The Cave, you may already have worked out, is going to be a funny game. Written by Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert, with help from his long-time collaborator and LucasArts hombre Tim Schafer, it’s a scrolling platform adventure, which harks back to the glory days of the point-and-click puzzler.
And from the beginning, it makes you laugh. There are seven ridiculous characters to choose from including a hillbilly, a scientist and a medieval knight and they all have their own daft quests to pursue. Meanwhile, the main character is essentially the setting, a talking cave, which has somehow managed, over the course of thousands of years, to tempt many foolhardy adventurers into its shadowy maw.
During E3, Gilbert showed off a couple of puzzles, one requiring you to trap a monster under a giant mechanical claw using a huge hotdog sausage as bait; the other involving an escaped dragon, a princess; and the inevitably messy consequences of ignoring a sign that says ‘keep the door to the dragon’s lair shut and locked at all times’. Fans of those fabled LucasArts titles will recognise a lot of the craft that’s gone in to The Cave – the smart logic puzzles, structured over several areas, the likeable characters, the ability to pick up and combine all manner of ridiculous objects. But what really does it is the humour. It is funny in a way that games so rarely are; it’s not about funny dialogue or farcical slapstick – although those do figure – it’s funny in its very structure, in it’s very functionality as a game.
How does that work?
According to Gilbert, the first rule is, writing a funny game isn’t at all like writing a funny script – which is a first hurdle that trips a lot of studios. “It’s a really different art form,” he explains. “I think that’s why a lot of people kind of fail at doing comedy games. When you’re doing movies, TV or stand-up, you have complete control over timing, you can cut at exactly the right spot, you can have exactly the right timing between the set-up and the punchline.
“But in games, you can’t do that, because the player has control of everything. They’re running around inevitably doing exactly the opposite of what you want them to do. You have to make the comedy move around them. You often can’t pay-off 30 seconds later because the player is running the other way and they don’t get to see the punchline; you have to be able to set up jokes that are okay to pay off five minutes later. The comedy has to be malleable. People who are used to writing for linear media don’t quite get that.”
So I ask him about examples from his games that have really worked out in that way – that have brilliantly exploited the delayed pay-off. “Well that whole thing about Guybrush boasting that he can hold his breath for ten minutes,” says Gilbert. “And then, much, much later in the game, he gets dumped in the water with a weight tied around his leg. Then there was the three-headed monkey thing, where you’re trying to trick the cannibals – ‘look behind you, a three-headed monkey’ – but then there actually was a three-headed monkey, but it didn’t happen two seconds later, for some people it didn’t show up until three hours later. You have to be able to pay off jokes very slowly!”
Collaboration is another key element. Getting one person to write all the funny stuff in isolation isn’t going to work. I tell Gilbert that when I imagine the LucasArts office of the Nineties, I’m imagining something that resembles a cross between Animal House and the writer meetings in 30 Rock. He doesn’t deny it. “TheCave kind of worked out the same way as Monkey Island did,” he explains. “With Monkey Island, I had created this whole universe, and I’d figured out the characters, I knew the story and the main puzzle beats – and then I hired Tim and Dave Grossman to come on as programmers.”
“Well, they’re very creative people, and we just started collaborating on the designs, writing all those little puzzles that built up to the main stuff. The same thing is true of The Cave. I figured out the setting, who the characters were and their basic stories. But when the development started, we hired another designer, JP LeBreton, and an animator, Chris Remo, and the three of us spent a lot of time figuring out puzzles, fine-tuning the story… and we have a lot of team meetings where people are throwing out ideas. It’s far from a one-person process.”
It’s interesting how Gilbert talks about puzzles, as though they were jokes inserted into script – it’s just that the script is part of the structure of the game. Again, it’s not just about funny lines, the comedy is in the very blueprints of the design. The humour is the structure. This is reflected in the visual style, which is rich and detailed, but also slightly expressionistic, slightly offbeat. “The wonkiness of it comes from the fact that this is a comedy,” says Gilbert. “You can’t do something super-realistic. I always wanted to design the cave like a vertical slice, like an ant farm that you can peer into – that informed the art style a lot.”
I also wondered whether Gilbert does what lot of observational comedians do – go everywhere with a notebook and pen, ready to write down weird stuff that happens. He doesn’t. Not quite. But some experiences have effectively written themselves into his games. Stan the ship salesman from Monkey Island is an example. “Stan came from the fact that, right before starting work on Monkey Island I bought a car,” he explains. “And it was such an excruciatingly painful process, to be in that showroom with that salesman while he tried to upsell me on every little addition to the car. So we added a ship salesman, who was effectively just a car salesman. It just seemed absolutely perfect.”
So how do you make a funny game? Don’t rely on the script, don’t even rely on the visuals – but think of every game design element, from the characters, to the environment, to the objects, as elements of a joke, where gameplay becomes the punchline. You don’t tell jokes, you build them, and let the player discover them alone.