The dark backstory of Cavern of Dreams

Posted by brilokuloj on May 10, 2024

I had initially passed up Cavern of Dreams the first time it went on sale – I just couldn’t make up my mind on if I wanted it or not. I mean, it looked good, but it also looked cute, and I unfortunately get tired quite quickly of cute things with no depth.

As you might have guessed, that was such a mistake, folks. Cavern of Dreams, a modern mascot platformer in the style of Rareware’s best, outshines its inspirations with simultaneous kindness and depth I haven’t seen since Klonoa.

The most unfortunate thing about this game is that absolutely nothing in its promotional material reveals its contents, which are actually about the complications of fostering abused children. Like, that sounds crazy for the cute little red dragon game, right? I’ve spent the past week telling my friends about it, and I can still tell they don’t 100% believe me, and I have no idea how to get this out of my system short of a full dissertation. So please! Join me on a journey through this wonderful game and its dark secrets.

Warning: This article covers the entire plot from beginning to end. But I guarantee that even if you do read this, playing the game will still be a unique and wonderful experience that can’t compare to reading it on a page.


The Cavern of Dreams

I’m the kind of person who tries my hardest to not read promotional material when going into a game blind, since promos have an incentive to spoil major plot hooks. It’s for this reason that I found myself a little lost: the game simply begins in medias res as our character, a little red dragon, falls down a hole into the titular Cavern.

Fynn falling down a hole.
Fynn on the ground, looking surprised and hurt.

Walking forward, the game teaches you the basic controls. Once you enter the middle of the room, you’ll meet the Glorious Tutorial Wizard (my words, not theirs), Sage. They are the one who telepathically infers, as NPCs can often do with silent protagonists, that your name is Fynn and you’ve lost your siblings.

Sage, a wizard with floating limbs, greets Fynn.

Sage walks you through some of the finer details of gameplay, and then informs Fynn that if he finds more of his siblings, they can harness the power of his siblings to grant him abilities. Finally, Sage offers to take care of the eggs while Fynn is adventuring.

There’s nothing else to do in this room except explore, pick up mushrooms (Sage says you can use these to feed your siblings later), and move forward. So onward we go, to Lostleaf Lake.

Lostleaf Lake

On your way into the first level is your first encounter with a character named Luna, who rams into you, gets pissed off, and leaves. This scene is so fast that on the first playthrough I could not process what her character design looked like at all, and on the second playthrough while getting screenshots, I completely missed the window of time to take a picture of her. I think it’s adequate enough that I don’t put a screenshot here, because that’s how I experienced it.

The game teaches you how to use your camera to look upward, which I did, thinking that it would give me any clue as to what had just happened. You get a lovely view of the tree canopy, but that’s it.

With that out of the way…

Fynn running next to the lake. The sun is shining through the trees.

Let me take a moment to say that this is one of the prettiest environments I think I’ve ever seen in a video game, let alone a retro-inspired one. There are a lot of places where this game’s design sensibilities blow its inspirations clean out of the water, and this is one of them.

Lostleaf Lake is the residence of the kappa Shelnert and his lake of fish. Speaking to Shelnert, he informs you that a “nasty bat” has stolen his fish food and hidden it in the nearby treehouse, which you can get to with a bit of tricky platforming and plant-based puzzles. (This is around the point that I deduced that Luna was our main villain and, apparently, a bat.)

A treehouse with a giant bed, a mobile, and drawings on the walls.

This treehouse is one of the more perplexing set pieces in the game for me. The mobile above you and the drawings on the wall are very relevant, and I’ll talk about that later.

Going back to the lake, you can ring the bell tower to go into the flooded building underneath…

A flooded church, with 3 statues at the end.

This is the first appearance of what I’ll just call the mermaid statues for now. These are almost always part of a “turn them until they match a guide” puzzle, and this one’s the simplest but the most memorable. So what’s up with Mermaid Church?

The grave of a character named Shelwart the Steadfast.

