This month, CBS ran a promotion for its tropical cop show Hawaii Five-0: The Jan. 14 episode depicted a murder case with three suspects, and viewers voted on Twitter while the show was airing to determine which guy was the guilty party. (As it happens, the East and West Coast audiences chose different perps.) In a way, this experiment in real-time interactive broadcast fiction served as a tacit indictment of Hawaii Five-0 itself. Apparently, the show is so formulaic that without too much trouble, you can write an episode to sensibly accommodate three different endings. Go ahead, America! Just plug it in!
The Cave, the new adventure game designed by the comedy veteran Ron Gilbert, opens along similar lines by presenting a cast of seven characters and inviting you to choose the three that will descend into the titular cavern. It’s a crackerjack way to kick off a game, with a big choice that suggests an adventure full of potential. The Cave has a few moments like that—fits of cleverness where it tantalizes players with what may come. But like Hawaii Five-0, it ultimately sticks to a formula, such that these promises of surprise inevitably give way to the expected.
Selecting the members of your spelunking party is the toughest decision of the game. Each character is so appealingly drawn. That goofy hillbilly! Those creepy Victorian twins! The game’s art design has a retro-future feel reminiscent of Gilbert’s last major release, DeathSpank. But this game is less exaggerated. Where DeathSpank would go for glossy, The Cave goes matte. The look convincingly accommodates a diversity of influences: My first group of adventurers included an adventurer in the Amelia Earhart mode—from an era when high boots and jodhpurs were an acceptable fashion choice—and a time traveler from centuries in the future. She has anti-gravity boots. The footwear is all over the place, is what I’m saying here. But I totally buy it.
Your path through the Cave changes depending on who makes your final cut. If the puny knight errant is in the party, for instance, the journey will curve into a medieval section where you slay a dragon and rescue a damsel. Not everything is “personalized” like this. These character-specific sections are the chocolate chips in the cookie of the overall quest. And each stage follows the same general template. You have a simple puzzle, like some variation of “unlock the gate” or “get rid of the snarling beast,” and you have to figure out how to use a box of crackers and a reel-to-reel tape recorder (or some such) to make it happen.
Here’s a bunch of things, here’s an obstacle that doesn’t seem to make sense in the context of those things, make it work. It’s a versatile premise but also a well-worn one, and The Cave shows signs of wear. One of its most promising ideas is the collaborative dynamic. In a modern callback to the band of friends in Gilbert’s first game, Maniac Mansion, you must make the three characters work together to solve puzzles, either controlling all of them yourself or playing a couple of friends on the couch. (For this review, I played The Cave alone, on account of I have no friends. Got a nice couch, though.) Most of the time, this multiplicity of heroes is exploited in a straightforward fashion: To proceed, one hero has to pull the lever thingy over here, and two others have to pull the lever thingies over THERE. That’s a letdown.
The character-specific mini-quests would seem to provide another opportunity for experimentation, but most of these are surprisingly rote. The adventurer’s tale, for instance, delves into an ancient Egyptian pyramid where her two compatriots must stand on marked pressure plates in one wing of the tomb to clear the path for her elsewhere. If I never have to play another “standing in this spot makes something happen two rooms away” puzzle—the equivalent of an “I.O.U. ONE PUZZLE” note—I will be fine with that.
There are respites from The Cave’s pervasive familiarity, most notably the time traveler’s quest. Here, you must switch between three different time periods, and your actions in the past affect the future timeline, naturally. Slay a dinosaur in 1,000,000 BCE, and by the time the year 2300 rolls around, he’s fossil fuel. The cause-and-effect twists are so much fun that this could be the premise of an entire game. Then again, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time does exist.
The time traveler isn’t even the best character, by the way. That would be The Cave himself, a talking geological formation who narrates the action in a John Lithgow-esque of jovial malice. He’s the highlight of a script that’s consistently amusing, even if it does lack the laugh-out-loud punch of DeathSpank.
The Cave can’t be entirely explored in a single run, and the game is designed to be replayed. Yet it offers scant temptation to do so. Sure, there are large swaths of the landscape that you can’t reach without the talents of a particular character—like the hillbilly, who can hold his breath to traverse long underground rivers. And of course there’s the mild allure of seeing how everyone’s stories play out. The running joke of the game is that the “heroes” are unrepentantly amoral, so you get to be a bit of a bastard seven times over.
There are fully seven characters, though, and you only get to play three each time. It’s like the old problem of hot dogs being sold in packs of 12 while hot dog buns come in packs of eight. You could explore everything in The Cave, just like you could buy 24 hot dogs, so that nothing is left over. But brother, does the taste get old.
You could argue that The Cave is built for those who reminisce about the late-’80s/early-’90s golden age of witty inventory-puzzle games, but those looking to get high on the fumes of nostalgia here will have to inhale deeply. The Cave isn’t a tribute game; it has the veneer of freshness. For one, it allows the characters to frolic and swim and jump, whereas locomotion was treated a grudging side concern in early adventure games. The trouble is that they end up jumping through the same old hoops.
This is the first game that Gilbert directed as part of the Double Fine studio, which is headed up by Gilbert’s once and future collaborator, Tim Schafer. And in a way, The Cave is of a piece with other recent Double Fine games. Since Schafer’s Brütal Legend in 2009—an audacious heavy-metal epic that was cruelly underappreciated by the public—Double Fine’s output has had a creeping timidity. Lately, the studio specializes in charming, inoffensive trifles like Costume Quest, a cute Halloween-themed role-playing game, and Double Fine Happy Action Theater, which turns your Xbox Kinect into a gussied-up photo booth. The Cave is somewhat more daring than its peers in the post-Legend Double Fine Library, but it shares a similar approach, which is to apply a laid-back wit and a distinctive look to an extremely familiar genre structure. The result in this case is a decent adventure game that’s missing its sense of adventure.