Cave Story’s Side-Scrolling Narrative

 Studio Pixel’s classic Indie game, Cave Story, is one of the first side-scrollers to heavily incorporate narrative elements, and signify the genre’s jump from console to personal computer. Cave Story epitomizes the side-scroller role-playing game genre, by incorporating a compelling narrative, multiple endings, and engaging gameplay, particularly in its map system. It may not be the first to do any particular mechanic, but it is one of the best representations of a well rounded game.

The initial text to Cave Story. Shortly after, players are given a short exposition of a character they won’t meet for another few chapters.

Cave Story begins by dropping the player in on an isolated, floating island with no context, besides a vague transmission involving someone named Sue. Quote, the playable character pictured below, finds himself protecting the island’s local inhabitants, also pictured below, from an evil Doctor’s henchmen. He has lost his memory and has no recollections of his previous life, if he even had one. Over the course of the game, dialogue with non-player characters reveals additional information about the story. Quote is a scout robot sent along with another robot, Curly Brace, who also lost her memory to destroy the island’s core and ultimately the island’s ultimate source of evil, the crown of Balros. When both of their memories are recovered, they resume this quest and simultaneously attempt to stop the Doctor’s widespread destruction. Story-wise this is standard fare for a videogame narrative as it is similar to game’s like Portal and Knights of the Old Republic. Unlike most games the player is left guessing at the true story for a massive amount of time. Until the final area is accessed in a particular way, players are attempting to piece together the narrative as to why Quote and Curly are on the island in the first place. The characters in the story are in a similar situation; they are regaining their memories on the player’s terms. It quickly becomes easy for emotional investment in a story that is at the edge of mystery. The story does remain a mostly linear one, but players are still given a chance to explore their surroundings and the story on their own terms through the map system.

Will the egg hatch?

Sue (left) is a human turned Mimiga, of typical form to the Mimiga’s on the island. Quote (right) is discovering his back story that he is not from the island.

Cave Story has a similar map system to the original Metroid. It has a wide open 2-D side-scrolling world that the player can freely navigate. Players quickly discover the map is not so free; certain progressions must be followed to unlock most areas. Past areas can and have to be revisited as well to complete the game. The game creates a linear narrative that identifies where the player should go either directly or by process of elimination. Despite these limitations, the open map system creates a “player story” or one which the player creates by playing a game in a particular way (Gee 2006). Quote navigates the labyrinth of the game in a unique fashion depending on the player. He may collect certain items first or visit certain areas first while still maintain the developer’s story (Gee 2006). This map system allows the player more freedom to explore the narrative and environment. He is not fully guided throughout his gaming experience, but instead given the opportunity to explore the environment and stumble upon the story. Most of the guidance comes in the 2-D nature of the map. There are only four general directions to take, which heavily suggests certain directions for players to venture. Exploration of an open world map gives the player more opportunity for immersion and more pleasure from the story.

Where do these doors go?!?!?

Players are given the option to explore the map on their own terms. Each door leads to a different area and players often return to previously visited areas.

Despite being a silent protagonist, Quote has his own “virtual identity” in the game for the player to interact with (Gee 2003). He is consistently referred to as a robot similar to those that killed Mimigas. Curly Brace even mistakes Quote for a Mimiga killer and proceeds to fight him. He is constantly defined by his environment, but the player still maintains some basic control over his story. There is an overarching “kernel” to the game, but the narrative’s ending can be altered (Aarseth). In the fashion of similarly styled Japanese Role Playing Games, the player can choose between any of three endings, two of which are easily attainable. Quote can abandon the island entirely and live a life with no knowledge of the previous character’s outcomes, destroy the island and all of its inhabitants, or destroy the crown of Balros to defeat the doctor and save its inhabitants. The player’s agency over the game’s ending augments his experience of the game by making it personal (Murray). More satisfaction is gained by the player when he has the option to accept additional challenge from the game, instead of being forced into it. Despite this choice, there is a clearly canon ending that makes the other options seem less real. If a specific sequence of the game is followed all of the main characters are saved, all of the antagonists are completely defeated, and the collapse of the island is halted.

This took me way too long to achieve...

Players are given the option of multiple endings to the game. Only after a brutal final area and boss can players achieve the final ending pictured below.

Cave Story is a well detailed video game with a compelling narrative. The open nature of the game’s experience, as well as the option for multiple endings allow the player to become deeply invested in his own play trough of the game. This personalization of the story, and general well-roundedness of gameplay makes Cave Story a game well worth experiencing for any video game player.


Works Referenced

Aarseth, Espen. “A Narrative Theory of Games.” (2012). ACM. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.

Gee, James Paul. “What Does It Mean To Be A Half-Elf?” What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Gee, James Paul. “Why Game Studies Now? Video Games: A New Art Form.” Games and Culture 1.1 (2006): 58-61. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.

Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free, 1997. Print.

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