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Why Are Caves Central to So Many Games?

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On twitter, @psysal posed this question to the game dev community:

You can see all the responses by following the link to the original tweet.

The consensus is that caves are essential features for games for three reasons.

  1. Linearity
  2. Repeatability of composition
  3. Curiosity

Caves are linear

In terms of their schematic representation in the design of a game, caves can boil down to one enclosed ‘area’ or room with a single entrance. This doesn’t account for some of the amazing environments in intricately designed games like Super Metroid, recently broken down by @gamespite in the Anatomy of Games series.

But, at the most basic level, a cave must have a mouth, or an entrance, and at least one room. This simplifies the representation of the critical path of play, because once the cave has been fully explored there are no possible branches that the player could have taken to leave the cave. The single entrance is also a single exit. Even if there are many internal rooms, this representation holds true, as long as there are ultimately no ‘back doors’ out of the cave.

The designer can rely on the fact that once the player has received any rewards for exploring the cave, the player can reasonably be expected to pop out of the entrance of the cave looking for the next available challenge surmountable with any freshly acquired toys.

Caves offer repeatable composition

For whatever atavistic significance they hold in our psyches, caves do not have to rely on realistic representations in game design. Any old hole in some rock will almost invariably create a believable sense of cave-ness. Yeah, I said cave-ness. You know cave-ocity, general cave-itude.

Since we don’t spend much time in caves, day-to-day, we don’t hold them to the same level of fidelity to which we would hold, say, buildings or automobiles. The same architectural details necessary to represent a house in a video game can be painted in broad strokes to represent a cave.

In tile-based games, this means that a designer can reuse tiles over and over again to craft a general shape without worrying too much about players noticing, or being bothered by, the similarities. Caves are thus more defined by the space created rather than the graphics used to define them. This sense of space is what drives the third essential feature of caves in game design, a sense of curiosity, the drive to explore.

Caves are inherently curious

I’m not sure I buy the argument that we have some evolutionary instinct that drives us to explore caves, but the fact remains. Something about caves begs exploration.

Call it the Will to Spelunk.

Once a space has been created, the player wants to explore every nook and cranny for collectible power ups or items. Certainly the rewards are powerful motivators. But there is something to the exploration for exploration’s sake. Simply completing one’s mental map of the space becomes a goal in itself.


It’s intriguing that caves are such a fixture in the established vocabulary of game design. The three features highlighted in this post make it clear that caves remain a useful game design pattern because they serve an essential purpose in the ludic lexicon of games.