How do you recreate the adventure genre?

The Cave, out today for PSN and Wii U (and arriving tomorrow for XBLA and Steam), is the first title to spring from legendary adventure game designer Ron Gilbert’s (The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle) new gig at Double Fine Productions, the title is a classic adventure presented via 2D platformer. Players choose three characters (selected out of a possible seven) to solve puzzles based on their unique traits and abilities, generally spelunk about, and solve the mysteries of the titular cave.

Gilbert is the project’s creator and writer, and Chris Remo (also Double Fine’s Community Manager) served as a writer on the project. I was able to chat with them both about their different experiences with game narrative, their thoughts on the interaction between writing and design, and their own wildly different trajectories towards finishing The Cave.

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Ron, has working on The Cave differed from previous experiences in writing/designing? Has creating an adventure/platformer hybrid made for any particular challenges?

Ron Gilbert: The game is only about 2% platformer, so that was not much of an impact. As far as things that are different from my past games, it’s probably the lack of dialog trees that were found in the Monkey Island games. Writing The Cave was mostly about writing for the character of The Cave himself. 

I know this is a premise you’ve been interested in for a long time, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the concept evolved from your initial sketches into the final game.

Ron: The final game has two main differences from the idea 30 years ago. The first is, in the original idea, there were only three characters.  The final game has seven to choose from seven. The other (and probably most important) is that it became an adventure game. The original concept was more of a physical puzzle game.

On that note, how does it feel to have a finished product ready to go (especially considering how long the idea was incubating)?

Ron: Terrifying. 

Chris, I understand that this is one of the first times you’ve been involved in the writing process on a bigger game. How did your experience compare with other types of creative writing, or even, say, writing music?

Chris Remo: All the writing I’ve done in the past has been either journalistic, for small projects, or simply for myself. Those are very different experiences to writing for a relatively large game project like this. It was less about trying to tell some particular story I wanted to tell, and more about trying to figure out how to bring my own experience to bear in a way that cohered with what Ron and the rest of the team wanted to achieve. 

For me, it didn’t feel much like writing music. A funny thing about music is that, generally speaking, non-musicians don’t know how to talk about music in a concrete way, even if they have good taste or good instincts about music. This can be true of musicians as well, for that matter. But what this means is that you tend to get very vague feedback as a composer, and it’s your job to synthesize that feedback in a way that you believe meshes well with the soul of the game, or film, or whatever. The one way I did find it similar to music composition is that you still spend a lot of time knocking out ideas that go nowhere.

Unlike with music, though, almost everyone in our society knows how to read and write, and beyond that, Ron has spent a career writing games. He’s also the principal creative force on this game. So even in the cases where he would very generously say something like, “Just take a stab at this character,” with no stated boundaries, I would always feel like there was an unspoken target I was being expected to hit. But that’s probably just my insecurity.

How were you conscripted to join the writing team? Were you particularly interested in the project from the start?

Chris: Soon after joining the company, without warning, I was told to go into the “Granny” meeting room for an unscheduled meeting. I was fully expecting to be told, “Well, we tried you out, and it’s just not working. Pack up your things.” That’s absolutely what I thought was going to happen.

Ron was sitting alone at the conference table, and he simply asked, “Would you like to help me write The Cave?” I remember the exact words, because I was so surprised. If I’m over-dramatizing the experience, it’s only because that reflects my internal state at the time.

This was back before the game was publicly announced, obviously, but I was particularly interested in it for two reasons. For one thing, I had been playing Ron Gilbert games since I was a kid. Ron Gilbert, Sid Meier, and Tim Schafer were the first game designers whose names I learned, because I grew up playing PC games and those guys actually had their names on the boxes. As it turns out, Ron and Tim were some of the first people I ended up ever meeting in the games industry back when I started my career, and they were both nicer than they had any need to be, so it was wonderful to end up working on Ron’s game at Tim’s company.

The game’s lead designer also happened to be JP LeBreton, by coincidence a good friend of mine, so I was extra excited to work with him for the first time professionally.

On a project like The Cave, it almost seems as if the role of a writer and a designer are almost interchangeable – given that scenario, character personality, and puzzle design appear so interlinked. Do you feel that this is the case? Does that present any particular challenges?

Ron: They are and I feel they should be. The writer really needs to be in the head of the designer. Good writing should influence the design. 

Chris: They are very interconnected. Even though a lot of the skeleton of the design was in place before much of the writing was finalized, the two ended up informing each other enormously. We actually ended up heavily reinventing the identity of the Cave character himself, based on our playtesting experiences. And there were a lot of discussions between Ron, JP, me, and animators Elliott Roberts and David Gardner, where we hashed out elements of the game where writing and design blurred together almost completely.

On a lighter note, did you have any favorite (or least favorite) characters to write while you were working on the project? The idea of each character having a dark secret must have made for some fun (or, at the very least, interesting) story meetings.

Ron: I enjoyed writing for areas involving The Twins and The Scientist. The Twins are just morbid and that was fun. The Scientist is launching an ICBM and it was fun to find the humor in that.

Chris: I had fun doing the Monk, whose area started out very Zen-inspired; I was doing lots of research on Zen koans and Zen history. We ended up paring that back a lot because it didn’t quite fit the tone of the rest of the game, but it was instructive to start out by finding the limits. 

I really enjoyed the process on the Time Traveler area, because it had the most direct collaboration between Ron and myself. In most cases, we’d assign each character to one of us, to maintain a consistent voice and lend some structure to development. But with the Time Traveler, Ron had already written a fair amount before handing it off to me, so it turned out to be an interesting midpoint between pure editing and pure writing, with a lot of back and forth. That’s really the only area of the game where I probably couldn’t identify which of the two of us wrote any one sentence.

A quick note of disclosure – Chris is a personal friend of mine.