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The Allegory of the Cave – some musings on the story (contains heavy spoilers, obviously)

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I've just finished my second playthrough of The Cave and to be honest, I'm rather confused about what exactly is the story trying to tell me. Essentially, we have seven people here (well, eight, but the Twins don't count) who are all selfish and who are willing to murder to get what they want. (I haven't played the Monk's tale, but I've seen the achievements. Apparently he's a killer, too.) Each and every one of them is a pretty nasty character, and we spend the entire game helping them achieve their twisted goal. Because there's nothing else to do, anyway.

Isn't that a bit… odd? Only at the very end, you get a primitive binary choice which only really influences which two final postcards you'll get for each character. There's no sense of redemption/damnation (or any closure at all, really) – they just crawl out of the Cave and presumably go home. The Cave itself/himself keeps talking about "lessons learned" down there and all that but isn't the lesson a bit too simplistic? "Being evil isn't nice." Well, okay. I don't think we needed an omniscient Cave to tell us that, to be honest. It feels a bit like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, except thoroughly defanged and with mute and therefore pretty flat characters with no story or development arcs worth mentioning.

(Another part of that problem is that 7 characters and 2 endings for each means at least five playthroughs to see them all. I don't think even very dedicated achievement hunters are going to do that. I'm personally pretty unlikely to do a third, to be honest, as some of the shared areas were far too tedious even the first time around. But take that as an aside.)

What did you doubly fine people think? I sort of enjoyed the game itself (and this probably sounds harsher than I meant it to), but in retrospect, it really doesn't seem to go from anywhere to anywhere without stopping anywhere meaningful along the way, if you know what I mean.

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I don't think the story is meant to be analysed to this extent (or supposed to be a focus)... it's really to set the theme that you're going on an adventure down the Cave. The game at heart is a puzzle game, and so the story is presented in tidbits to keep you moving forward.

The story boils down to... selfish desires will never make you happy.

Lastly, how does each character have two endings? I haven't come across this.

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Lastly, how does each character have two endings? I haven't come across this.

When the tour guide gives you your trinket at the very end, you can return it back to him ("having learned your lesson", I suppose) and climb up the ladder without it. You get different postcards in which the character's story is resolved in a different way (without resorting to murder).

Yeah, I might be reading too much into it, but that's sort of the point – I was surprised how very thin the story was.

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I don't think the story is meant to be analysed to this extent (or supposed to be a focus)... it's really to set the theme that you're going on an adventure down the Cave. The game at heart is a puzzle game, and so the story is presented in tidbits to keep you moving forward.

The story boils down to... selfish desires will never make you happy.

Lastly, how does each character have two endings? I haven't come across this.

Give the item back to the gift shop owner.

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Oh, fair enough, thanks for explaining. I've finished the game 3 times, but couldn't possibly do a 4th of 5th.

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You ever heard of The Twilight Zone and that kind of stuff? You don't need an uncommon lesson in that genre. It's more about the ride so to speak, but they talk about lessons to make the narrator more interesting.

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i think the reason you don't feel closure is because all of the plot is contained in the postcards. they don't "just crawl out of the Cave and presumably go home" because they weren't literally in a cave, ya dig? going into the cave is a metaphor for these characters imagining what would happen if they went through with their plans.

i think the point is a little more complicated than "selfish desires will never make you happy," because when i let the adventurer get away with murder she actually was happy in the end. making it more complicated (i'm not sure if this was just a random glitch, but i hope not) i made the other characters give their items back and they were the only ones who actually exited the cave. the nasty adventurer just disappeared, possibly still in there. this character is being damned, in a way, even though she got what she wanted. she's still at the mercy of the cave.

so my slightly more nuanced version of the point is "selfish desires can make you happy, but they will also control or limit you"

also i like the comparison to i have no mouth and i must scream. it's been a while since i read that but i see the similarities. omnipotent godlike thing screwing around with some people for its own satisfaction. on the other hand it indulges its subjects instead of torturing them. maybe the prospector/hunter/hermit are the true victims though, stuck in an endless cycle of wanting something and having it taken away. i think like they're designed to be more sympathetic, but maybe they are previous cave explorers who chose not to give their ill-gotten thingy back?

