Cave Story: Small, but not simple
According to my notes, I’ve spent a little more than six hours playing Cave Story so far, and I’m not quite done. Speaking of notes, while spending six hours in a game isn’t particularly notable — if this were a JRPG, I’d still just be getting my toes wet — the fact that those six hours have generated 30 mini-notebook pages of notes might be a better measure of the way this game has worked its way into my head.
I’m still not sure exactly how everything is going to end up, but the game has me convinced that every little thing matters, every character, every snippet of information I’m given in conversation with an NPC, and it is perhaps exactly the smallness of the game that has me paying such close attention. In big open world JRPGs, there’s so much information, and so much world that most of it has to be drawn in broad strokes. The things that matter can’t be subtle, and while the individual corners may be drawn in great detail, you can often leave most of that behind as you move on. In Cave Story, everyone knows everyone else, and things can’t help but get a little incestuous. There are only six Mimiga living in Mimiga village. You fight Balrog again and again, and when you get to the Sand Zone and meet Jenka, you find out that even though she’s (mostly) on your side, she’s on (mostly) friendly terms with Balrog and has even worked with him in the past.
The world, in Cave Story, isn’t large enough for impermeable boundaries to be drawn, and that’s really striking. The bad guys (except for maybe the Doctor) aren’t completely bad. The good guys aren’t simplistic selfless paragons. Sue, for example, is a bit of a jerk, who has alienated most of the Mimiga Village except, it seems, Toroko. King, the leader of Mimiga Village, locks up Sue after you find her to hand her over to the Doctor in hope of rescuing Toroko (who was mistaken for Sue and kidnapped by Balrog). Jenka doesn’t really want to help you destroy the red flowers, because that would mean giving you access to them, so she gives you busywork finding her dogs, which ends up allowing the bad guys to come and take the flowers instead.
For such a small game in such a small world, everyone’s motivations are complex, and often end up having unintended consequences. (Kind of like the physical navigation, the story has you double back, and double back again.) That, to me, is pretty close to the definition of good writing.
I’m also really happy that you brought up Curly Brace, Daniel, as I found myself surprisingly affected by the way she left the story. Cave Story actually has a lot of death — so far I’ve lost King, the Professor, and I actually had to kill Toroko, which was pretty harsh — but I might end up thinking of Curly Brace as my Aeris. After defeating the Core, the room fills with water, leaving the player nowhere to go for air. You lose consciousness, and then wake up in Curly Brace’s air bubble, with Curly motionless beside you. If you try to talk to Curly, you’re told that there’s no reply. If you examine your inventory, you have Curly’s air tanks. There’s no cutscene that shows the transfer. There’s no big moment where you see Curly’s decision to sacrifice herself. You simply run out of air, and when you wake up, she’s dead.
I think this is actually a brilliant immersive narrative move, as it leaves the player to reconstruct — and absorb — what has taken place. As you noted, Daniel, the player has to decide to walk away, and there’s nothing in-game telling you whether that’s the right decision or not. You have to make a choice based on incomplete information and live with the consequences, especially when the blast door seals shut behind you.
It’s a real “wow” moment, and a welcome reminder of what games can do with narrative, even without flashy graphics or cinematic cutscenes. (I’m going to leave the issue of the Tow Rope to the side for now, but I’d be happy to return to it next week if you want, since it ties into some other interesting elements of Cave Story‘s game design.)
So, onward, one last time, to boss battles and the end!
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.