I don’t tend to get a lot of comments on this blog, and what few I do get always seem to fall into the same genre. If I were being generous, I’d say the commentor is making a genuine attempt to engage with what I’m arguing but doesn’t entirely know how to go about it. They’ll comment that what I’ve written isn’t relevant to what the game actually is. The game is only as it appears at the surface. Only the game has the power to define itself, and as players, our role is to accept that definition at face value. Other comments are much less lenient, showing no actual interest in engaging with what I’m saying to assert that video games are a medium designed for our enjoyment and nothing else, so there’s no point in examining things at the level of detail that I do. In both cases, though, there is the assumption that games are primarly objects from which we extract fun.
It is this assumption that I object to; so much so that I take that objection as a given throughout much of my writing. Surely, there are higher ideals to strive for than the player’s immediate gratification and that, as the products of a specific historical/cultural moment, the game and our experience of it are subject to forces far greater than what we see depicted on the screen. It is the critic’s job not only to illustrate these facts as they pertain to a given game, but to lay out whatever consequences might follow from that. To engage in criticism, then, is to understand the forces that structure ourselves and the world we inhabit and to better prepare ourselves to respond to them. Conversely, to reject criticism (as several commentators do) is to accept the world as it is given while refusing to understand that choice.
Let us use Cave Noire as an example. At first glance, all we see is a game that very closely adheres to roguelike generic convention. It adheres so closely, in fact, that it seems to leave us less to say about the game itself than about the genre it chooses for itself. (This is actually a common problem concerning the games I write about.) Yet it is for this exact reason that Cave Noire is such an illustrative example. Because it understands genre as an end in itself, we can ask questions of it that we couldn’t for other games: how does it imagine roguelikes, or genre, or what role does it believe play should serve in general. These questions are beyond the game’s ability to answer, or at least this is the impression my time with the game left me. However, this doesn’t mean the game doesn’t provide answers; only that it does not recognize itself as doing so. The answers Cave Noire unknowingly provides are both more informative and more disheartening than anything else it might offer us.
As we have already mentioned, Cave Noire is a roguelike. A somewhat obscure genre at the time of the game’s release, today, roguelikes so heavily inundate digital marketplaces and their conventions are (or at least appear) so heavily codified that the genre itself takes precedence over the games within it. In other words, individuality becomes difficult if not impossible for the modern roguelike to attain. The irony here is that individuality has always been central to the genre’s ethos. What separates these games from others isn’t the activities they make available to the player (most if not all of them already had precedent in role-playing games), but the unpredictable circumstances in which players are expected to engage in those activities.
The roguelike is a genre for whom excess and change become highly expressive qualities. They facilitate narrative through play and a kind of pure exploration of systems unmediated by scenarios specifically designed around those systems. True, these narratives and explorations tend to be incredibly uneven in practice. Many end well before they’ve hit any stride, and the inherent lack of discrete planning (the emphasis on randomized scenarios) severely limits what a roguelike can accomplish. However, the advantage to this system is that each part of the play experience feels more direct and has a more perceptible weight to it than it might if it had been more rigorously planned.
Cave Noire shares this tendency to cut through unnecessary obstacles in pursuit of its goal, but that tendency is so strong here as to become a goal in itself, excluding expression in the process. In fact, one gets the sense that Cave Noire has no real interest in constructing meaning. Its semiotic system, for example, is bare: a world of pure signifiers rooted in generic medieval fantasy but understood only in terms of function and lacking anything to signify. A guild is only a place to accept new jobs. A zombie or a skeleton is nothing more than a vague force opposing one’s progress through the game’s dungeons. There is no emotional connotation to be found here; no thematic significance, no capacity for expression of any kind beyond surface appearances. All we’re left is a bare symbol.
A similar process leaves play feeling bereft of purpose. Although you choose a different goal to pursue at the start of each play session, the general loop remains the same among all of them. Upon entering a dungeon, your job is to scour each room for the goals you’re out to accomplish and the equipment necessary for accomplishing them. Many if not all of the RPG mainstays figure heavily into that play loop: turn-based movement and action along a grid, magic to heal wounds or attack enemies, treasures and secret passages to discover, etc. It is a play loop lacking any sort of arc. One’s actions never build up toward anything, nor is there any context that might lend those actions any greater meaning. As a player, my focus is always on the present moment: the goals I am given and the highly repetitive actions I perform in service of those goals. All the different goals do is inflect one aspect of play over another, like combat over exploration or resource acquisition over both. The inflection is only slight; never enough to disturb the overall framework.
In theory, one could argue this is exactly what Cave Noire set out to accomplish. Its predictable nature, combined with its relatively slow pace, combine into a relaxing atmosphere in which one can approach the game however they so choose. Moreover, its heavy commitment to generic convention would reinforce that atmosphere. Rather than complicate that genre, Cave Noire simplifies and hones them to present them with as much charismatic force as possible. In other words, the game affirms the expectations that players have of it so as to give those players greater control over their experiences within the game.
