Caves have a storied history in videogames. Inspired by the underground lairs and tunnels that formed the staple locations in early pen and paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, formative computer games such as Colossal Cave and Zork took place almost entirely within mazelike networks of caves.
The cave is fertile ground for an artform that tends towards escapism. It’s an otherworldly environment, a place of mystery and of potential danger, a place to explore and conquer. When designing the original Legend of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto sought inspiration from the woodland and caves he once explored as a child. Shrouded in darkness, a cave brings with it a sense of wonder at an untouched world that exists alongside the world we find overly familiar.
Today, Skyrim still demonstrates the power and the allure of the cave; as breathtaking as Bethesda’s overworld often is, the thrill of stumbling into the underground depths never fails to ignite the imagination. The developer of Cave Story didn’t have Bethesda’s millions to draw upon – it’s a game designed and programmed by one man, after all – but it’s an equally powerful and persuasive ode to the beauty and wonder of the cave.
Daisuke Amaya, also known as “Pixel”, first released Cave Story in 2004. A one-man band, Pixel coded the entire game over the course of five years before eventually releasing his labour of love as freeware. In the years since it has become recognised as something of a cult classic and one of the progenitors of the modern indie scene.
Cave Story + launched on Steam in December last year sporting enhanced graphics and music and marks the first time the game has been made commercially available on PC. Ironically, its reissue comes at a time when 2D platformers are a dime a dozen amongst indie games, but Pixel’s giant provides the shoulders upon which the likes of Braid, Limbo and VVVVVV are able to stand. In a sense, that Cave Story today can seem so orthodox is testament to its enormous influence over the indie community in recent years.
Pixel himself, though, would be the first to admit that his game draws heavy inspiration from earlier console platformers, especially the so-called Metroidvania strand of side-scrolling DNA. Befitting the cave setting, this is a genre that treats its platform less as a linear series of obstacles and more as the foundation of a world to explore. Nintendo’s Metroid series and Konami’s latter Castlevania titles shifted away from the traditional left-to-right scrolling exemplified by the early Super Mario games and presented tiered worlds that demanded you found the correct route through them.
From the opening scene Cave Story + instructs you in its non-linear design. The most obvious route is blocked and instead you turn around and head back the other way. Without blatant signposting you’ve learned that you shouldn’t always be seeking to run from the left to the right of the level. It’s a style of platformer that openly embraces backtracking and all the associated design elements that flow naturally on from that starting point.
Enemies constantly respawn whenever you revisit an area or save at a mid-level checkpoint. You’ll encounter areas that you cannot immediately access but instead must return to later once you’ve attained a new technique or item. You start to pay closer attention to the environment, making mental notes about rooms with seemingly no purpose or characters whose presence defies explanation. You start wondering why they’re there and, in doing so, you begin to remember them. Gradually, as you return to previously visited areas again and again, you come to see an apparently irregular series of platforms take shape, coalescing into a coherent world.
The reality of the cave solidifies before your very eyes.
You’re thrust into the world of Cave Story as an amnesiac. You know neither who you are or why you are here. Exploring the caves and working out how to progress to the next area is a test of the player’s memory and accumulation of knowledge. At the same time, as you interact with the handful of core characters populating the world and reveal the sinister and unsettling events that have taken place, you learn more about who you are. Your memory stirs and slowly returns.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes a world of shadows projected on a cave wall that appear to represent reality. It takes a philosopher, one who has managed to escape the cave, to perceive and understand the true forms of the objects that cast those shadows. Plato argues that knowledge can only be acquired by those who see reality as it is, not merely its shadowy apparitions.
Pixel’s Cave Story projects its shadows onto the wall and asks you to make sense of them. Exploring the environs of Pixel’s mysterious, enigmatic and otherworldly cave, you’ll gradually come to see the world as it truly is. The only question you’ll have left, though, as you’re leaping across platforms and gunning enemies, is why you’d ever want to leave? After all, aren’t videogames most at home inside the cave?