The legendary adventure game maker talks philosophy, death, and why a talking cave is the future of the genre.
"I don't know how anybody can look at video games and not think they are an art form." There is a tinge of warm wonder in Ron Gilbert's voice as he explains his stance on this, the debate of the decade. "Anyone who believes that has never really played them. They must have some image of them as dumb little things kids play, not realizing a vast majority of the adult population plays these things as well."
Gilbert pauses for a moment charged with thoughtful silence. You can hear the ringing echo of his sentiment, the firmness of his assertion, in his next breath.
"People who say those things don't understand the level of artistic sophistication that can really exist in video games," he adds. "I can't imagine anything [else] that requires so much creative expression to make. They mean so much to the people who play them. How can something mean so much to some people, but can't at some level be art?"
Gilbert wants to make people feel, to know that what they're playing reaches far beyond "just a game."
Dream of a cave
For Ron Gilbert, there is a deep and beautiful power to telling stories through games.
A year before joining Lucasfilm in 1983, Gilbert began to dream of a cave. Three people would venture into this strange, mysterious cave in search of the thing they most desired. Gilbert drew extensive maps and charted basic puzzles that would grant access to the cave's greater depths.
"I never made much beyond that," Gilbert says. "I would start working on something else and it would go away but every year or so I would start thinking about it again."
A year and a half ago, Gilbert connected with Double Fine Productions and fellow LucasArts veteran Tim Schafer and shared his idea of exploring a sentient cave. Schafer asked Gilbert to let Double Fine help breathe life into the concept.
"It was an idea I had for forever, going on 20 years, and suddenly we were fleshing it out and developing characters and puzzles and who the [talking] cave would be."
Caves have always been a point of fascination for Gilbert. "I am horribly claustrophobic," he says through laughter. "There's this thing out there that terrifies me. It's something really fascinating that something so scary can be so fun and interesting."
Humanity began in caves. It may end there too.
Gilbert links his own morbid attraction to caves to our primal beginnings, looking to caves as protection from wind and rain, a place to go when every other roof above our heads failed us. A thing so rich in history and metaphor, ancient and yet beyond time, seemed like a prime candidate to build a game around.
"I've always thought that caves probably have a very special place to us as human beings, because they were these sources of shelter for us for tens of thousands of years," Gilbert says.
A network of caves in the southwest of France is where Gilbert's cave begins, drawing from the mystery and intrigue surrounding Lascaux and the paintings on its walls. Frozen in time, Lascaux draws with steady, primeval fingers a portrait of humankind in its infancy. Animals and people drawn over 17,300 years ago fleck the walls among symbols whose meanings escape time and memory. Something so old is a net of solid steel for someone with an imagination sharpened to a point with the intention to prick.
And so Gilbert began to design his own ancient subterranean riddle.
In keeping with the romantic ideal of massive, tunneling caves, Gilbert designed his own to be expansive. On a whiteboard in his office he scribbled every idea that bloomed in his mind, from there weaving together which threads worked and scrapping which did not. Gilbert named every character archetype he could remember, resulting in a spread of 20 to 30 individual figures from which he ultimately had to choose favorites.
"There were nine of them, for a very long time," he says with a fondness like a father speaking of his children. "Nine was still too many, and I had to whittle them down to seven. Stuff like that is always cut, but that's just part of the process of just about any creative pursuit."
Double Fine was initially unsure whether it would self-publish Gilbert's game or pursue release through a publisher. Several meetings later, the developer found a willing partner in Sega. From there the team could delve deeper into what was to become The Cave.
Adventure, unluckily for our adventurer, is not as attractive to publishers as it is to gamers.
"One of the things that's been tricky is, if you're trying to make an adventure game, lots of publishers will shy away from it," Gilbert says. "Sega was very excited to see this weird and quirky adventure game, and that in turn was exciting to us because a publisher was really excited about an adventure game. I don't know what publishers don't like about adventure games. Although some of this is changing, especially because of [apps] on iOS. You're giving a much broader slate of games to a more casual audience, and this is what is getting people into games."
"GAMES ARE MATURING TO THE POINT WHERE EVERYONE IS PLAYING THEM."
"Hardcore" gamers, Gilbert says, find their staples with PlayStation and Xbox, the well-to-do established families of the console world. Adventure games cover a wider spectrum that appeal more to "casual" gamers, who may knock out a few rounds ofAngry Birds during their morning commute or get a quick fix with a mini-role playing game on their iPhone during an afternoon coffee break. Publishers don't get as excited about adventure titles, but whittling them down to short, sharp experiences on mobile platforms is increasing their popularity.
"Games are maturing to the point where everyone is playing them, in some way," says Gilbert. "It's no longer just a thing nerds do. I take the train to work and half the people on it are playing games on their iPhone or iPad. That is helping adventure games."
Each, a little evil
Wisps of fog roll into The Cave's title screen. A deep, rolling voice echoes through the silent pines standing guard against a rocky precipice.
"Yeah, I'm a talking cave. Don't laugh - it makes dating hell."
