Interviews// Ron Gilbert on The Cave

Posted 13 Dec 2012 12:23 by
Double Fine is going back to its adventure game roots with The Cave. For Ron Gilbert, one of the godfathers of the modern genre (he created Monkey Island, after all), this project is all about evolution and closure at the same time.

In terms of evolution, Gilbert aims to present an adventure that can attract the attention of todayís discerning gamer - one that constantly needs to be having something to do in order to find satisfaction in an interactive experience. But in the case of closure, The Cave represents the return of an idea implemented in Gilbertís first adventure game - the three-character team-play mechanic.

You have a choice of seven characters in The Cave, with each one possessing a unique power that can allow them access to exclusive sections of the game. The Hillbilly, for example, can hold his breath underwater, while the Scientist can use her calculating powers to interact with fuse boxes and other devices.

I sat down with Gilbert to understand why he wanted to change up the adventure game genreís formula on the one hand, yet return to an idea he introduced many years ago on the other.

SPOnG: I recall in the presentation earlier, that the three-character system harks back to a previous game that you worked on, and you wanted to make better. What exactly did you want to zone in on, and improve this time around?

Ron Gilbert: That game was Maniac Mansion, which I created with Gary Winnick. It was really the first adventure game we had ever designed. Itís a very charming game, I absolutely love it... but there were a few flaws with it. I always liked the idea of choosing three characters out of a group of seven, but many of them didnít have a use, really. They were just different pieces of art to run around the game with.

Some of them could do small things differently, but even then it was the same mansion that you were exploring. With The Cave, I really wanted to make these seven characters different from one another, and include entire areas that are different. Each character has an ability that none of the others can do. The Hillbilly can hold his breath underwater, for example - so that allows you to get into alternate areas of The Cave that others canít.

Ultimately, I really want to just tackle the whole multiple characters thing and do it... I donít want to say better, but... yeah, better.

SPOnG: Am I right in thinking, that the Hillbilly is required to even access the Carnival stage of The Cave? Are there other routes to the same levels, or do those stages become completely inaccessible without the right character on your team?

Ron Gilbert: If you didnít have the Hillbilly, you simply would have not made the underwater section to reach the Carnival, no. Youíd have to skip it. Same with trying to access the castle without the Knight, but... hopefully, youíll want to play it again and try a previously inaccessible route with another character the second time around.

We didnít really show this off in the presentation, but you can actually get into the castle, just a little bit, without the Knight. It allows you to see some parts of the castle, before you need to climb back up again. Hopefully things like that will entice people to want to play it again and try new routes.

SPOnG: One thing I noticed when playing with someone else, is that the screen doesnít seem to zoom out or split off. What was the reason behind that?

Ron Gilbert: Well, the screen does a little bit of zooming out if you have multiple characters, as it tries to keep them all together. Itís very slight as it does that, though. But generally, the reason for not doing split-screen was that we wanted to do a game where you didnít have two people just playing two completely different games.

We didnít want one person on the left side of the screen, doing something completely different to the person on the right side of the screen. We really wanted to keep people together and make sure they were engaging in co-operative gameplay.

I think with split-screen, it can be too easy for players of different skills to be doing varying amounts of work. One player may be the most dominant and skilled, and so just runs off and does what they want, and the second person - who may not be much of a gamer, just hanging out and watching the other person play - may get lost in trying to join in.

With one screen, it means that everybody has to stay together, and things feel a bit more cosy as a result.

SPOnG: It took me a while to figure out the solution to some of the puzzles, but admired the design and how it allowed me to come to an answer naturally whilst thinking of something else. How challenging was it to pull that off, what are the thought processes behind designing a game like this?

Ron Gilbert: Itís always a challenge to design adventure games. When we design adventure games, thereís this thing that we call the ĎAha Momentí. Itís kind of what you experienced, where you thought something did nothing and then later on it clicked. Itís just about setting those things up - about allowing people to see certain things early on, that then later can be added to other pieces together of the puzzle so that the solution seems obvious to them.

The number one most challenging thing about designing adventure games is to make sure that people do have those ĎAha Moments.í That theyíre not just steamrolling through the game and everything is just a Ďgimmeí puzzle. Not something like, pick up a key, see a door, put the key in the door, go through the door. But yeah, thatís what game design really is - itís figuring out that puzzle structure.

SPOnG: What are your thoughts on the changes in the adventure game genre over the last 20 years? Speaking about The Cave, you talk about adding jumps and changing the inventory system, so obviously thereís some kind of change in how audiences perceive or consume these games.

Ron Gilbert: Well, if you look at early adventure games, they started out purely as text adventures. Those were the first adventure games I ever played. Then they moved to these graphical adventures, but you still had the parser - Kings Quest and all that stuff. Then you move on to Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, which are Point and Click - youíre just choosing the verbs at that point. Past that era, you had adventure games where they got rid of the verbs. There really was just a Ďuseí verb at that point. But there was still an inventory.

Itís been a slow evolution of that. And with The Cave, it was really just about us wanting to look at where the genre needs to go next, and assessing what gamers are like today. I mean, gamers today are not like the gamers of 20 years ago. Thereís a much broader audience now... everybody plays games, itís no longer a niche.

One of the things that I think gamers today really want is a fun Ďmoment-by-momentí experience. What am I doing this second? What am I going to be doing the next second? That keeps modern gamers much more engaged, right? Itís not that they have low attention spans or anything. They just want to constantly be engaged, and thatís really where the light platforming came from - to always give them something to be doing, while they were solving the puzzles.

And a nice benefit of that, which we never really thought about but were surprised to find, was that the platforming helped disengage players from the puzzle-solving. When people are trying to solve a puzzle, we found that itís often useful to give them something else to do.

Think about it - if youíre trying to solve a problem in your life, sometimes going on a walk is the best thing to do. Disengaging from the problem, thinking about something else and letting your subconscious start to work on the problem often works really well. Thatís what this light platforming has done. Itís offering people the simple act of running, jumping, climbing on ropes... engaging that part of their brain in that, while allowing the puzzle-solving part of the brain to have just a little more freedom to work things out. That was a nice, unintended consequence.

SPOnG: Double Fine has used Kickstarter in the past - and congratulations on your success with it. I wanted to get your opinion on crowd-sourcing and platform like Kickstarter. What does it mean for you guys as an indie studio?

Ron Gilbert: What Kickstarter has done, is given developers a new way to fund games. I think that games are more interesting there are lots of ways to fund them. Although if every game was funded on Kickstarter, I think that would be a problem.

But it is another way. Now, you have the traditional publisher route - which is what weíre doing here with The Cave - youíve got Kickstarter, and you have venture capitalists who are more interested in investing in games today than they used to be. So, Kickstarter is just another really good tool in that funding toolbox, in a way.

It also allows you to go right after the fans of the genre. Itís a ways to let them put their money where their mouths are, which is good. If you are looking at something which is maybe too quirky for a publisher to risk its money on, you could go to the fans, who really may only want to risk ten, twenty, maybe fifty dollars of their money and could still get the idea made. I think it will open up this whole avenue of interesting, quirky games that get funded.

SPOnG: Thanks a lot for your time!

Ron Gilbert: Thank you!
Games: The Cave


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