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Only at the very end, you get a primitive binary choice which only really influences which two final postcards you'll get for each character. There's no sense of redemption/damnation (or any closure at all, really) – they just crawl out of the Cave and presumably go home.

You said you did two playthroughs, was the first all good endings? Because it sounds like you missed something which is pretty straight up redemption/damnation. Everyone holding on to their item of desire when leaving the cave does not actually get out. The first three items you get for the gift shop in a playthrough get exchanged for the ones you held on to including a corpse of the character next to them. The only exception being when that character is in your team again, you don't get your own corpse/item of desire, I think.

Before the credits roll the characters who let go of their desires are next to the campfire, the others are not.

I'm pretty sure what you do in the cave is not what the character actually does but what he desires to do and it's all bad because that's what the cave represents. Your character then either gives in to that or doesn't and the cave painting show you how it actually plays out in the 'real world'.

I don't think the lesson would be "being evil isn't nice" but more like "if persuing what you desire brings harm to others (and possibly you) let go of the desire."

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so my slightly more nuanced version of the point is “selfish desires can make you happy, but they will also control or limit you“

that, and that there is good and bad in all of us.

I also liked how there was a certain "warmth" up by the campfire where the characters were together whereas as I understand depending on your actions some didn't make the full journey up. Their dark desires got the better of them and they remained down there alone.

Great sound effects, music, narration, graphics, polish.

A few little bugs but nothing major. I really missed the dialog though. It was begging for dialog imo. On the other hand I can understand this as a design choice to make the game simpler.

I swear I could tell that this was a Ron Gilbert game without knowing it a priori (even without chuck). Dark and funny and real. The kind of game that makes you feel good. He really should make more. Maybe even an old school adventure? Kickstart it after the release of the DFA maybe?

I did 3 runs to see all the stories, my favourites being the knight, hillbilly, twins and monk. First place goes to the knight. Also, in all 3 runs I got scared at the same point at the zoo.

Herman Toothrot was a nice touch :P

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You said you did two playthroughs, was the first all good endings? Because it sounds like you missed something which is pretty straight up redemption/damnation. Everyone holding on to their item of desire when leaving the cave does not actually get out. The first three items you get for the gift shop in a playthrough get exchanged for the ones you held on to including a corpse of the character next to them. The only exception being when that character is in your team again, you don't get your own corpse/item of desire, I think.

Before the credits roll the characters who let go of their desires are next to the campfire, the others are not.

I very much suspected this would be the case, but the game glitched out on me just as my last character was leaving, so I wasn't entirely sure I'm seeing it right. But yeah, that's a very good point – the Cave-as-purgatory interpretation is solid. Until you let go of your evilness, it won't let you out. Fair enough.

That being said, there are things which still bother me about that – why, for example, do I have to leave the hermit stranded? Why do I have to steal other people's desires to get my trinket if I'm already convinced I want to return it anyway? The fact that it's a last minute choice completely unsupported by the rest of the game (where you're a perfect bastard 99% of the time) feels like a cop-out to me. I mean, I think it would work better if the individual sections of the game had a non-obvious, non-selfish solution, but I don't think they do (or do they?).

And I still think that there is no "sense" of redemption as I originally put it, because regardless of all that, the characters remain woefully uninteresting. Take the Time Traveller, for example – literally everything we know about her is that she works in a museum and is jealous of her colleague. Honestly, I don't care if she leaves the Cave or not, and there's hardly any emotion either way.

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The first three items you get for the gift shop in a playthrough get exchanged for the ones you held on to including a corpse of the character next to them. The only exception being when that character is in your team again, you don't get your own corpse/item of desire, I think.
could you maybe explain bit a little more please. i don't remember corpses
That being said, there are things which still bother me about that – why, for example, do I have to leave the hermit stranded? Why do I have to steal other people's desires to get my trinket if I'm already convinced I want to return it anyway? The fact that it's a last minute choice completely unsupported by the rest of the game (where you're a perfect bastard 99% of the time) feels like a cop-out to me. I mean, I think it would work better if the individual sections of the game had a non-obvious, non-selfish solution, but I don't think they do (or do they?).

