Interview: Ron Gilbert

2012 was a fine year for those of an adventurous disposition. The Double Fine Adventure ran rampant on Kickstarter in February before Telltale’s Walking Dead series cannonballed onto the scene exhibiting zero respect for the genre’s candy-assed reputation. Now, in 2013, a frosty January brings a new Ron Gilbert-authored adventure game. BeefJack caught up with the veteran developer to talk auteurism, contemporary adventure games and the decision to eschew dialogue trees this time out. 

The Cave 3

2012 was the year adventure games stole hearts and headlines. In February, Double Fine blazed a trail through Kickstarter that both left an indelible mark on the face of gaming and earned the developer a princely three-million US dollars to make a contemporary adventure game with. Fast-forward eleven months and Telltale’s five-part Walking Dead series – an emotional wrecking ball built from dusty genre conventions – has scooped three GDC awards including Best Game and Best Narrative. It’s also sold in excess of 8.5 million copies. 

As Gilbert’s latest adventure game, The Cave, touches down ahead of the release of the wildly successful Double Fine Adventure, the obvious question to ask one of the founding fathers of graphical adventure games would surely be, what’s changed? 

“When I started, it was not uncommon for players to want to spend 40 or 50 hours on an adventure game,” Gilbert tells me. “Players enjoyed mind numbing puzzles. As the market for games in general has shifted to a more mass market, those things needed to change, but without dumbing them down.”

“TellTale’s Walking Dead is a good example of trying something new with adventure games and I’d like to see more of that, but without losing what makes adventure games great: story and puzzles.”

The Cave represents a meaningful departure from Gilbert’s earlier works. There’s a heavier emphasis on traversal, for one, as well as a paired back inventory system and a shunning of the laborious puzzles that found a home in adventure games of old. Probably the most significant of the touted changes is the newfound focus on platforming. Actually negotiating the gloomy, eponymous labyrinth plays a significant role in The Cave and that shift in emphasis was born out of a change in Gilbert’s own life.

“I don’t have the time to spend 40 hours a week playing games,” he explains. “But I still want to play them, so I tend to look for shorter games that provide an intense experience. So that was one of the goals in The Cave. Also, re-looking at things like inventory and traversing the world. Can those be done better?”

The Cave 2

Also absent (perhaps without leave) are dialogue trees. You’d have to be a crueller man than I to suggest that with a cast of seven mute characters The Cave runs the risk of being personality-starved – at least by Gilbert’s standards – but dialogue trees are an interesting feature for a developer renowned for his words to eschew.

“The main reason I didn’t want the seven characters to talk was to add to the mystery and creepiness of why they are descending into The Cave,” says Gilbert. “But there needed to be someone telling the story and that is where The Cave comes in.”

“I’m a big fan of the dialog trees but I don’t think they are the only way to tell an interactive story,” he adds. “Given that the seven characters don’t talk, I had to find a different way to do that. The next adventure game I do will probably have some form of dialogue tress. They’re fun to write.”

One thing that remains is Gilbert’s personal stamp on the script. The Cave was penned by him and Double Fine’s Chris Remo, with Remo drafted in midway through production to tinker with the narration. Gilbert is one of not many developers whose presence is keenly felt in a game and I’m interested to know just how important he feels the idea of auteurism is to videogames. After all, the most personal games of the last few years have, for me, all come from the minds of independent developers.

“I think it’s very important. I like to see the person in the art they create.  Even with things like movies where hundreds of people working on them, you can still feel the director or the writer inside them. I want to know that whoever created the game had a reason for doing it. I like to hear about it and feel them inside the game.”

Midway through their blitzkrieg of a Kickstarter campaign, Double Fine dudes Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert released a video to the internet in which Gilbert held that adventure games hadn’t lessened in popularity over the thirty-something years since Maniac Mansion. Rather, everything else had flourished. Eleven months on, adventure games would appear to have caught up and The Cave could well be the bridge between two very special years for fans of the adventure game genre.

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