Double Fine’s The Cave is one of those rare video games that isn’t too concerned about fun.
I don’t mean that in a negative way. Games need to be about more than just fun sometimes. They should make us laugh, make us think, make us feel something greater than the cheap thrill of experience points gained and items unlocked. Some games, like The Cave, have different priorities.
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It begins on a cloudy, moonlit night. Seven explorers stand at the mouth of a cave — one that can talk, and serves as the game’s wry narrator. You pick any three of these cute, silent protagonists to enter, and guide them through a series of puzzles as they search the depths for their innermost desires.
If you’ve ever played ’90s-era adventure games, you should get the gist of how these puzzles play out. Most of them riff on the “find item X, combine with item Y and use on item Z” formula, which is no coincidence seeing as the The Cave‘s director, Ron Gilbert, created the classic Monkey Island series.
But there’s a twist: Having multiple characters at your command often means you must use them in tandem. For instance, one character lures a monster out of hiding, and you quickly swap to another explorer, who lowers a crane that nabs the monster and clears a safe path. Also, this is a platform game, not a point-and-click adventure, so a light amount of well-timed jumping and button pressing is required.
Most of the puzzles deftly walk the line between obviousness and obtuseness, except a couple cases where the game’s logic isn’t well-articulated. (An unspoken, but vital tip: If your character needs to hang onto a crate or other large object, keep holding down the action button while switching characters, or else he’ll abandon his grip.) Some of the puzzles can also feel too toilsome, as they require a fair amount of trudging back and forth to complete an objective.
The bigger issue, at least as far as fun is concerned, is that there’s no room for improvisation. Every puzzle has exactly one solution, which makes solving them seem kind of like finding the missing pieces from a Rube Goldberg contraption.
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But maybe that’s by design, because The Cave isn’t actually about solving puzzles. It’s about guiding a few characters along a predetermined path, allowing them to act out a series of parables before your eyes. Between the game’s more generic puzzles lie a handful of story-driven challenges, one for each of the three characters you’ve chosen. The apprentice monk, for instance, must achieve enlightenment by passing a series of tests, while the hillbilly must earn the affection of a local woman by bringing her a carnival prize. Minor spoiler: None of these stories end well.
The Cave wears its morality on its sleeve — its message is largely about abstaining from selfish goals — yet it manages to resonate through its twisted sense of humor. Despite the game’s cartoon veneer, it goes to some pretty dark places, especially if you seek out the scattered cave paintings that help explain the characters’ backstories and illustrate the repercussions of their actions.
Ultimately, The Cave gives players a choice over their characters’ fates, and I highly recommend playing the game a second time with new characters — at least through the opening sequence — to see how this plays out. It’s enough to make you contemplate the cave’s true nature, and what the narrator really means by saying that you, too, may someday find yourself exploring its depths.
In those introspective moments, The Cave can seem beautiful, meaningful, even downright chilling. It’s not exactly fun, though, and that’s okay.
Score: 4 out of 5
Version reviewed: Xbox 360