And I still think that there is no “sense” of redemption as I originally put it, because regardless of all that, the characters remain woefully uninteresting. Take the Time Traveller, for example – literally everything we know about her is that she works in a museum and is jealous of her colleague. Honestly, I don’t care if she leaves the Cave or not, and there’s hardly any emotion either way.

this is a case of the character being a separate entity than the player. the cave says stuff like "you and i have learnt a lesson, but have they??" that's because even though you're moving the character around, the game doesn't give you any influence over the character's internal decision-making until the end. it doesn't matter if you (the player) decide early that you want to be good.

so why does the game take away control from us? because if the player decided they wanted to be good at the beginning, they would just not enter the cave at all and the game would be over. it would ruin the story. imagine if scrooge met the ghost of christmas past and said "hmm, well, i'll be good. don't even bother bringing out the other ghosts, homie." thereby totally circumventing the stuff with tiny tim which was the heart of the story and what convinced scrooge to change. if the goal was interactivity, you would let scrooge do that. if the goal was good storytelling, you wouldn't. so yeah, it is a cop-out, but it's a cop-out that is unavoidable and affects many videogames.

maybe instead of "sense of redemption" a more accurate word would be "catharsis"? because it is lackin' in that. lots of indie games tell too much of their story through boring text or 'graphic novel' pages or crappy slideshows and it really deflates the emotional impact. the only time a game did that and it didn't feel like a cost cutting measure to me was in the max payne series.

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But yeah, that's a very good point – the Cave-as-purgatory interpretation is solid. Until you let go of your evilness, it won't let you out. Fair enough.

That being said, there are things which still bother me about that – why, for example, do I have to leave the hermit stranded?

Well, the most obvious answer is that there isn't enough room on the boat for him and the other spelunkers need to complete their journey. However, if we assume the Purgatory analogy, perhaps we can assume the hermit has never given up what he desires most, so he's stuck there. Unfortunately, it's a little harder to glean what his sins might be unlike the prospector (greed) and the huntress (desire for glory).

Why do I have to steal other people's desires to get my trinket if I'm already convinced I want to return it anyway? The fact that it's a last minute choice completely unsupported by the rest of the game (where you're a perfect bastard 99% of the time) feels like a cop-out to me. I mean, I think it would work better if the individual sections of the game had a non-obvious, non-selfish solution, but I don't think they do (or do they?).

My guess would be that it has to do with the characters not realizing the consequences of their actions until they experience them. For some, it's a little more obvious: The twins simply want to play outside and poison their parents to accomplish it, but doing so causes their own demise. For others, you have to draw your own conclusions: The scientist didn't remain happy the first time she found wealth, so additional wealth won't satisfy her long, which maybe leads to her realizing there are other ways of obtaining happiness.

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maybe instead of "sense of redemption" a more accurate word would be "catharsis"? because it is lackin' in that. lots of indie games tell too much of their story through boring text or 'graphic novel' pages or crappy slideshows and it really deflates the emotional impact. the only time a game did that and it didn't feel like a cost cutting measure to me was in the max payne series.

Yes, catharsis is what I had in mind. It just felt like too fancy a word to use :)

this is a case of the character being a separate entity than the player. the cave says stuff like "you and i have learnt a lesson, but have they??" that's because even though you're moving the character around, the game doesn't give you any influence over the character's internal decision-making until the end. it doesn't matter if you (the player) decide early that you want to be good.

so why does the game take away control from us? because if the player decided they wanted to be good at the beginning, they would just not enter the cave at all and the game would be over. it would ruin the story. imagine if scrooge met the ghost of christmas past and said "hmm, well, i'll be good. don't even bother bringing out the other ghosts, homie." thereby totally circumventing the stuff with tiny tim which was the heart of the story and what convinced scrooge to change. if the goal was interactivity, you would let scrooge do that. if the goal was good storytelling, you wouldn't. so yeah, it is a cop-out, but it's a cop-out that is unavoidable and affects many videogames.

You are right, it is the by now pretty old problem of choice and consequence in gaming. Í just think that with this, the game ended up where BioShock did – the "morality" aspect of it is so hopelessly shallow it would probably be better if it wasn't there at all (which is why BioShock Infinite will have none of that). It is possible to design an entire game around the fact that the player is forced to make bad decisions and make it work – see Spec Ops: The Line.

