Hey folks, welcome to what I hope is a new ongoing series of articles (I may come up with a better name down the line), where we go through some of the best levels, segments and great ideas that the Xbox has to offer and praise them for all they’re worth. Whether it’s a memorable boss battle or some fourth wall breaking shenanigans, the purpose of these articles is to provide great examples of game design and give credit where credit is due. So without further adieu, let us start with….
The Cave (2013) is a Double Fine game from the mind of Ron Gilbert. While I found it to be a very enjoyable though slightly cumbersome puzzle/platformer, there was one moment that stood out to me above the rest of the game; the introduction. The beginning of this game is devoid of unnecessary tutorials and flow stopping pop-up menus that take you out of the experience, instead it allows you to take your time and figure the game out for yourself, something I wish more gamrs did. Within five minutes, that game’s tone, gameplay conventions and mindset are perfectly conveyed in ways that many AAA games fail to do in hours.
After a lovely little introduction from a talking cave, we finally get to meet the eight main characters of the game. A D-pad icon pops up on the lower left hand side of the screen, which is the closest thing we get to a tutorial, allowing us to change character. There is even an option to hide this popup should you wish.
As we switch from character to character, the cave gives us some inside info on their back-story and desires. On the surface, this is a simple exposition section, but we’re also learning how to change characters, something that becomes second nature once you proceed with the game and is vital knowledge to know.
After a couple of minutes fiddling about with characters, the next logical step is to move. You haven’t been told to do anything and you haven’t even been set an objective, so for now you’re simply exploring and experimenting. Quite quickly, you find a crowbar.
In any other game, a tutorial or button prompt would come up that carefully explains how you pick this item up and how to use it, but here, the game trusts that after the smallest amount of experimentation and time, you can easily figure it out for yourself. Once you take the crowbar to the entrance of the cave which has been boarded up, it’s also easy to put 2 + 2 together and realise what to do next.
The majority of the puzzles in The Cave are solved this way. Your path is blocked, so you must find an item that will unblock it. There may be variations and different methods found throughout the playthrough, but this simple opening puzzle has essentially taught you everything you need to know. Well almost.
Now that you’re in the cave, you explore as far as you can until you come to a rather rickety bridge. You are told that taking any more than 2 people over the bridge may cause it to break. There are signs scattered about that strictly tell you NOT to go this way. However, with no other objects to interact with, there simply isn’t much else to do, so you change characters, which we already know how to do, and drag two other hapless souls into the cave and drop them on the bridge, which of course makes it collapse, causing all three characters to plummet deeper into the cave, starting the game proper.
Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly realise what you were supposed to do, but I love how this almost feels like a commentary on how other games chose to teach you the game’s mechanics. It would be easy for a menu to pop up and say “which three characters do you want to take” and choose your characters with all the passion of choosing your lunch from a menu. Instead, The Cave specifically tells you NOT to do something, and the only way to advance is to break the “rules”, helping to set the tone of this dark and twisted game.
This short level may sound rather simple and not particularly mind-blowing, but modern games have a rather bad habit of assuming that all gamers have little to no attention spans or desire to learn and need to be handheld through every level for fear that they’ll get bored and quit. In the Batman Arkham series for example, you are being reminded of how things work for the entire game, even the little icon that tells you how to grapple has a little LB on it from beginning to end. While I personally find this unfortunate, I can still understand and appreciate that many modern games are perhaps slightly more complicated than 2-D platformers and may require more direct tutorials to let the player know how to play the game. That being said, finding more creative and inventive ways of teaching the player how to play your game will always be more rewarding and memorable than any tutorial can ever be, which is what the opening five minutes of The Cave is all about.
By the time you find yourself plummeting into the titular cave, you know how the controls work thanks to a couple simple puzzles and you understand what the tone of the game is thanks to the very creative character selection process as well as some dark humor scattered about. I heartily recommend downloading the demo at the very least, which contains the opening level in question, if you are interested in the fundamentals of game design, also if you want to play a pretty cool game.