Disappointing Discoveries in ‘The Cave’

Playing The Cave on iOS has prompted me to do a little psychoanalysis on my myself. Adventure games, Ron Gilbert, and Double Fine: all things I like, both in isolation and in combination. Imagine my surprise and disappointment now, after finding myself not just lukewarm about the game, but downright irritated that I bought it at all. On top of that, there’s some meta-frustration at the fact that I have now become the person who is complaining that they wasted the exorbitant amount of $5 on a game (despite the fact that this very same person could easily spend the aforementioned amount of money on Doritos Locos tacos without blinking). So what happened and why am I so cranky about The Cave?

“We can” vs. “We should”

The Cave shares many attributes of a traditional point-and-click adventure game, except that you have direct control over your avatars. Instead of a static set of screens in which you solve puzzles, you navigate the environment as you would in any standard 2D platformer. This is interesting, as it adds an active element not usually seen in adventure games. Chasms must be jumped and items manually retrieved rather than simply being clicked on. What’s less clear is why this is important or necessary to the game.

Technically, you can flub jumps and die, but doing so has no meaningful consequences. You’re warped back to the edge of the pit or the beginning of the room, which is usually just far enough away to be inconvenient, but not overly punitive. The jumps themselves actually aren’t that difficult. The puzzles are the main challenge. There’s entertainment to be had in the quirky voiceovers and visual jokes as well. In the face of this, the walking and platforming feel like busywork. They’re not particularly interesting in terms of level design, and they’re not as novel as either the puzzles or the story. It’s as if someone asked what a point-and-click adventure would be like if you had direct control over the characters but never evaluated whether it would ultimately be a good idea to implement.

Return of the Bad Port

It doesn’t help that I tried playing The Cave on iOS, since it was originally designed with a controller in mind. To move the character, you slide your finger around the screen, pointing in the direction that you want to move. The distance between your finger and the character slightly influences movement speed. Jumping is accomplished by quickly swiping in the direction of your target, but the angle of the swipe partially dictates the arc of the jump. Tapping on items causes you to both pick them up, drop them, and apply them to parts of the environment.

If this sounds like a mess, it’s because it is. I’m no fan of on-screen virtual gamepads, but even that kludgey solution would have been better. Instead, The Cave is an exercise in mistaken taps, frustrating missed jumps, and a general lack of precision that makes the already unremarkable jumping a chore. What it helped me realize is that bad ports never died, they just change platforms.

The confluence of the long console generation, standardized PC hardware and software, and the general availability of good controller support have made the PC a great home for games that would normally be best played on the console. This may change with Sony and Microsoft’s new machines, but when it comes to multi-platform games, PC versions can easily run smoother, look better, and control just as well as their console counterparts, just take a look at this year’s BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, or Saint’s Row 4. It looks like the days of poorly optimized games and fiddling with key mapping are over (for now, anyway).

In reality, these problems have simply changed platforms and are now showing up on iOS. The Cave’s choppy frame rate and cumbersome controls are just a new incarnation of an old problem.

The Race to the Bottom

Now to my most embarrassing objection: the price point. I’m fortunate to live a comfortable life, one in which spending $5 is no issue. Why then does the the fact that I’m out an insignificant amount of money eat at me?

In an alternate world, perhaps a $5 price point would have excused The Cave‘s problems. After all, we used to rent games at Blockbuster for around $5 a day (somewhere I hear kids laughing at me). But today, we live in a world of low prices and high quality. Game bundles routinely offer multiple game-of-the-year caliber titles at prices lower than what any one of them originally cost. Valve and other online stores routinely promote seasonal sales that knock critically acclaimed games under $10. Even if you pay full price, Steam, PSN, and XBLA all have robust demo infrastructures. iOS does not, so you’re either forced to roll the dice or spend time researching to make an educated guess.

I suppose I’m crabby about The Cave on iOS because it represents a perfect storm of frustrating trends in video games. From both a design and port perspective, the question “should we?” never seemed to follow “can we?” The result is something that is both questionable in conception and execution. Combine this with the blind faith that Double Fine inspires and it’s easy to feel especially burned by being out $5. True, that amount of money only represents a handful of tacos, but at least they would have left me with a better taste in my mouth.

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