You can also solve a grave-based puzzle (Shelnert keeps graves for all of the fish that pass on) to enter the tomb of Shelwart, Shelnert’s great grandfather. So keeping the fish is a family tradition. The fish are named Carpy (or Carpies?), as elucidated by a collectible card you can pick up – most of the most important exposition is laid out in cards scattered throughout the levels, which I found a nice incentive to keep playing. The Carpy-ies are also apparently sentient and “know something which others don’t”, which is amazingly ominous and never elaborated on.

Airborne Armada

Eventually, through the natural state of play and exploring the world, Fynn accumulates enough eggs to earn a new power. So he goes home to Sage (and at this point Sage is really laying it on thick that they want Fynn to consider this his second home), and Sage bestows upon him… wings!

Fynn catching a ride on a draft. There is a blue toy ball nearby.

AND ALL THE CHILDREN REJOICED!

Quick aside, I never remembered to take a good picture of that ball. It spawns at some point in the midgame, I’m not sure what flag makes it show up, but it’s a little physics toy you can play with. I spent a lot of time just whacking it around the cavern in between levels. It’s important later, so make a note of it.

With Fynn’s shiny new wings he can catch a ride on a pipe spewing air, which opens up the next area. Honestly, I almost feel bad splitting them up into levels like this; Cavern of Dreams has a unique quality of the entire world being interconnected, in a way that makes it feel seamless to go between levels hunting for collectibles. It feels a little morbid, like I’m marking meat for dissection. But thus is the way of reviewing.

Luna interrogating Fynn.

On the way there, we run into Luna again, and I actually get a picture of her this time. It’s… still not a very clear picture, but look, she’s a little purple bat, and she’s got a paintbrush! I didn’t actually notice until later that it was a paintbrush, since it’s constantly getting blocked by the speech bubble, but it is. Regardless, she blows up the bridge to the next level and we have to do some simple platforming to get there.

Now we’re finally in the actual Airborne Armada level. If you’re not an idiot like me who was too distracted with picking up mushrooms, you might immediately notice that the ship is alive, a la Clanker from Banjo Kazooie.

A flying ship with a crocodile-like face.

Yes indeed, you can progress inside the ship and crawl around in its guts. And if you’re not an idiot, like me, you will pay attention to the dialogue and realize that the ship’s name is Mr. Kerrington, and that Luna has somehow filled him with boils.

A close-up of what Kerrington calls a boil. It’s a red lump with eyes.

Unfortunately, I am an idiot who thought the first boil that the camera panned to for emphasis was Mr. Kerrington, and that some pink thing on the wall just really hated me. Then I got really confused when I saw that there was more than one of them. I think I just couldn’t quite put together that a boil would have eyeballs. Maybe I’m not Banjopilled enough.

A plaque depicting a dark monster coming out of a box. It warns that when opened, the box will unleash a great power.

As Fynn progresses into Kerrington’s insides, the game takes its first turn towards the strange and eerie. There’s a lot of clues left around the level that something bad happened in this world’s past. One of those hints is a giant plaque left on a round table, warning of a Pandora’s box. Looks bad!

A laboratory, described below.

There is a room full of creatures floating in tubes – some sort of science experiment? Each one is marked with an element and a description indicating it would be used in some sort of war. After solving a relatively simple puzzle, you can free all of them (except for the Earth monster, which fucked off ages ago because it got too big), and they’ll go explore the ship and hang out.

With the Fire monster released, you can progress to the Heart Room, which is… uh…

A red room with a curtain and several heartrate monitors.

I’m gonna be real with you, I had heard that this game was going to be spooky, and when I stepped into this room my brain pretty much went to the worst case scenario. It looks like a hospital room, complete with a privacy curtain. “Is this another OFF situation?” I thought to myself, remembering that eerie treehouse and imagining a world where the whole game was the imagination of a dying child.

Fortunately, Cavern of Dreams is a bit more high-brow than your average shock material – not that OFF wasn’t good, but it’s been done to death by now – no, the real answer for this terrifying oppressive medical environment is that it leads up to Mr. Kerrington’s literal exposed heart.