In a game of silent protagonists, Gilbert has granted his cave a voice. More so than his shape-shifting, sentient cave, he wants players to constantly question these seven playable characters. Talking eases the tension from an anxiety-packed atmosphere, and for this problem-solving game with emotional matter to unravel, the setting is an anchor. Silence is golden - or in this case, intriguing.
But tension is the currency in The Cave, heightening urgency and taking away all notion of "I knew this was coming."
"I felt if [the characters] were just talking all the way through the cave, they would be less of a mystery," Gilbert says. "They would have the ability to just lay out what their issues are and who they are, and I want players to get to the end of the game and still have questions about them."
At the start of the game players can choose three out of seven characters to take into the cave: a monk, a knight, a hillbilly, a set of twins, a scientist, an adventurer, and a time traveler. The first three are male, the later three female, and the twins are a tiny boy and girl duo.
FOR EVERYONE THAT PLAYS, GILBERT HOPES THERE IS ONE CHARACTER THEY CAN IDENTIFY WITH
"I wanted to have an equal number of male and female characters," Gilbert quips, "because I didn't want just five guys and two girls. This was a bit of a challenge because I knew I wanted seven characters to choose from, which is where the twins came in - they allowed me to have one character that was both.".
Each character was born from a concept Gilbert found interesting, their inclusion resting on the impact of their potential flaws. Motivations for the seven are not what they appear, nor are they as simple as they seem at first. The knight wants to win a pendant off the neck of a princess by earning her favor - but his desire is less for the princess than it is what that pendant can lead him towards. None are perfect, but there is something fundamentally wrong with each of them that crosses the line between shortcoming and sinister secret.
"There's something kind of evil about each one of them," Gilbert says, pausing a moment to laugh. "It's been a challenge to make them likeable to some degree, but keep them despicable too."
Characters are self-motivated, but Gilbert teases that the selfishness in their goals runs much deeper and darker than a simple wanting to find an ancient treasure or a powerful sword. There is something off in the way he speaks of them, but watching them flit through The Cave's stone-walled corridors gives little of this impression.
Gilbert, needing another way to make his silent characters convey just how despicable they are, worked with his team to find an art style that lent itself well to character expression. Ultimately they settled on a cartoon-esque style, with bigger heads and slightly more exaggerated movements. The stylized look of The Cave's characters reads well visually, allowing players to get a good look at facial expressions.
The team settled on a blend of realness with cartoony aspects for readability, preserving the characters' mystery but at the same time making them emotionally accessible to players.
"THERE'S SOMETHING KIND OF EVIL ABOUT EACH ONE OF THEM. IT'S BEEN A CHALLENGE TO MAKE THEM LIKEABLE"
"Personality comes out in movement and animation," says Gilbert. "Every slight movement has to reflect who the character is because they don't talk. The human brain is wired to read faces, and that's why facial expression in a game like this is so important. If we just make their heads a little bit bigger we can read the subtle little emotions as they cross a character's face."
As for their "evils," the excitement in Gilbert's voice is palpable as he discusses his less-than-paragon creations. "They all have a dark spot in their hearts. As I was putting their stories together, I picked the ones that were most interesting to me. Which little dark place in their heart would be fascinating for not just creating their story, but in creating the world they inhabit? How does their own darkness affect the darkness of the cave?"
For everyone that plays, Gilbert hopes there is one character they can identify with. "That's the thing about art - we pull out of it things that are important and meaningful to us. I want players to pick favorites and start taking them into the cave. Players definitely did that with Manic Mansion. I hope they relate to one of them in some way, and really understand what that character they like is going through."
So who does Gilbert pick when he goes spelunking? The mastermind behind The Caveis partial to the hillbilly, the scientist, and the twins. "I just love the hillbilly's animations," he laughs, referencing the character's unique feet-slapping-the-ground gait. "The twins have a great area; it's just so interesting and fun to play. And the scientist just has this weird, no-nonsense personality - she stands there with her arms crossed and I can't help but just like her style."
'I don't want any death.'
"You find the number three everywhere," Gilbert offers suddenly.
A trio is more popular to use, more interesting, than a duo. Three is company.
"If you ask people to pick a number between one and ten, the most popular number they pick is three. The second most popular number is seven. Those numbers made sense for The Cave, but I also think three is interesting because of the kinds of choices you have to make with it. Two is a binary number; it/s either this or that. When you have four things to choose from, it's too many."
The Cave has seven leads, each with their own goal and thematic area to explore. Seven scenarios, seven backstories to wade through. Players will pick their favorite, perhaps their two favorite characters - making that third necessary choice a wild card. That third character is critical, and whether the choice made is aesthetic or tactical is something first-time players won't find out until the end. Or for those on their second or third playthrough, intent on seeing all these people have to offer, it could be either or both, which says something interesting about the way the player copes with the unknown. Beauty or utility, comfort or safety?
With these questions in mind, Gilbert's game is designed to avoid that most detrimental emotion: frustration. The ability to completely and totally back yourself into a corner is not present in The Cave, and Gilbert will be surprised if players somehow find themselves unable to progress to the end.
"In Manic Mansion there were ways to die, ways to completely screw yourself and not be able to finish," he says. "That was very frustrating to me. I'd make a mistake or pick something up or forget to pick something up - and I would have to stop my game and go back to other parts to fix my error. That's deeply frustrating.
