The Cave Interview – Delving Deeper into Ron Gilbert's Hole
Written Sunday, January 06, 2013 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Ron Gilbert is something of a living legend when it comes to adventure games, and the only man who really knows what the secret of Monkey Island is having pretty much invented the series. He also practically invented the modern adventure game genre with Maniac Mansion and its SCUMM model, giving rise to games like The Walking Dead and its ilk.
For Gilbert's latest adventure game outing, he's returned to work with his Monkey Island compadre, Tim Schafer at Double Fine, building an adventure title for SEGA featuring seven distinct protagonists who venture into a sentient hole to discover something about themselves. It is of course The Cave: a project that's been sitting in Gilbert's brainpan for the best part of a quarter of a century.
Braving a cave of SEGA's own making, surrounded by the fresh smell of pine trees and the faint aroma of rotting wood and mould, we sat with Ron Gilbert to talk about The Cave, and the making of an adventure game.
You've said in the past that The Cave is a project you've had in your head for the last 25 years, pre-dating Maniac Mansion. Why have you chosen to create it now after such a long gestation period?
It was just a happy coming together of events. It's an idea that pops into my head every so often and I started thinking about it again a couple of years ago when I was having lunch with Tim [Schafer], and I just told him the idea. He said “why don't you come to Double Fine and let us make the game?” He had a free team of people and things just kind of lined up to make it happen. It's not like I've been thinking about it for 25 years and finally the last piece of the puzzle fits together and it's time to make it. It's simply having the opportunity to come to Double Fine at that moment to make the game.
Has working with Double Fine afforded you the kind of creative freedom you want on The Cave? Have you been able to essentially do what you want?
Working on games these days is always a group effort. It's not one person who does everything, so there's two other designers on the project and a whole lot of artists and animators, programmers, scripters and sound people. My job is to head up the design and lead the project, so it's a little bit like being a movie director. But the director doesn't do everything; there's actors, set people and all this other stuff, so it's just about creatively coordinating the team and taking all of these wonderful ideas that everyone has and figuring out how they fit into the game. Some might be great ideas that aren't suitable for this game.
How much of this collaborative effort goes into creating the puzzles then?
For me, a lot. I've never been the kind of person that's particularly good at sitting in my office and designing puzzles on my own. I've always liked to work with other people, like JP and Dave Gardner who were actually the other two designers on the project and I'd meet with every day. We'd meet for about two or three hours a day and we would just go through puzzles. With puzzles, there's a lot of hashing them out. You might have an idea, but sometimes someone else will find a flaw in the idea and then we need to figure out how to plug the hole, or maybe it's just a dumb puzzle and we should just throw it out. There's just always a whole lot of going around and around and around with puzzle design, and really the artist has a lot of control over what the game's world looks like, so I don't go through writing down every single little visual gag that happens in that world. The art team just does it, and if they think of something funny, they just put it into the world and 99% of the time we keep it. It's all a very collaborative process.
Despite all of that though, do you still have final say on the puzzles in The Cave?
Yeah. I mean, I think that's what being a project leader is. Like a movie director, you have final say on stuff, but it's far from you coming up with every idea. A lot of other people are coming up with great ideas, but it's about shepherding all of those together in such a way that you can make it all work as a whole.
Having worked on iconic adventure games like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, what lessons have you learnt from those projects?
There were a lot of lessons we learnt between Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. Maniac Mansion had a lot of odd puzzles and a lot of dead ends, and a lot of puzzles that really make no sense if you step back and look at them. Maniac Mansion was the first adventure game that Gary or I had done – actually it was the first game, never mind just adventure game! - and I kind of recognise that it was all a little bit messed up. Then I started working on Monkey Island and then I stopped working on it, and started working on the Indiana Jones [and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure] adventure game, and it was kind of during working on that game that I started formulating these rules for adventure game design. It was 15 rules of adventure game design, and I wrote an article for a game design journal back then called 'Why Adventure Games Suck'. It was just a list of these 15 rules you need to follow, and Monkey Island for me was about testing those rules. If you look at the puzzles in Monkey Island, they absolutely follow those rules to the letter, and so it was kind of a test case for those rules. Every game I've done, every adventure game I've done since has just followed those rules to the letter, including The Cave.
In The Cave there's seven characters, three of which you play as at one time, so on that basis how complex can the puzzles get?
There's probably a range. Some of them can get pretty complicated, but the carnival level you've played is probably about mid-level. There are easier areas and there are harder areas.
Are you attempting to appeal to as broad an audience as possible or the seasoned adventure gamer?
There's a difference between making something accessible and dumbing it down, and a big design goal of the game for us was to not dumb it down. It wasn't that we were just doing simple adventure game puzzles for an audience, we were still trying to do hard, complex Monkey Island-style adventure game puzzles. It was about looking at the game and just making it more accessible, and that was where getting rid of the inventory and making traversal more fun, running around the world more fun, to me those are things that make the game more accessible to a wider audience. Not dumbing down puzzles.
In The Cave, one of the characters is the Time Traveler. If you could go back in time and alter one thing, what would it be?
If I were the Time Traveler in the game? Oh wow... If I were the Time Traveler... You know I probably never would have sold Humungous Entertainment. I think that was a great company and we had a lot of amazingly talented people working there. I probably wouldn't have sold that company.
The Cave is heading to the Xbox Live Arcade later this month.