I'm a story focused kind of guy, and I expected there to be more story in The Cave, that's probably all there is to it.

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i dunno, i would rather have the choice at the end than not. perhaps the one interesting thing it did was allow me to divorce myself from my avatar. in most games i can't do evil things because i feel like it's my choice, and i as a person wouldn't do those things. in this game, there's a certain level of detachment from the fact you control 3 characters, that the narrator distinguishes between you and the characters, and that the characters do bad things before you get to choose. i felt like it was the character's choice instead of mine, and that the adventurer is the type of person who really would dick over everyone in the end while the scientist and knight are not. so i let the adventurer keep her thing without feeling the usual guilt i would feel if i, for example, made commander shepard kill a puppy.

but yeah i agree with you, it was pretty clear they were putting more work into the puzzle aspect instead of the story, and it didn't pay off. the postcards should have been way more fleshed out or integrated into the actual game. nonetheless i still think there's more substance to dig into here than the fluffy costume quest, or the campy iron brigade or stacking.

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I basically took the entire thing as an allegory for purgatory. It works, in the sense of this cyclical musing over their life choices. Each personalized scenario is essentially the "best case scenario" for their diabolical plots, essentially getting away with their murder without any punishment. Thus, revisiting The Cave was revisiting their decisions repeatedly. The goal would be for them to see their errors, hence the choice at the end, to refuse their desires, achieving the ability to "ascend"... This could either be to existence again, or maybe just a sort of peace in the afterlife (I think the game is intentionally vague here). The entire game itself is the allegory for this sort of cyclical purgatory, one the player too must walk around "the wheel".

The characters, on the other hand, almost certainly represent the Seven Deadly Sins: Here's how.

Knight = sloth

his inaction destroyed an entire nation

Adventurer = greed

she cannot share her glory

Time Traveler = envy

She cannot stand someone else’s achievement

Scientist = gluttony

She will gladly indulge while the rest of the world suffers

hillbilly = lust

Pretty obvious, but his lusts drove him to insane jealousy for a woman who didn’t even know him.

Twins = wrath

They kill with no remorse, or reason, simply because they found something frustrating

Monk = pride

Cannot stand to not be recognized as the greatest, even when he hasn’t even begun to earn that mantle

Each of the characters represents a deadly sin, thus the same issues that we (the player) are supposed to face. The purgatory for us is more or less our conscious: the choice at the end is our own choice over our actions, and the cave itself is the journey we take through life being tempted with all of these things, playing through literally a fantasy of the darkest parts of our souls.

This could all be crap, but I think for the most part at least the seven deadly sins part makes sense, and the purgatory analogy makes the tedium of the game seem much more sensible.

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Hermit - Desires his dog so much that he even lets go of the spot in the boat to get it back (also the item you need to steal from him again at the end)

Miner - Wants his gold so bad he never wants to leave without it.

Hunter - always wants the trophy and stays in till she gets it.

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Hermit - Desires his dog so much that he even lets go of the spot in the boat to get it back (also the item you need to steal from him again at the end)

Come on, how is that a sin? If anything, that's kind of admirable.

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I can take a stab at the hermit.

He's been in the Cave for a long while, assuming he is not some curious phantom conjured by it.

I think his overwhelming desire for Sparky suggests, to me, that he lost his beloved pet dog so many, many years ago and will not let him go and move on with his life to perhaps make new friends.

I have no idea where or how the parrot fits into this picture with this theory, other than for that amazing one-off gag where it quotes from the narration.

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Hermit - Desires his dog so much that he even lets go of the spot in the boat to get it back (also the item you need to steal from him again at the end)

Come on, how is that a sin? If anything, that's kind of admirable.

I think that depends on the nature of his desires.

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oh hey so the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave is a thing. did you know that or was the title a coincidence? i know absolutely nuthin' about philosophy but if anyone wants to take a whack at relating this to the game that would be cool.

Deliberate, yeah. Though I don't think there are very many parallels between The Cave and Plato; Gilbert's concept of the Cave is really more of a purgatory/conscience kind of thing.

If you are interested, however, there's quite a lot of (most likely deliberate) Platonic echoes in another recent indie, Little Infernohere's an article on that.

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