Kerrington’s giant mechanical heart.
Kerrington thanks you for getting a baby dragon egg out of his heart. Ew.

Auuuuuuugh

On the way out, Mr. Kerrington thanks you for helping him; when you come back in, he’ll greet you. Almost all of the focal characters of their respective levels will do this, which I found really sweet.

Mr. Kerrington might be my second favorite character, and definitely my favorite level. His level is a claustrophobic far cry from the flippin’ and floppin’ you can do in Lostleaf Lake, but it has a coherent, oppressive atmosphere. But the best part really is his backstory. Here’s the contents of his card:

Machine built for war by a forgotten race. He was abandoned after he refused to hurt anyone.

This is a great example of the way Cavern of Dreams succeeds at communicating a lot of lore while not shoving it directly down your throat. It would be trivial to complete the entire game without learning any of this – you only learn as much as you’re curious enough to seek out.

Prismic Palace

Back home, Sage gives Fynn the power of a horn attack, which he can also use to swim against currents. This lets him swim to the bottom of a nearby pond and go through a door we weren’t able to reach before.

Luna finally introduces herself.

On the other side of the door, I finally get an actually intelligible screenshot of Luna! YAY! This is also when she introduces herself as an artist, and I only just processed she has a little beret too. I don’t know what I thought it was. M. Bison hat?

Luna summons Kee-Hees, which are little bird-things that make platforming in this intermediate area a little more annoying. You can see in the back of this picture that the next room is blocked with fire, though, so she didn’t really need to do anything here. Maybe it just made her feel better.

Well, we can’t go there, but there’s a second door to the right that leads to a snowglobe. A bit of platforming takes Fynn to our next available level, the Prismic Palace.

Fynn in front of a giant snowglobe.

Let me make this clear: I’m one of the sick freaks that actually likes ice levels. I’m the reason they keep putting them in every video game. Every time an ice level is put into a video game, I rub my little hands together like a fly and chuckle evilly to myself.

A block of ice named Angry Popsicle accuses Fynn of being an egg thief, because he has wings.

The star of this level is Angry Popsicle Lady Opal, whose eggs have been stolen and scattered across the level. Once you retrieve them, she gets rid of the ice for you, and I shrivel up and cry.

A mermaid, noticeably similar to the statues.

Hey! That mermaid body’s familiar, isn’t it? Yup, here’s the contents of her card:

Was worshipped by a forgotten race. But when she refused to aid them in their war, they cut off the heads of statues depicting her.

The headless mermaid statues.

With that in mind, this is quite an odd level. There’s enough lore lurking where you can find it to insinuate that the region has had a troubled past, but not enough to figure out what exactly to do with that information.

Prismic Palace is a water level, but it isn’t your typical water level; since Fynn can breathe, there’s no annoying water timers, and swimming is a breeze with the game’s controls. On top of that, the level seems to feature three tiers instead of the typical two – above water, underwater, and deep water.

There are buildings partially underwater that you can go inside, and these feature the ‘Seedragons’, technologically-advanced sentries. Their lasers are one of the only things in the game that can instantly kill Fynn. Scary stuff!

There’s also THE GOBBLER!

A moray eel with a dog’s nose and ears. His name is the Gobbler and he is begging for a sweet treat.

The Gobbler wants a sweet treat, and you actually have to backtrack to Lostleaf Lake to get an apple for him. His card explains that he was once Luna’s pet, but she spoiled him rotten. He’s also like, one of the greatest things ever.

Above water, you can find a room that weaves together some of the most important parts of the lore, some of which I haven’t even gotten to yet:

Fynn in a frozen room, looking into an empty box.

This is the Dining Room. The creature on the chair is the Frozen King, holding the same box mentioned inside Mr. Kerrington that “unleashed a great power”. It’s worth mentioning that the Frozen King has large ears and wings.

What could it all mean…?

Gallery of Nightmares

I didn’t get any screenshots at this point 'cos I was trying to try something new with binding one of my controller buttons to the screenshot button, and well, long story short, it didn’t work and I lost a chunk of story. Yay!

