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January 22, 2013

Ron Gilbert’s ‘The Cave’ puts adventure back in play

Posted in: Games

Throughout his 30-year career, game designer Ron Gilbert has been ahead of the times, behind the times and, perhaps most often, frustrated with the times. His personal website, after all, is GrumpyGamer.com, where he promises “bitter ramblings about the game industry.”

One of his main gripes: Somewhere along the way, games lost their ability to tell a good story. Action and shooting titles that emphasized a player’s reflexes dominated home consoles and rendered “thinking” games (also referred to as adventure or point-and-click games) as dated as an Apple II.

But the adventure game is making a comeback. The Bay Area’s Telltale Games in 2012 released “The Walking Dead” across multiple platforms ranging from the Xbox 360 to the iPhone, and has collectively sold well over 8.5 million copies. It’s a zombie survival game, but one with little action and lots of dialogue.

Gilbert is also returning to a gaming genre he helped define, with the release this week of the humorous spelunker game “The Cave.”

Veteran game designer Ron Gilbert. (Imagine Publishing)

Veteran game designer Ron Gilbert. (Imagine Publishing)

“The demographics of gamers are changing,” said Gilbert, whose new game is to be available Tuesday and Wednesday for PCs, Macs and all major consoles. “A long time ago, gaming was a niche thing. Today, everybody games, and a lot of that is due to mobile devices. So you have a more diverse audience, and adventure games appeal to that diverse audience. They’re not fast-action twitch games. They’re slower, thinking games.”

Once the star of a LucasArts design team known for narrative-based adventure games such as the “Monkey Island” series, “Maniac Mansion” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Gilbert rose to prominence in the mid-’80s and early ’90s on the computer-based genre known for its point-and-click game mechanics.

No one expects “The Cave” to match the success of “The Walking Dead,” which benefited from its association with a hot TV show. But Gilbert, who in 2005 wrote that publishers would react more positively to the announcement “that you have the plague” than a pitch for an adventure game, said he believes the genre is back for good, thanks to the rise of the download market.

Fueling the renaissance are crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter, which have given voice to an audience long abandoned by big game publishers. Those publishers over the last decade and a half have emphasized big-budget action games, but Double Fine Productions, which created Gilbert’s “The Cave,” raised more than $3.3 million on Kickstarter for a point-and-click game. It’s being designed by Tim Schafer, the company’s founder and another LucasArts expat (LucasArts largely abandoned adventure games in the early 2000s to focus on “Star Wars”).

A look at Ron Gilbert's "The Cave." (Double Fine Productions / Sega)

A look at Ron Gilbert’s “The Cave.” (Double Fine Productions / Sega)

Smaller games lead to more approachable games and also allow big publishers to take more bite-sized risks. “The Cave,” for instance, is being published by Sega, and though the company declined to reveal the budget, the game is selling for a relatively modest $14.99. Of course, it’ll take gamers a fraction of the time to complete compared with most $60 console games, but Gilbert said that’s as it should be.

“A lot of people don’t have 40 or 100 hours to sink into a game,” he said. “I know I don’t.”

Where “The Cave,” and “The Walking Dead” before it, innovates is in character interaction. “The Walking Dead” emphasizes split-second dialogue choices, while “The Cave” allows players to choose three of seven characters to explore the magical grotto.

Each character has access to a different area of the cave — the straw-hatted mountain man traverses an underground carnival while a scientist uncovers a dangerous lab, and each locale is designed to highlight one of the characters’ dark secrets or hidden desires. It’s not like the adventure games of yore. Players run and jump rather than, well, point and click, and instead of carrying around dozens of items in an inventory, each avatar is allowed just one accessory.

Where games need to experiment most, said Telltale co-founder Dan Connors, is in developing more fully realized personalities.

“The industry caught on to this idea that walking down corridors and shooting stuff could be really fun and really engaging,” he said. “It can give you a quick feedback loop on what you’re doing. The industry saw it worked, and a lot of money was invested in doing things that make that happen.”

And in the era of the first-person shooter, this, summarized Connors, is what happened: “An intelligent character became, ‘How often do I duck?’ ‘When do I shoot?’ ‘Do I wait until you’re out in the open to shoot you?’”

An image from "The Walking Dead." (Telltale Games).

An image from “The Walking Dead.” (Telltale Games).

Connors, yet another LucasArts refugee, said Telltale’s mission has been to create non-playable-characters — those controlled solely by the game — in which a player can invest an emotional stake. By emphasizing plot and character depth over tactics and puzzles, a magical thing happened when Telltale began presenting “The Walking Dead” to focus groups, he said.

“Instead of desensitizing the players to a character who is across the world, and who you just have to figure out what weapon to use on … it became important that the characters respected [the player]. It was fascinating,” Connors said. “People would say, ‘I can’t do that. Kenny will be mad.’”

Call it interactive theater, and in perhaps the surest sign yet that the recent rejuvenation of adventure games has legs, it’s being embraced by young developers and independent artists. “Homestuck,” a Web comic by Andrew Hussie, unfolds in a manner similar to old text-based adventure games, and it raised more than $2.4 million on Kickstarter for an adventure game.

A scene from "Kentucky Route Zero." (Cardboard Games).

A scene from “Kentucky Route Zero.” (Cardboard Games).

One of the most heavily nominated games of the 2013 Independent Games Festival is “Kentucky Route Zero,” a surreal adventure in which the biggest challenge is in deciding what to say. Designed by Jake Elliott, 30, who teaches experimental game classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Tamas Kemenczy, 28, a Web developer at Pitchfork, the planned-five-part “Kentucky Route Zero” does away entirely with puzzles.

“I think a game can be really good at evoking empathy,” Elliott said. “It’s asking a player to role-play while they encounter the people who are [reflecting] the themes of the game.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise is not the rejuvenation of an old genre, but that Gilbert, the Grumpy Gamer, is optimistic. In recent years, he’s been divided between children’s games and role-playing games, and whether he will actually be able to revisit “Monkey Island” as he hopes (Disney currently owns the rights), he says he will do everything in his power “to encourage adventure games to stay around.”

“The power of the adventure game,” Gilbert said, “is their ability to tell interesting stories with interesting characters that people find an attachment to, and in some level fall in love with.”

– Todd Martens

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