Exploring The Cave’s roots with Ron Gilbert

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Early next year, Sega will release The Cave from Double Fine, a unique adventure game cooked up by none other than Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion creator Ron Gilbert. When I sat down to take my first look at the game for Digital Trends a couple of months ago, I was surprised to learn from producer Matt Hickman that Gilbert’s original concept for The Cave predates even Maniac Mansion.

Intrigued, I put out a call to Sega via carrier pigeon (or possibly email) begging for a few minutes of Gilbert’s time on the phone. The request was accepted and Gilbert graciously took some time out of his schedule last week to chat about the birth of The Cave, all the way back in the days of hair metal and slap bracelets.

“Essentially, the idea that I had was these three characters that go in and explore this odd, sentient cave,” Gilbert said. “It was an idea that I was playing around with probably about a year before I got the job at Lucasfilm [in 1984]. I had done a bunch of a design and I had drawn all of these big maps and whatnot, and then it kind of went away.”

It’s impossible to really trace what the original inspiration behind The Cave was, but Gilbert admits to being heavily influenced by the text adventure game Adventure and the more rudimentary game that it was spawned from, Colossal Cave Adventure. A title that is typically pegged as the very first adventure game.

“There’s a lot of influence from Adventure,” Gilbert admitted. “Adventure, for me, was the first adventure game I ever played. I played it on the college mainframe computer with all of my friends. So that was a huge influence, and Colossal Cave also. Those were huge influences for me in adventure games. So I think when I was putting together The Cave just recently, going back and looking at Colossal Cave Adventure, I always liked the purity of that. You were just going into this cave.”

The original idea for The Cave was eventually backburnered for one reason or another, becoming one of those pet projects that continued to percolate in Gilbert’s mind. The appeal of telling this story about three characters exploring a sentient cave never went away. The character count is now seven under the Double Fine/Sega banner, but players will still be locked at choosing three to explore with when the game opens.

The character selection feels like a direct echo of Gilbert’s work on creating Maniac Mansion‘s beloved cast of player-selected characters — three are chosen at the start of that game as well — and that’s very much the intention. The original plan called for three, but Gilbert cites the classic Lucasfilm Games (later, LucasArts) adventure as a factor in helping to shape the current vision of The Cave.

“That was something I really liked about Maniac Mansion, that you started out the game and you got to choose from this group of people. I always like that when I talk to people who really played and liked Maniac Mansion, it seems that everybody always has their favorites. They have their dream team that they like to go into Maniac Mansion with,” Gilbert said.

“It was an unintended consequence, but it was something I liked. So when it came to really fleshing out The Cave, I really wanted to do that again rather than having these three set characters go into it, like it was originally planned 25 years ago.”

As much as the character selection is an essential part of the game, the star character is meant to be that titular cave. It’s the only speaking role in the entire game, and as a result it’s the character that players will form the closest bond with as they play. This facet of the game is actually formed by one of Gilbert’s core attitudes toward adventure games.

“Adventure games for me have always worked well when they take place in constrained environments,” he explained. “When adventure games allow you to roam the world, they kind of start to fall apart a little bit, but [it works best] when you can get them into these constrained environments. The main character of an adventure game, to me, is the world. For Maniac Mansion, the main character in that game is that house. For The Cave, the main character really is that cave.”

Now, after nearly 30 years of living and transforming inside Gilbert’s brain, The Cave will finally be dug out for players to enjoy. Thank his relationship with Tim Schafer and Double Fine, a studio known for delivering some of the most inventive interpretations of the adventure game genre that there are.

“A year and a half ago I was hanging out with Tim and we were talking about games and stuff, and I mentioned this idea that I had had for this cave,” Gilbert said. “He was really intrigued by it and wanted to know if I just wanted to come to Double Fine and let Double Fine make the game. I thought that sounded like a great idea, so here we are.”