"I think caves are just interesting," says Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert.
"They're kind of this source of beauty on one level and I think there's a prehistoric part of our brain that triggers them as a place of safety. They were our homes for hundreds and thousands of years. There's something intrinsic about a cave that I think everybody likes on some level."
"Do you like exploring caves in real life?" I ask.
"No, because I'm hyper claustrophobic."
This dichotomy of being scared of yet drawn to caves makes the notion of exploring one in-game something of a "fantasy fulfilment" to Gilbert, apparently. It's a fantasy fulfilment for his cast of seven strangers as well, who approach the titular cave each looking to have a wish granted.
"Some come to conquer their fears. Others come to find their desires. Others come to get away from their kids for the weekend," says Gilbert. "Whatever the reason, whenever they come to The Cave, they learn something about themselves. More importantly, they learn something about who they might become."
The sparse-toothed Hillbilly is searching for love, the nonchalant Monk his master, the brave Knight a sword "of unequaled power", a pair of gothy Dickensian Orphans their parents, the Adventurer her lost companions (and treasure). The Scientist is on the cusp of a great discovery for all mankind, and the Time Traveler comes from millions of years in the future to prevent something terrible from happening.
In true Maniac Mansion fashion, you begin the game by choosing three characters. Who you have in your party determines which parts of the cave you'll have access to and what stories will unfold. Choose the Knight and you'll be able to uncover areas with ancient castles and dragons, the Scientist's specific zone will be a laboratory, while the orphans appear to occupy a sepia-toned manor.
Exploring The Cave's expansive network resembles a 2D Metroidvania, with a focus on puzzles. At any time you can switch between your three chosen characters or team up with friends to control the other two in up to three-player co-op. Curiously, this will be local only. "Our servers will work on day one," Gilbert jokes.
We're then shown a demo portraying an early puzzle in which a trio of the Knight, Hillbilly and Scientist must get past a dragon. The Hillbilly discovers a piece of machinery (the prompt says "levers and such") that operates a claw-like mechanism reaching down into a pit of bones in front of the monster. The Knight then rings a bell, piquing the creature's interest, while the Scientist is in charge of luring the beast to the target. To do this she must fix a hot dog vending machine by combining a bucket of water with it. From here the solution is obvious: bait the bones, ring the bell, and let the claw do its thing.
You probably noticed that pouring water onto a vending machine to fix it doesn't make a lick of sense. ("You boil a hot dog in water," creative director Tim Schafer mockingly explains). Thankfully, Gilbert hasn't gone completely off his rocker and agrees with you.
"It's a dumb puzzle," he laughs when asked about it. He then assures us that it won't be that way in the final game and you'll have to manually fix the machine by tinkering around with its innards. This sense of logic is important to Gilbert, who cites nonsensical puzzles as his least favorite thing about old adventure games.
"I do think we need to shift away from the completely obscure, just ridiculous puzzles," he says. "With The Cave one of the things I really tried to do was just sort of make things really logical. So you're not just randomly trying things together to get things to work."
Besides solving puzzles with inventory items, each character will come with their own unique special abilities. The Knight can sprout a pair of spectral wings for soft landings and erect a force-field, while the Hillbilly can hold his breath indefinitely (putting Guybrush Threepwood's 10-minute record to shame), and the Time Traveler can teleport. Puzzles can be solved in different ways depending on who you take with you, adding lots of replay value.
Later puzzles rely on these powers. A walkthrough of a section of the Knight's specific area tasks him with getting an amulet from a princess. In order to do so, he must win her love by gathering gold guarded by a dragon. This requires the Knight to act as a diversion, using his barrier to withstand the dragon's fire breath, while the scientist can sneak in the backdoor to steal the treasure. A sign by the door cautions you to keep the gate closed at all times, but our determined scientist doesn't concern herself with following directions, so she leaves the door open, causing the just-robbed dragon to go on an off-screen rampage while she flees to the princess' chamber.
Upon arriving, the princess' frilly pink bedroom is in ruins and the dragon pokes its head in through the window, munching on the maiden. No matter; the scaly fiend spits out the bloodied amulet. We'll chalk that up as a win.
This cavalier attitude is intentional, as the central theme to The Cave is exploring one's inner demons. "The real influence for The Cave is that everybody has this dark spot," Gilbert explains. "Each of these characters were chosen because of that little dark spot inside them. They really are just coming to the cave to kind of explore that." The Knight may seem noble, but he's not above using the princess for her possessions.
Aside from being a moody, metaphorical setting, The Cave is a character as well. Its self-described "sultry and mysterious voice" narrates the adventure and serves as the only talking main character. Sadly, his role is limited to the intro in the demo reel, though Gilbert explains that he'll talk a lot more in the final game.
Despite its 2D platformer controls, Gilbert considers The Cave to be a true adventure. He seeks to hearken back to the days of old text adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure, which he played with his friends in junior high school. "Me and my friends all gathered around the terminal solving puzzles together. For me that was really what adventure games were all about."
The Cave may be mysterious and sultry, but it's also strangely comforting. From a gameplay perspective death is only a mild setback, instantly respawning you very close by, but from a thematic standpoint it looks to be a leisurely experience, too.
The Cave may not be a point-and-click, then, but for old-school adventure gamers I suspect it will feel a lot like coming home.