Basically, Sage bestows upon you the power to spit water bubbles, which you can use to put out that fire in the hallway to Prismic Palace. Sage has also been growing weak from trying to hold Luna away, and pleads with you to be careful.

Fynn, undeterred in his quest to rescue his siblings, puts out the fire and proceeds.

Fynn walking through a hallway.
Fynn at the entrance of the Gallery of Nightmares, a dark courtyard with wicked-looking shrubbery.

The tone shifts hard. I think having Prismic Palace be the immediate preceding level was a smart choice, as maybe after Airborne Armada this would feel like a natural path into darkness, but now it has enough room to feel truly shocking.

I already knew Cavern of Dreams would take a turn for the dark, based on how it had been described to me by a friend and also just the track record these sorts of games tend to have, but this is some authentic 90s creepy. I’m gonna be thinking about this game for a long time.

In order to proceed into the Gallery of Nightmares, Fynn must first navigate the courtyard. Which means going into the hedge maze…

A sign with a grinning mouth, warning you to Beware The Hunger.

Not long after I first read this sign and felt a chill run up my back, I saw it:

A glowing grinning mouth on the ground.

This smile slides across the floor of the maze, lurking around corners and phasing through walls. If Fynn is unlucky enough to stick around in one spot too long, or take a turn too quickly, he will run into the Hunger, an inexplicable and unexplained mouth that will take a big ol’ bite out of him.

A giant monster mouth erupting from the ground.

Scary stuff!!

In the center of the hedge maze is another statue of Lady Opal, and a button to unlock the main building. Fynn makes his way back and into the Gallery proper.

The entrance of the Gallery of Nightmares.

Hey, wait a minute. This isn’t a gallery of nightmares…

A selection of the paintings, which are just Luna making the same pose on different backgrounds.

This is a totally normal deviantART gallery! It’s just some girl drawing her fursona over and over in the same pose on different backdrops!

Anyway, there’s an egg smack dab in the middle of the room. I knew it was suspiciously placed even when I first saw it, but I couldn’t immediately see anywhere else to go, so I just grabbed it.

Luna appears, and as you fall into her trap door down into the sewer system, she says “You’ll believe anything, won’t you? No wonder Sage tricked you so easily!” You can put two and two together here if you happened to pick up her card:

She first was orphaned, then Sage adopted her, only to abandon her. Heartbroken, she turned to art to express her anguish.

The Gallery of Nightmares is massive, and full to the brim with characterization – it’s scattered head to toe with notes from Luna, talking about her motivations, progress, and feelings. But I only have so much room in this article, so I’ll cut to the highlights.

The Earth Monster, a giant humanoid creature being kept in the Gallery’s sewers.

In the sewers, you can take a detour to find the Earth Monster – the fourth monster that escaped from Mr. Kerrington’s lab, remember? Shortly after breaking free, it was re-captured by Luna, and has caught a cold at some point in captivity. You can bring it a potion from Kerrington (the same you used to heal his boils), and it will get excited and jump into the air, causing an earthquake strong enough to break open an extremely locked door upstairs.

A dark hallway devoid of color.

Finding that door requires traversing this pitch-black area, which is full of mysteries even I haven’t found the answers to. The main room features a Lady Opal statues puzzle, and not only that, but a sign from Luna expressing her disgust towards Opal – is there any history there? Deeper into this area, you can find a basement area that almost seems to be more metaphorical than real, as it features Mr. Kerrington’s eye and some sort of pulsating starfish-esque creature that does absolutely nothing. I have nightmares like this literally every other night lately, these creepy house labyrinths.

That’s not what we’re here for, though. Taking a right from the statues puzzle, we can find the open doorway, which leads to…

A small shack in an empty field. Calling it a house would be generous. There is a fence behind it with a toy ball.

… one of the best set pieces I’ve ever seen in video games. The music stops as soon as you enter this “room”, leaving you to contemplate the tiny house, the broken door, and the toy ball (just like Fynn’s) stuck in the shadow of the house behind the fence.

The inside of the shack, with drawings on the walls and a mobile.
Luna’s diary, transcribed below.

