Case Study: Emotion In Cave Story

Stab me with a pitchfork, but I’m really not on board with the whole nostalgia trip that’s been taking over the indie world recently. Too often, it just feels contrived and meaningless. If you want to use pixel graphics, cool, but is there any real reason why pixel graphics are good for the game, or are you just using them because you feel like it? That’s not a valid design reason for anything. There are too many games that are just nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake, which I guess is a potential target audience, but design decisions should be made for meaningful reasons within the product’s core theme.

That’s why I like Cave Story. It’s one of those nostalgia games, and usually I would just groan and roll my eyes at the pixel graphics. And that’s exactly what I did, up until one specific moment in the game that made me go “holy shit,” so that’s what I’m gonna talk about now. I started off thinking that this was gonna be a level design analysis, but this specific moment in Cave Story is much more than just level design. It’s aesthetics, it’s expectations, it’s controls, all leading to one giant punch in the gut. So, get ready for spoilers, because there’s gonna be a lot.

So Cave Story is a story about a cave. “Wow, brilliant observation skills Kenneth, you get a Nobel Prize in title deciphering.” Alright, more specifically, Cave Story is a story about a dude who wakes up in a cave. You play as this dude and you have adventures in the cave and you meet rabbit people and you get guns and you shoot things.

There’s a big giant evil dude who you have to kill to save the world, of course. It’s not a nostalgia game for nothing (although that’s not really a valid thing to say, because the “kill the dude to save the world” trope isn’t just nostalgia, it’s everywhere). But I’m not gonna talk about that. I’m gonna talk about the most strangely named character you will ever cry over: Curly Brace {?}.

Curly Brace is a robot, like you (first spoiler alert). You both have guns and you both kill things. The first time you meet Curly Brace, she’s protecting a small group of rabbit people and she thinks you’re a murderer trying to kill them, so she fights you. Later, you patch things up and become best robot buddies.

The moment I keep referring to starts with a completely unprecedented event: Curly Brace comes along with you on your way to fight some big evil boss. This is the first time in the game you have ever fought alongside a partner, and it’s empowering. Curly follows you around and she has a machine gun and she shoots everything. Her AI is a little wonky, but it’s okay, she doesn’t take damage. You and Curly have a brief segment where you fight through a bunch of bugs and things on your way to the boss.

During this segment, you notice something: Curly is immune to water. There are little puddles of water interspersed throughout the environment, and when she invariably steps into one (because of her wonky AI), a bubble surrounds her like a shield protecting her from water. This is new and interesting, because you have no such bubble. In fact, water is a very dangerous threat to you. When you enter water, an air meter starts counting down from 100, and if it reaches 0 you die. So it feels kind of unfair that Curly Brace is completely immune to water, right? But you can chalk it up to retro-style game design: she has the bubble because her AI couldn’t be improved. It’s just a lazy workaround that the game developer put in so people don’t whine about Curly being able to stay underwater: she can do it because she has a deus ex machina bubble shield you’ve never seen before, so deal with it.

Alright, you shrug and move on (or you ragequit, which you probably don’t). You go through the area together with Curly and her magical bubble, fighting enemies in water and solving water puzzles and doing so many water things that you’d think you were at a waterpark. Eventually, you reach the core of the floating island (second spoiler alert, the cave is a floating island). Then you start fighting the core for some reason I can’t remember. But the interesting thing about this boss fight is that it uses water in a way you’ve never seen before. The boss is in a pretty large chamber, but it’s a fully enclosed chamber, and for its attacks the core will sometimes flood the whole chamber. Since you can’t survive very long in water, you need to reach high ground and hold out until the waters recede, but sometimes the flood will last so long that you will die no matter what. When your air reaches 0, you die instantly, you don’t start losing health gradually like you might come to expect, so it gets frustrating. And while you’re being frustrated, Curly Brace is sitting there with her machine gun and her bubble shield. I don’t know if the designer’s intentionally trying to make you feel jealous of Curly’s bubble, but you definitely end up that way.

The boss’s flood attack, and the player’s dwindling air meter.

Then you defeat the boss. Once the boss is dead, something crazy happens: the whole room gets flooded. Every inch of the room, and there’s no sign that the flood is gonna recede like it did during the boss fight. You try to go back the way you came, but the door is shut tight. You go to the opposite side of the room but there’s nothing. You try to jump up, but there’s no air left. All you can do is fall down and watch your air go to zero. It’s disempowering and frustrating, and the whole time Curly is just standing there in her little bubble. Your air runs out, the screen fades to black, you’re notified that you can’t breathe anymore.

But the game doesn’t end. A text box pops up: “……? You can breathe.” Huh? What? How? The screen fades back into the game view, and you see Curly lying lifeless on the floor next to you in the flooded room. Her bubble shield is now centered around you. Even though all the water’s still there, the air meter is missing. Curly gave you her bubble shield so that you could live on.

Everything up until now has been leading up to this point. All the water, all the puzzles, all the boss attacks, everything revolved around water. And the whole time, you couldn’t help but be a little jealous of Curly’s bubble shield. It was easy to rationalize it because the whole game has a nostalgia tint around it, so you can just say that the bubble shield is a cheap workaround solution so that Curly’s AI didn’t have to take water into effect. But it wasn’t actually like that: the bubble shield was a real in-game element that she just gave to you in exchange for her own life. I don’t know about anyone else, but I felt pretty horrible about it. Here I was, blaming Curly for having a bubble shield purely because she was a dumb little AI companion. When I was treading water and managing air, I casually thought to myself that it would be nice if I had a shield like hers, and then she gave it to me.

Now that you have the air bubble, you continue on through your journey. You travel through aqueducts and you flow through underwater currents and you dodge submerged spikes and you battle giant fish. The whole time, there’s no air meter anymore, because you have the bubble. Even after the boss battle, the very next area you have to move through just continues to reinforce the water/theme and accentuate Curly’s sacrifice. For the rest of the game, you never have to worry about water ever again.

I don’t know if this is the same reaction that the average gamer will have when playing Cave Story. For me, most of this was because I had a special eye out on the nostalgia bias, and I was deconstructing the rationale behind Curly’s AI as I was playing. But there are so many level design elements at play to draw your attention to Curly’s shield. Everything is there to increase the tension at the moment of the final flood, right before she gives you the bubble.

Then, in true old-timey-JRPG fashion, there’s an obscure way to save Curly that you’ll never find out unless you read about it online. I am definitely not a fan of that design style, I think all options should be fairly presented as choices with consequences and that the game should revolve around what the player does with those choices rather than how the player finds out about those choices. Cave Story isn’t a perfect game by Chen-ian standards, but I think it’s good to break down and analyze specific pieces of games and appreciate how they worked in the larger context. There are tidbits of good design in bad games, and there are lessons of things gone wrong in good games. That’s why I never do game reviews, I do case studies.

And Cave Story is a nice game to study. It’s free, it can be completed in one sitting, and it’s got plenty of variety built into its mechanics. But more than anything, it’s one of the few games (rather, one of the few ANYTHINGS) that has made me feel sad over a character’s death. Level design is typically thought of in terms of mechanics and skill curves and learning over time, but it’s also important to recognize that level design can also carry emotions and feelings. As I get better at level design and design in general, I hope to use my skills to give players good experiences, both mechanically and emotionally.

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