The Cave

by Neil Aitken profile


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Number of Reviews: 9
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1-9 of 9

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A concise poetic experience, June 17, 2021

Other reviewers have found fault with this work. Notice I didn't say "game" -- it is my opinion that approaching this as a game is precisely where the fault lies. Yes, yes, you might say: IF's very project is questioning (if not collapsing) the boundaries between ludology and narratology, so it is a conceit that reviewers use the word "game" in the broadest sense. Yet, "The Cave" doesn't fit nicely with either game or fiction labels; rather it feels and plays out more so like a poem. This is to say its focus isn't telling a story, per se, but rather lyrically poeticizing human experience, albeit using the familiar cave trope, perhaps as a metaphor I haven't entirely unpacked...

There are game-like elements in this work, to be sure. And for what it's worth they are largely employed effectively. For instance, the (Spoiler - click to show)glowing moss allows you to see more details and examine items further, but disintegrates after a few turns. While on two play-throughs I found this mechanic does not seem to be consistently employed, it was nonetheless a nice touch that indeed amps up the stakes for the reader and demanding of them to take a more active role in participating in the interpretation of the cave and its treasures. A similar feature is the sometimes-employed (Spoiler - click to show)roguelike convention of needing to identify an object before using it, as with giving the elderly woman a book. In two play-throughs this NPC was the only time I encountered that mechanic, but it may be elsewhere.

These elements and others naturally lead to understanding this title first and foremost as a superficial escape-from-a-dark-maze game... whence (I suspect) yields the lackluster reviews. After all, if you select options at random you are bound to find your way out, and fairly quickly: the cave's generation is random to an extent, but there is not, I don't think, a way to perish or to obstruct the endgame). A game, this is not. Nor is this work, by it's randomly-generated nature, attempting to weave a narrative, even if some wisps of wonderfully-written exposition come to life here and there(Spoiler - click to show); for instance, do different things with the pebble on different playthroughs to see some authentic and well-done character-building.

Unless you've read some of the other reviews, you will find out only after the fact that the work is not a game or a story but a tool: a central "point" of this work is to generate D&D character ability stats. The decisions you make impact the stats in opaque but likely thematically linked ways (I wound up generating very high charisma on both play throughs -- likely due to my style of play and the decisions I tend to make). By putting in the 10-minutes or so it takes to reach an ending, you are constructing character sheet attributes to bring to the start of your next role playing campaign.

The cool thing is "The Cave" is certainly more artistic than you would expect when you realize this: it is meditative, introspective, and wallows in the beauty of language's power to describe both abstractly and concretely. Even so, I found myself wondering whether we really need yet another moody, atmospheric treatment of the human emotions of depression, nostalgia, memory etc. Emotion simulators, as I call them, have swept to fixation in the indie game scene in the last 10 years to the point of being perfunctory. But "The Cave" prevails where others in this category fall flat. Why? Simply because it is extremely well-written. Play this not to get lost in the story or the puzzle, but the language itself. Approach this the way you would approach a poem of merit, with the simultaneous impulses to receive and interrogate. It makes sense that the author is an established poet, as this work seems to be an extended and interactive prose poem at its heart -- even as it serves as a fun character-generator utility.

Perhaps the genius here is "The Cave" simultaneously resists IF labels while intersecting two disparate functions: art and utility. Worth checking out if you are the kind of person who browses the Poetry Foundation for your own sake... or if you are starting a new RPG character.

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.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cool Concept, Not As Exciting As I'd Expected, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

In a classic setup, The Cave thrusts the player into a cave network to explore. But it quickly becomes apparent that mapping out the inscrutable and shifting web of rooms in search of the exit is neither possible nor necessary. This isnít about the destination - itís about the journey, as your character is defined by the choices they make along the way, dealing with challenges or opportunities in one way or another.

This is a cool concept, but the decisions I had to make soon started to feel a bit more mundane than Iíd have liked. Thereís not a lot of emotional weight behind most of what I encountered. Do you search the ashes or just keep going? Do you cross the stream or go around? Decisions like these do indeed reveal something about the person who makes them, but not enough for me to feel fully invested in a game thatís supposed to be about a journey of self-discovery.

Thereís a strong element of randomness to the game, with both events and room-connections being (at least partially) randomized. I fear that the RNG may have given me the short end of the stick during my playthrough. The blurb promises lost treasures, forgotten ruins, and ancient magic, but I didnít encounter any of those things except for a single spell that I never got the opportunity to use. Instead, despite my attempts to try new options in the hope of reaching new areas, I just kept winding up in the same handful of rooms/situationsÖ mostly involving searching ashes and crossing streams. I might return to the game and search for the juicier bits at some point, but perhaps the RNG would have benefitted from a bit more scaffolding to ensure that each playthrough has more variety to it.

Overall, a winning concept that I think would benefit from some tweaking to draw out some more depth and variety.

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fumbling rather randomly around in the dark, December 2, 2020
by Stian
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

Fumbling rather randomly around in the dark, you will experience a lot of repetition in The Cave, but not much in the way of self-discovery. Your goal is to get out, and underway you get some spells, abilities, and improved stats. Iím not sure how these affect your chances, but they probably somehow do. Iím also not sure how I managed to get out of the cave in the end, but somehow I did.

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A game where you wander around aimlessly until you stop, October 31, 2020
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: About 15 minutes

So, this game makes more sense to me now than it did when I played it (more on that later). But I have to base this review and rating on my experience playing the game in the way it was presented to me.

In this game you wake up in a cave that may or may not be pitch dark. Some of the writing certainly makes it seem like you are just feeling your way around, but then you see things in the room with you so I'm not sure which to believe. Many room descriptions start with the line "You are swallowed in an even deeper darkness." Then many of those follow with the line "It is dark." Then again, many of those rooms continue with a description of some items in the room. I think a lot of the text was generated by a poorly tuned algorithm. The writing just felt really awkward at times.

