The Cave

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Wise, intelligent, and charismatic, December 6, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

This was the second game I played in the Comp that put me in mind of a "lifepath" character creation system (quick recap: the old tabletop RPG Traveler has a enjoyable character creation system where you make various decisions on careers and such and have little bottom-lined adventures which shape your states before spitting out a ready-to-play character. The other game -- Minor Arcana -- reminded me of that because it had a lot of fun, flavorful choices that seemed to shape the protagonist in the early going, but which didnít fully pay off in the game proper). I had the same response to The Cave Ė defining my character through choices is fun, wish there was more to do with it. Things clicked when I finished a playthrough and saw a set of Dungeons and Dragons stats spit out, and read the included help file after wrapping up my playthrough: The Cave is self-consciously a character-generation aid for tabletop roleplaying. Itís not, perhaps, all that it is, but knowing that up front I think helps set good expectations, which is why Iím not obscuring it behind spoiler text.

So if thatís the function of the piece, whatís the form? Itís a well-implemented choice-based dungeon-crawler, with an appropriately tabula rasa protagonist. You run through a series of chambers, each usually containing something interesting to poke at and a choice of egress. Everything you do seems like a challenge Ė you might choose to fight a tiger, or shimmy your way through a narrow crevice, or decide whether to swap one of your books to an old woman who might be a hag Ė but thereís no way to die or even temporarily fail, as far as I could tell. Instead your choice of how to resolve the challenge impacts your blank-slate heroís stats. Talking to the various characters you find makes you charismatic; praying over the corpse of a dead enemy makes you wise; reading books makes you smart (and in the game!) This isnít fully transparent as you go, but you do get a callout of your top one or two stats as they increase (past a certain point, youíll get a message telling you that youíre especially agile, for example).

Spelled out mechanically like this, thereís not much here, but the little vignettes are fun to engage with. The writing is quite evocative, and the implied setting adheres to a lot of classic dungeon-y tropes Ė yer bottomless shafts, yer golden treasure, yer mystical crones Ė but there are some fun twists, like a much higher prevalence of romance novels than in bog-standard Dungeons and Dragons, and some surprising interactions possible with a few of the dungeon features that I definitely donít want to spoil (one involves a chest, is all Iíll say). And while in retrospect the association of choices to stats is clear, itís not too thuddingly obvious as you play, and rarely seems crowbarred in. The downside to that, though, is that some of the stats that arenít used as actively Ė Iím thinking mostly here of constitution Ė donít come up as frequently.

Still, while I think it does what itís trying to do, I wish there were maybe like 10-15% more here. I mean that both in terms of the content, since in each of two full playthroughs I saw rooms and challenges repeated (I donít think I was backtracking), and also in incentivizing exploration. Thereís a bit of inventory-tracking as you play through the game Ė I found a remarkably handy stick in my first go-round Ė including treasure you can carry out, and certain actions taken in-dungeon lead to the ending text calling out specific achievements as well as your base stats. With a persistent tracking system encouraging you to find the unexpected interactions, or some elements in the ending beyond the base stats that add consequences to the decisions, I think Iíd have been more excited to re-engage with the game. This could be an idiosyncratic response Ė Iím a weirdo who will happily sink a hundred hours into an Assassins Creed game or roguelike but completely lose interest once Iím out of specified quests or goals even though I really like the systems! But especially in a Comp with so many other games on offer, a bit more of a prod to go back for more would have been welcome.