Dear Diary, Papa is stuck and won’t move. He is very very cold. I got scared and cried. But a nice person named Sage came along. Sage is much nicer than Papa and they can make cool stuff like a big dragon! I want to make a big dragon too. Sage is so cool!

Dear Diary, Sage has been showing me lots of cool things. I have been paying close attention. Today I made a really cool thing to show them. It’s a bat that sets on fire!! FWOOOSH!!! And it cries!! But Sage didn’t like it. They said it was “cruel.” I will keep practicing and I will make something Sage really really likes!

Dear Diary, I made Sage really mad. I made a super cool world full of wicked awesome monsters that never die and attack anyone who gets close!! And I spent a lot of time on it, but they said it was “unforgivable” and put me in this place. Please come back soon, Sage. I’m sorry.

Jesus Christ.

The Final Fight

The final door has a broken heart on it.

Fynn, heart hardened by this information, proceeds to the top of the Gallery and past the point of no return.

Confronting Luna.

Luna, high up in her study, delivers a perfectly Klonoa-reminiscent villain monologue:

Every world that Sage created… Full of orphans, never knowing their own parents… Full of misery and pain… It was perfect. Perfect… AND YOU RUINED IT!! YOU RUINED IT ALL!!! YOU JUST HAD TO BE A LITTLE HERO, DIDN’T YOU?! YOU KNOW NOTHING! NOTHING ABOUT ART, NOTHING ABOUT TRAGEDY, NOTHING ABOUT-

Fynn screams for her to stop.
Fynn struggles to say, with childish grammar, that he just wants his family back.

Dude. This is a great moment to stop and take in that Fynn is like, the cognitive equivalent of a 3-year-old at best, and has been traumatized into speaking his first coherent sentence. Someone get this kid some therapy. Luna too.

Unfortunately, Luna does not have the same realization that I do, and she flies away from her problems and towards the Cavern of Dreams to do God-knows-what. Fynn follows in fast pursuit – so fast that the cutscene teleports us there, thank goodness!

Fynn in the Cavern of Dreams. All of his family members have been encased in crystal.

When Fynn looks at one of his siblings encased in crystal, Cavern of Dreams proves itself once again masterful at expressing the depths of grief in the minimum amount of words.

A text bubble screaming no.

I mean, what more is there to say?

Sage, inside the crystal. Text transcribed below.

Sage is there to give the traumadump of a lifetime:

F… Fynn… I cannot see… is that you? Fynn, I must… tell you… Luna… I locked her away… Deep, deep down… Because l… was afraid of her. You must… you must find her. Go… through here…

Right before you can start asking them questions about why they locked a little girl in a doghouse for God knows how long, they use the last of their magic to open a portal, and then they fall silent. Nothing left but to confront Luna.

The final fight. Luna’s really mad now.

This is a fairly straightforward cinematic Spyro-style boss “fight”; I found it a bit annoying on my first playthrough, but it’s grown on me as a welcome challenge. The entire objective is to run towards Luna on a long track, avoid getting hit by her projectiles, and collect your siblings, who will fly around her (with their magic baby powers, I suppose) and make her progressively dizzy.

Luna, surrounded by dragon babies.
Luna falling down, dizzy.

Luna falls to the ground, dazed. She finally expresses her actual feelings, as the scapegoat to Fynn’s golden child:

It’s not fair… It’s not fair… Everybody loves you… Everyone thinks you’re the greatest… Nobody likes m-m-me…

Fynn picks Luna up.
Fynn gives her a hug, just like he hugs his siblings. She hugs him back.

One of the greatest video game endings ever, maybe?

Well, there’s still more to go…

Sage is relieved to see that you and Luna are okay.

Things cut back to the Cavern of Dreams, where Sage is looking in good spirits again, and Luna has tagged along this time too. Sage expresses relief that they’re both okay, and then asks Luna what happened to make her release them, to which she says they wouldn’t understand.

Luna turns to Fynn and apologizes for her behavior. “I hated you. But you didn’t deserve it.” Then she flies over to the hole that Fynn fell into the cave from, and she uses her magic to summon an air vent he can fly back up on.

