Cave Story was an important game for me. It was playing Cave Story, 6 or 7 years ago, that made me realize that I still liked games– that, in that respect at least, it wasn’t me that had changed, but it was the games that got small. Or, rather, that got bloated and self-important and tedious. The more convinced games became of their own cultural relevancy the less relevant they became to me, a trend that continues to this day.
Next time you see someone defending games’ place in the culture by citing sales numbers, you can safely ignore everything they have to say.
I had been studying programming and art with the intention of going into game development at the time, but the more I heard about industry practices (this was around the days of EA Spouse), and the more uninspired I was by the games, I saw the less certain I was that this was actually something I wanted to do with my life. Realizing that I could still love a game, love the strangeness and the mystery of being someplace impossible was… powerful. Like nostalgia in reverse, the realization of beauty and potential in a future I had started to give up on.
Cave Story tells a story but does not exist in servitude to a script. It looks pleasant but doesn’t dazzle with spectacle, and pays tribute to older games without worshiping them unconditionally. It is exactly as ambitious as it needs to be to be what it is– and what it is is a cute, charming, mysterious little adventure. That’s all. I suppose it might seem a bit strange that I’d talk up how important it was and then use that to transition into how unambitious it is, but that’s also kind of the point.
Cave Story showed us we don’t need to be big to be good.
It showed us that we can do what we want as long as we do it well. That you don’t have to make the biggest fanciest game with the most complicated or compelling script or make some huge new gameplay innovation that makes all the other game designers drop their jaws in envy.
Just make the game you want, and follow through.
Make no mistake, that’s still a lot of work. That’s possibly more work than just trying to concoct the biggest and most bombastic recipe for success one can conceive, because it requires having, recognizing, and applying personal standards rather than just marking off a checklist. The creator of Cave Story, nicknamed Pixel, spent 5 years of his life creating it as a hobby alongside his day job, and was apparently as surprised as anyone when it became as tremendously popular as it was.
Though he felt it, I don’t think he understood the ubiquity of the hunger with which people missed games like that.
Unfortunately, as always happens, many people learned the wrong lessons. People emulated the form instead of the approach, and a rash of games with similar graphics styles and gameplay appeared. Remakes of Cave Story have also since shown up with unnecessary ‘improvements’ to the sound and graphics which, while they achieve nothing but to mute its simple charm, do at least serve to introduce a beautiful game to a new audience.
However, there is a deeper lesson which people have learned, though they perhaps don’t remember where they learned it: Back then, Cave Story was the thread that pulled together the now-burgeoning independent game movement, and even today we all hear it’s call.
“Make the game you want, and make it good.”