigor to adventure game design. There’s other schools of adventure game design that are more arbitrary, or alternately—and this isn’t a bad thing at all—more storytelling focused. I think a lot of the design work that we did on The Cave was about really thinking about it. Even though it is an adventure game, and so all of the little interactions you do are special cases and very quirky logic-type things, we still tried to make it make sense, because that’s honestly a big part of making a game like this playable.
People have to be able to walk through that deductive process and come to conclusions naturally, without having to read the designer’s mind. When people talk about bad adventure game design, it’s always like, “Oh, I would have had to read the designer’s mind to know that.” And you’ll see when you play The Cave—well, you can make up your own mind about it—but we did try to think through it a lot. And the other thing we did was playtest it a lot, and that was something that Ron definitely pushed for, being able to get people in both from outside the team but within Double Fine, and also people from outside the studio, have them come in, play the game, and watch them. The way that these work is you just have to sit down and shut up and watch them play the game, and if they struggle with something—
Chris: It’s a very weird atmosphere.
JP: Yeah, because you can’t give them a hint, and you certainly can’t… you’re a terrible designer if you say, “Oh, well, you’re playing it wrong.” Because the whole point is that you’re seeing your ideas’ first contact with reality, and that’s tremendously important.
Chris: It doesn’t matter how intuitive you think anything is, ever.
JP: Intuitive doesn’t actually mean anything in the context of game design.
Chris: Those assumptions will all just get torn apart instantly, as soon as someone sits down at the game.
Emily: Personally, I think seeing how somebody approached it, and then coming up with a way to help them approach the puzzle, is a good thing to do.
Chris: Absolutely. With adventure game design, since puzzle solutions are all discrete, they all have to be individually supported for the most part. Seeing a common route people will try to take that makes sense once you see it attempted—especially if more than one player tries it, if you see it coming up often—you can then go back and support that. Especially in The Cave, where we have these very different characters with different abilities, sometimes players will happen upon perfectly reasonable solutions to puzzles that we didn’t necessarily support right from the start. And some of that stuff has ended up folding back into the game design.
Emily: What was the process of coming up with puzzles? I’m specifically thinking about the multiplayer, how so many of these puzzles require working together. Did that change the process of designing them at all?
Chris: Real quick, to preface the answer, none of them actually require working together with another person, although a lot of them require multiple characters. But one person could do that.
JP: Yeah, we knew from the start that we would support single player with character switching, and pretty much anything we could think of works for a single player who can switch between all three, or [two or] three human players each controlling a character. So we were doing traditional adventure game puzzle design, but then we would have to think, “Okay, are other players doing enough here? If I wanted to just solo this with one character, would I be able to do that?” We would do that within the course of a single design meeting, we would go in and say, “Here’s what the puzzle is, and how does this involve multiple characters?” I can’t remember any off the top of my head, but there’s probably some pretty good puzzle designs that we left on the table because it was just like, yep, one player can do this by themselves, and it’s not really taking advantage of the fact that there’s three players—
JP: Three characters, sorry. [laughs] There’s that whole player/character dichotomy. So yeah, it definitely multiplies the complexity of the thing you’re trying to design, because when you’re just trying to make Guybrush Threepwood able to do something funny and interesting, then, that’s one thing, whereas when you’re trying to say, “Oh no, these other two characters need to play a part too…” We got much better at it by the end. We threw out several different areas of the game, threw out several puzzles, and I think by the end we were getting pretty good at just sort of naturally involving the other characters. The areas that we designed last, it was very easy for us to wrap it all together into a thing that multiple characters could do.
Emily: I liked it. It’s more to show you that something doesn’t work, and now you know that and have more information to help you solve the puzzle.
Chris: It’s what you’re getting instead of: “I don’t think I can do that.” It’s a different approach to negative feedback. I also think that, even stepping outside The Cave a bit, if you look for example at what Telltale is doing with The Walking Dead, I think what’s happening right now is that we’re seeing different studios and different designers trying different takes on adventure gaming. That game, I think, incorporates a lot of the same classic things that The Cave does, which is “use item A with item-in-the-world B.” A lot of those kinds of core DNA things are similar, but the execution and the look and feel is totally, totally different.
And I think that’s really cool; I think having a multiplicity of design branches off of the notion of an adventure game is more interesting than feeling like we should be arbitrarily tied… you know, what we think of as the canonical point-and-click adventure game, in itself, was only one branch of an adventure game formula that started with text only games, moved to text parser games, moved to graphical adventures with a text parser, then moved to a point-and-click only interface with verbs, and then often moved to a contextual point-and-click interface. I mean, that whole thing evolved even faster than it is now. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, adventure games changed a lot more rapidly than they do now. And then you’ve got guys like Dave Gilbert [of Wadjet Eye Games], who are still working in a slightly more traditional vein, so I think people are sort of spoiled for choice now, which is great. You can find any number of traditional and otherwise games out there. It’s really exciting being part of that whole landscape, instead of just one branch of it.
Emily: Anything else you want to tell Adventure Gamers about The Cave, or what it’s like working with Ron Gilbert?
Chris: He’s not as grumpy as they claim. Don’t let him tell you otherwise.
JP: Really, it’s all an act.