Right before she’s about to leave to get some space from this whole mess, Sage asks to speak to her. They apologize for, um, locking her in a fucking doghouse when she was just a child, sorry, I can’t imagine ever getting over that.

Luna is quiet for a bit. And then she replies:

Luna says that it’s a good thing that Sage raised Fynn better than they raised her.
Luna says “Later.”

Luna flies away, leaving us with just Sage and Fynn. Sage emphasizes that Fynn can stay as long as he wants to, or leave whenever he wants; this is one of the few times Sage actually acknowledges that Fynn is not from this world. With that, you can fly up on the air vent to play the credits, or you can go fuck around some more.

Of course I’m gonna fuck around some more.

Exploration

This is just where I’m dumping some more trivia I couldn’t fit in anywhere else here, really.

First off, the odd treehouse I mentioned in Lostleaf Lake is actually nearly identical to the house Luna was locked in, just bigger and more decorated. See for yourself.

A comparison. They have the same shape, roof, door, etc.
An interior comparison. They have the same mobile, same wooden floor, same style of crayon drawings on the walls.

So did Luna just make herself a giant trauma-recreation room to live in for a while? I’m not judging, I would have done the same thing in a heartbeat. But it’s hilariously morbid.

Meanwhile, in the courtyard of the Gallery, you can walk through a secret wall to find this hidden park bench:

A park bench surrounded by trees.

In one of the most obtuse puzzles in the game (that plenty of other people somehow figured out so maybe I’m just dumb), you have to sit – not just stand but sit – on this bench, and wait, at which point Fynn will get comfortable and fall asleep…

A dreamland. There’s the aurora borealis, a giant tree, a constellation in the shape of Fynn’s head. It’s all very magical.

This takes you to a dream world, where giant dragons soar through the skies and gravity is as light as the moon. This is where you can get the Sage card, which reads thus:

Ancient, powerful mage who formed the Cavern of Dreams. Trying to control their creations lead them to despair, so they’ve stopped creating.

Yes, they are canonically they/them. Shitty well-intentioned abusive-through-neglect nonbinary grandparent Glorious Tutorial Wizard is a really interesting character choice, no joke.

But those dragons in the background aren’t just any dragons, they’re the final boss arena!

A comparison. It’s the same exact set.

The Gallery of Nightmares also has 3 challenge gauntlets. In the Coils of Agony, Fynn must climb to the top of a massive snake. In the Wastes of Eternity, Fynn hunts across a wasteland, dodging zombies rising from the earth, to find a single egg. And finally, in the Pits of Despair, Fynn must unlock the cage an egg is kept in before he drowns in the unusually oppressive water (the only place in the game where you can drown).

These 3 levels appear to be based off of relatively common nightmares, as they’re named after their respective phobias in the soundtrack – snakes, zombies, and deep water. But it’s also worth noting that the Pit of Despair is the name of a notorious real-life experiment, where monkeys were kept in isolation chambers to see if this would psychologically damage them. Spoiler alert: it did, in much the same way that Luna has become paranoid and violent after spending her childhood locked in a room.

Putting it all together

At its core, Cavern of Dreams is not merely a romp through a nostalgic Banjo-like, but an active dismantling of nostalgia. The world they live in is painful and full of tragedy, but there are beautiful things as well.

The most important part of this game – at least to me – is that you’re not expected to pick a side, unlike the standards of video games forcing you into a Final Boss Fight which almost always culminates in the enemy dying violently. Luna was just a kid, but Sage was a depressed ancient creator entity taking care of the powerful daughter of the very same tyrant that brought their world to violence and opened Pandora’s box. Meanwhile, Fynn is a completely neutral party and gets to leave of his own accord. Maybe Fynn forgives Sage, but Luna doesn’t, and both are reasonable conclusions.

Once you’re done playing, Fynn flies up on the air draft of the vent, and his siblings follow. He leaves this world, and that’s it.

Tagged: bynine studio cavern of dreams creepy gaming super rare games


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