Anyway, you just wander around trying different things, not really sure if you are making progress and then at some point you stumble across the exit. Then you are told what your final stats are (even though you never realized you were collecting or generating stats), along with a few achievements. Not very satisfying.

I highly recommend you read the review that deathbytroggles wrote. It contains info that the author put into the walkthrough, but that I strongly believe needs to be on the front page of the game. Apparently the author intended this game to be a unique way to generate stats for a character you are creating for D&D or a similar game. You play the game for 15 minutes, make whichever choices seem appropriate to you and are awarded stats based on your personality in the game. That's a genius idea! I love the idea of creating your D&D character not by rolling dice, but by making choices in this somewhat abstract environment. It seems the game is designed to make you wander around until you have used up all the points at your disposal for character creation and then generate an exit. Which is fine as long as everyone knows what they are getting into.

So as a character creation tool for D&D, two thumbs up. But as a piece of IF, it leaves a lot to be desired.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Short, room-based RPG mostly set in the dark, October 21, 2020

The Cave is an RPG that involves exploring a dark cave and interacting with the environment, all while philosophical musings pop up on occasion to add color to the game.

I found there to be an evocative sense of place, with the design, color scheme, and flow of the game feeling very cave-like. There are also a variety of interlinked encounters with items, spells, and NPCs that hint at a puzzle that will lead to a solution.

In terms of writing and interaction, the fantasy tropes are present but donít seem to provide any new twists on these concepts. And the philosophical musings that appear throughout are occasionally interesting, but feel somewhat at odds with the other aspects of the game. After circling the cave a few times, interacting with characters, and picking up items, I felt a little lost and didnít quite have the motivation to finish looking for the solution to the puzzle.

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Ambitious , October 6, 2020
by deathbytroggles (Minneapolis, MN)

The Cave has you, a generic adventurer, exploring a generic cave, accumulating statistics and inventory with no easily discernible goal. I reached an ending mostly by clicking on options until I escaped. There are ten rooms, and I explored all of them, leaving possibly a couple of puzzles unfinished.

I think it's important to note something written in the walkthrough to help players make sense of the game:

Under the hood, this game is an alternative way to generate the basic character ability scores for your favorite roleplaying game. Your choices purchase increases in those scores according to a point buy system. In this case, it builds a character according to your preferred actions and reactions to situations. Once you've expended your pool of points, you'll find your way out.

While this is indeed an interesting way to play a game, I am not sure why this isn't told to the player up front. Otherwise, it feels unnecessarily random.

The prose is rough. Nearly every room tells you that youíve somehow found an ďeven deeper darknessĒ and I was beginning to wonder how many levels of darkness existed. The author tries too hard to be cheeky in a game that doesnít seem to call for it. When you pick up a club, you are told ďitís pretty heavy and probably packs a wallop. It probably canít pack a suitcase or a lunch.Ē And when you reach into a puddle you find it ďmuch colder and deeper than you expected. You know people like that. Colder and deeper than expected.Ē Itís one of many examples of the author alluding to some inner turmoil the adventurer is trying to overcome, except we never really get to know anything about them.

Additionally, puzzles exist but take no real deduction. At one point a choice is given to ďpush the stone button,Ē even though the room description never mentions a button. At another point you have the choice to pick a lock; click that and you magically find a bone nearby to pick it.

The background music is alright and there are some cool text effects in spots. I like the ambition from this first-time author and hope future efforts tighten the writing and improve the puzzle structure.

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The start of something interesting, October 3, 2020

It's a very short piece. The walkthrough says that it's heavily randomized, which some people love, but I don't care for it. Everything I look at makes my character feel sad and existential. I'd have preferred if the game had more story, e.g. some characters with goals and conflicts, or even just a surprise or two (building up my expectations and then subverting them).

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A small, thoughtful fantasy cave crawl turned into a meditation, October 2, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: less than 15 minutes

When I clicked on Neil Aitkenís website, I saw that he is an accomplished poet, with testimonials by other poets including some state Poet Laureates.

So I was interested to see how the game panned out. Games by static fiction authors are often different from games by programmers-turned authors. (Edit: apparently he was also a programmer before too, which explains the smoothness of the game!)

So this game is a cyclical kind of twine game where you wander around a maze of rooms (different on both of my playthroughs, with about half the rooms the same and the other half different). Itís a cave and itís influenced by standard fatnasy tropes (treasure, magic runes, lizard people, magic pools, etc.) and you can gather various items and use them as well as gathering things like Ďincomprehensible wisdomí which I thought was a nice touch.

Visually, the game uses neon-style text for important nouns, kind of like the neon in Cactus Blue Motel. I found it visually appealing.

This game was polished: no bugs, no typos that I found. Usually first-time game creators tend to have a few unfinished ends here and there (blank passages, macros typed incorrectly), so that was pleasing.

Overall, I would say that the line by line writing was excellent. Iíve found over time in the comp that a lot of people who try to create poetry in IF fail to inspire me, but I was genuinely into the writing here. As an overall story and as a series of interactions, it didnít excel to me; it was competent, but I feel it could have been more ambitious. The same could absolutely be said about my own game in this competition. I would definitely consider this a game for the author to be proud of.

+Polish: The color highlighting around important words is nice, and this game had no bugs or typos that I found.
+Descriptiveness: Lovely writing, very nice.
+Interactivity: The overall structure didn't stand out to me, but the variation and the many ways the inventory can be used was fun.
+Would I play again? Definitely.
+Emotional impact: Yes, a kind of meditative, chill emotion.

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