"It got the point where I stopped and I said, 'I don't want any death.' I don't want any bad choices that players can make. An adventure game is predominantly about story, and flowing through that story. Any time you have death it yanks you out of the game," he adds.
But nothing, perhaps, is as frustrating as a cheap death. Since death in games has become a necessary evil for keeping the stakes elevated, The Cave includes it, albeit in a very forgiving system. Running into sharp objects or being scorched by a fire-breathing dragon turns characters into trails of smoke, floating them back several feet to start a particular segment over.
"I needed to have death but not something where you miss a jump or get killed and it's game over," Gilbert says. "I didn't want it to feel like defeat. I wanted death to not feel like death, but like a minor setback.
"That's definitely a result of playing games and getting old. I like fun experiences, not getting hit over the head and punched in the face. We spend all day failing at work; we don't want to come home and fail at our entertainment."
The Cave has also done away with the typical adventure game inventory system, a necessary evil now proven an optional one. "One of the things that I feel got really out of control with adventure games was the notion of an unlimited inventory. The idea that people can carry around hundreds of items at once has lead to a lot of bad puzzle design. You can overload people with inventory items and then only one of those items is used to solve a puzzle, and then you get all these obscure, weird puzzles.
"I WANTED TO SIMPLIFY THE ADVENTURE GAME DOWN TO ITS VERY CORE ... "
"... AND ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS I DID WAS TOSS THE INVENTORY."
"I wanted to simplify the adventure game down to its very core - and one of the first things I did was toss the inventory. Characters can carry something, but only one thing at a time. So with three characters you have an inventory of three, and that's it. In Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood would pick something up and it would kind of just ... disappear. It just vanishes down his pants. That's not realistic at all."
It's that feeling of knowing by sight that Gilbert seeks to preserve, that feeling of absolute certainty that you have what you need when you need it without having to wade through a knapsack stuffed with thousands of carriables. The simple act of seeing to believe is what The Cave is about - seeing character personality and motivation through movement, seeing possessions in their hands, physically unraveling ulterior motives in the deafening sound of a silent tongue.
For Gilbert, sight is power.
Lightness in the dark
The Cave is just one in a handful of Metroidvania-style games slated for release in the coming year, giving players incentive to continue spelunking.
"Games in general are getting a little bit shorter, and I think that's why the 'Metroid-vania' style is becoming so popular again," Gilbert says. "That goes hand in hand with the audience for games expanding and becoming a lot more casual. People don't have 20 or 100 hours to spend on a game, so you have to boil that experience down to one they can complete in four, five, six hours."If you can layer that short game with repeat plays with new content and different paths to take, then you can hit different audiences. You can grab casual players who want that short experience or that slightly more hardcore player who wants to see and experience every piece of content."
Games tell stories in different ways, but what separates them from film or literature is the removal of passivity. There is no option for inaction, no moment in which you sit back and watch the story unfold. The Cave draws you in, sets you alongside Gilbert, watching you unravel a chilling story until it's threadbare, your mind thoroughly chaffed.
"I don't think any other form can claim this, but games are an interactive art. They are art that is not just meant to be viewed or read, but art that is meant to be manipulated by the person that is viewing it. We, as gamers, as the people meant to be experiencing the art, are expected to go in and muck it up as much as we can, push it and pull it and try to break it. I think that's what makes game and interactive stuff a really unique and special art form, and a real challenge.
"You are trying to tell a story, but you kind of have to let the player push and pull it around in the way that is most interesting to them. You have to let them make it their own."
"I'm terrified," Gilbert says when asked how he feels about the The Cave approaching its 2013 release. "I'm always terrified. I get to this point in the game and I'm terrified because I've crossed the threshold."
For Gilbert, there is a point of no return when nothing can be altered quite as simply as it could in the beginning of the development process. "You've made all of your decisions and there is really no going back. You've done everything. All you have to do is refine those decisions and tune those decisions. That's always a scary point to me. In the beginning you can throw anything out there and add anything and that's okay. But once you cross that point you can no longer do that - it becomes terrifying."
"I always go through this," he adds, and his laugh is the lightness in the dark his path has paved.
Gilbert keeps looking back to the characters he has created and asking himself the question he hopes his players will ask.
"Am I the hillbilly? The knight, envious of everyone else? Do I have the hubris of the scientist? They have these weird backstories and their own darkness, and I ask myself a lot - which one of them am I?
"All seven of these characters are faces with choices, these big life-altering choices. That's one of the things I want people to take away from it - the story is the choices that are made. I want people to play and think, 'Wow, I'm like the knight, but I don't want to make the same decisions he made.' Having players come away and identify strongly with one character would be an absolute thrill to me."
Gilbert is currently wrapped up in production with The Cave, but expresses a fond hope for making more games like it. Adventure games are the stars in his eyes, and their storytelling potential has greater appeal than simply cranking out an army of sequels.
"That's what the story always boils down to. The Cave's story, our stories - the story is the choices that we make."And like Gilbert, we make our choices to weave our own stories.
Double Fine, Georgina Goodlander