Presented in this light, Cave Noire would seem to value players very highly if it would go to such great lengths to accommodate their potential needs. Yet looking at the game’s design, it becomes difficult finding much evidence for that belief. At best, we can say there is a struggle at the heart of Cave Noire between the player’s potential to meaningfully relate to the experience and a mathematically-focused design philosophy (the grids, the strict turns, the various numbers) precluding such relations. The latter tends to reduce everything to its immediate function and offers few chances to elaborate beyond that. For this reason, although randomness technically makes each dungeon crawl a unique experience, it’s a level of distinction that’s hardly felt in practice. Does having an extra healing potion or Cloak spell matter all that much when there’s a decent chance I’ll stumble on another one (or another tool that makes either one irrelevant) during my exploration?
More to the point, one doesn’t feel as though their actions while playing the game hold any particular meaning within that game. Before all else, the Cave Noire play experience is a highly repetitive one. There is no arc to the events within the game; nothing for my actions to build toward or any context that might lend them greater meaning. My focus is always on the present moment, the goals I have been given, and the activities I repeat countless times in service of those goals. These tasks never expect that much of me. I attack the enemies I can, calculate a basic escape route for those that I can’t, and hope I can come closer to finishing the task as I descend to the next level. It would be all too easy to lose myself in my work.
Still, my mind can’t help but wander. I ask myself what collecting orbs or rescuing fairies accomplishes. What effect do my actions have on the world; on me? Try as I might, I cannot find anything that might sate my wondering. So long as I explore these dungeons, the outside world might as well not exist. My actions are my world. It doesn’t take long for them to blend together, losing whatever meaning they might have initially possessed, and for me to become a machine whose purpose I do not fully understand.
A more pessimistic reading of Cave Noire, then, would begin by rejecting the premise that the game holds any particular value toward the player. What remain consistent throughout the game, what give form to the play experience are the various goals the game sets for its players. Their control over that experience is firm, and much of the design is meant to obscure that fact without contradicting it: for example, rotating out goals or focusing on short play loops to give players a greater feeling of control than actually exists. At best, Cave Noire values players in the abstract, and at worst, views those players as interchangeable.
Although I find myself inclined toward this reading, I also wish to approach the subject more carefully. With that in mind, let us review and consider the language that Cave Noire uses. As we have already said, everything within the game is presented in terms of its immediate function. Enemies only warrant attention for the damage they deal or how they move across screen. Items feel as though they exist only in the moment you use them. Not even the player is immune to this logic. In a highly reductive sense, play for Cave Noire centers around the acquisition and management of resources, whether they be the gold or orbs to complete certain quests or the spells and equipment you acquire to make completing those goals possible. Players are also encouraged to regard themselves as a kind of resource, as much of the game’s design centers quite heavily on the labor its players are capable of performing. On the one hand, we are the various numbers the game attaches to our being, such as strength or the number of available inventory slots. On the other hand, we are the actions we are capable of performing and nothing else.
In any case, Cave Noire focuses our attention quite heavily on how we go about completing the given tasks. What concerns me, though, is what our motivation is for completing these tasks in the first place. We will return to this question shortly. For now, we need only understand how difficult it is finding answers on the terms the game provides us. Intrinsic motivation does not apply, given what we have said thus far, and for most of the game, there’s too little context to reason out what effect our actions might have on the world around us.
In short, although Cave Noire presents itself in broad fantasy terms, beneath that language we find language that aligns worryingly well with capitalist thought, IE the language of constant and meaningless labor under another whose demands we accept without question. We cannot ignore this insight, as it significantly complicates those fantasy terms. If our earlier inquires into Cave Noire’s appeal reflect its intent on any level, then we could say the game is escapist in nature. On its own, this is a perfectly justifiable premise. As we have seen in games like Lieve Oma and Butterfly Soup, not only can escapism recognize the problems we face in our lives, but it can also offer the possibility of an existence outside those problems.
Yet that hidden language prevents the second function from holding. By structuring its escapism according to the very phenomenon it means to escape from, Cave Noire confirms its inescapable nature. This is essentially to admit that the central premise behind its fantasy is impossible; at least as the game chooses to pursue it.
This is all an admittedly very crude reading of Cave Noire, but one with significant consequences not only for the game but others like it. It illustrates the subtle effects that cultural and economic conditions had on how developers and players alike understood popular video game genres. More broadly, this analysis of Cave Noire illustrates the limits of concepts like fun or escapism. They are not neutral or above examination, but all the more subject to examination because of the fact of their being constructed. Nor can a game opt out of constructing them. It is in a video game’s nature to structure the range of behaviors and responses available to its players. This isn’t to say that there’s no value to be found in the idea of fun – to dissuade that notion, I need only point to what I’ve written about Lieve Oma, Billy Hatcher, Mad Panic Coaster, Captain Toad, Raycrisis, Silpheed, Holy Umbrella, Mitsume ga Tooru, Jumpin’ Kid, Bubble Symphony, Liquid Kids, Crazy Taxi 2, Crossed Swords, etc. – but ideally, we should be able to understand how these structures work without compromising the game’s creative project. After all, what would we make of that project if it could not survive the player’s inquiry? After all, what would we make of that project if it could not survive the player’s inquiry?