The Story of the Boulder that Shouldn’t Be

WTF is The Cave?

The Cave is a 2013 puzzle-platform game developed by one of the guys who made Maniac Mansion in the 80s, hallowed be its name. The premise is that three characters (selected by the player from a list of seven) take a tour through a creepy, sentient cave that knows their darkest secrets. In order to advance the tour and progress through the many levels of the cave, the characters have to symbolically enact a moment in their lives where they do something immoral in pursuit of their deepest desires.

In each game, players have to complete seven levels, four of which are always the same, and three of which correspond to the characters chosen to enter the cave. The only goal players have is to advance through the cave by any means possible, and most of the puzzles involve coordinating the three characters to perform a series of actions in sequence. Each of the characters also has a special ability that helps them to bypass certain challenges in the game.

The tone is one of both humour and foreboding.

Gameplay

The Cave is pretty easy, but it’s fun. The only time I got stuck and had to go online for help was in the time traveller’s level, where the controls, at one point, operate counter-intuitively, and the solution doesn’t make logical sense*. Very few of the puzzles involve reflexes or precise timing, though most of them require you to perform a certain set of actions in sequence.

Solving the puzzles mostly consists of a) remembering that you have two other characters who can help you; b) remembering that most puzzles in the game are designed to be solved without using any of the characters’ special abilities; and c) remembering that the game is designed so that you can’t get stuck at a dead end.

That said, the designers do an admirable job of trying to add variety to the puzzles. Each level adds something unique in terms of how the puzzles work, and what you have to think about to solve them. The time traveller’s level, for all I complain about it in the footnote, is a really inventive idea, and so are all of the others. There’s no level in the entire game that feels like a loser.

It would have been neat if there were more variation in the puzzle solutions depending which characters you choose to play with, or if four of the levels weren’t exactly the same regardless of who’s there, but I also understand that that would be a lot more complicated to design, so I’m happy with at least getting one new level for each character.

Characters

The Cave gives us seven characters to choose from, and players will differ in how interested they are in each, but the selection is pretty varied, and there’s bound to be something there for everyone.

Out of a knight, a scientist, a time traveller, an adventurer, creepy gothic twins, a monk, and a hillbilly, the only one I felt kind of uncomfortable about was the hillbilly – no so much because of what the game was doing, but because the idea of hillbillies can carry a lot of baggage. I recognize that all of the characters are supposed to be types drawn from other parts of culture, but I’m not sure that “hillbilly” is going to age as well as a type, compared to the others.

One thing I liked, though, is that the designers put some thought into the character selection – exactly half of the playable characters are female (the twins are a brother and sister), and there doesn’t seem to be any gender stereotyping in their roles. I note this not because I’m trying to be PC, but because it genuinely makes a game feel friendlier to me when the characters who share my gender are not a bunch of strippers.

My favourite characters, personally, were the creep-ass twins, but I thought the knight got the most interesting story, and I kind of want to play a game all about him.

Story

The big selling point of The Cave, for me, is that it strikes exactly the right tone with its creepy Halloween voice narrator, and its light touch toward what is actually pretty horrifying content. The player characters don’t have any dialogue, but the supporting characters are hilarious – to the point that I sometimes just wanted to stand there and listen to them spout their generic statements to make sure I heard them all.

Sample dialogue:

There comes a time in every man’s life when he needs his three mine carts. For me, that time is now!

I was genuinely interested to find out what horrible thing each of the characters was going to do, and, the more I played the game, the more I also became interested in the dilemma it’s posing – what if you saw one path and only one path that would get you the thing you wanted most in the world? What would you be willing to do to go after it?

In the abstract, it’s really easy to say you should do the right thing and not be a selfish asshole, but, imagine if it was the one thing you wanted most, and this was your only shot at it. It would be pretty tempting to do something wrong, even if you weren’t willing to be as murderous as most of these characters turn out to be. Seeing the same scenario play out, over and over again, with different variables, kind of drives the theme home.

The fact that the game forces you to do something evil in order to advance is a little bit unpleasant, but also kind of funny, in that there’s no attempt to pretend you’re doing anything other than the most selfish dick thing ever. It also reinforces the point that these characters don’t see any other way forward – either they’re trapped forever in a world where they can’t get what they want, or they do this awful thing to advance toward their goals.

Just as in life, there’s variation in how sympathetic each of the characters is. The gothic twins are probably the least sympathetic and the knight is – for me, at least – the most sympathetic, because he doesn’t hurt anybody on purpose. The other characters fall somewhere in between those two poles. Usually, they know they’re doing something wrong, but there’s a certain sense in which we can understand why.

This isn’t at all obvious when you’re playing, but I found out after the fact that there’s a way to get a “good” ending for each character, where the character learns a lesson and decides not to do this terrible thing after all. The ending that the game most clearly steers you toward, though, is one where nobody learns anything, and the characters go on to cause tragedy by lying, cheating, and murdering to get what they want. I actually find it more interesting that way, and I’m not sure how I feel now that I know there’s a buried “good” ending in there.

Conclusion

The Cave isn’t hard, and it doesn’t take that long to play (though you have to play three times to see all the levels). The repetitiveness on multiple playthroughs is also made less painful by the suspense of learning about new characters, and the dark humour running through the story – but, it would still have been cool for the game to change more for each group of characters.


* You know how much I love to hate on time travel – I can’t let this go. The time traveller’s level involves sending the characters to the same place at three different moments in history and making changes to the earlier time periods which affect what’s taking place in the later time periods. Most of that works fine, but there’s one puzzle where you have to move a boulder away from a crevice, so that water can get inside the crevice and make a well in the future. The challenge is that, whenever you let go of the boulder, it rolls back over the crevice. The game would have you believe that the correct solution is to have one of the characters actively hold the boulder in place in the past. You know, forgetting that the character can’t actually do that indefinitely, and that eventually – even if it’s just when the character dies of old age – the boulder will roll back over the crevice and the well won’t form (the time periods are several centuries apart). If the dead character’s bones could hold the boulder at bay, I’d be willing to go along with that, but the game explicitly does not allow standing in front of the boulder until you die as a solution. Only holding the boulder until you die is a solution. Even if we ignore all of the other millions of things that could happen to interfere with the boulder after you die, that’s stupid. Either your bones should hold it back, or there should be a rock you can put in front of it.

Image: The Cave; Double Fine Productions | April 24, 2015