Snake To Death: The Majesty Of Spelunky


The sum of RPS coverage of Spelunky: a single news post mentioning that it existed and was pretty good, maybe. Secret fact: If you read that post very slowly and in a totally silent room you can actually hear the sound of Kieron phoning it in. The closest thing to hyperbole in the post is him calling Spelunky ‘clever and neat’, which is analogous to calling sliced bread, uh, sliced, or saying that war is bad. I mean, what I’m saying is that the man’s an asshole. You dropped the ball, Kieron! The ball is currently rolling away from you! There it goes, rolling through the door to the old people’s home! You’d better chase it!

[We should mention that Kieron now promises to grotesquely murder Quinns analogs in his forthcoming comics – RPS] [Is there even an artist alive capable of putting that much handsomeness on a page? – Quinns]

Here’s the flashbulb, 1+1=highscore truth: In the dwindling field of PC games that have not yet and will not ever show up on a console, which is to say in the field of PC exclusives, Spelunky is… well it’s my game of 2008. So go play it!

A couple of months ago I said I’d write something about Spelunky for RPS and got as far as writing, uh, maybe 50% of… something. I had pretty big plans for it, plans I’ve completely forgotten since and so now have like a thousand words of the most unbelievable nonsense in a Google Document. Check this shit out:

104 deaths. 0 wins.

Obama’s in the corner. He’s on our big, powerful TV giving his inauguration speech.

“America… is… FUCKED”, he shouts, narrowing his eyes in hatred until the muscles around them become taught cords. I barely register. I’m whipping a snake to death.

“Oh, God. I can’t even. You know what? Fuck you guys” says Obama. “Best of luck in 2009. I’m outta here. I quit.” And with that he turns on a dime, ice cool, popping the collar of his jacket before walking slowly away from the podium. The audience falls into stunned silence. Out of the perfect stillness that the would-be president leaves behind a single shot rings out, our expensive surround-sound system capturing the noise in perfect detail. I look up briefly at the TV before returning my eyes to the game. Did it hit? He seems fine.

Yeah, I’ve got no idea. So I guess I’m starting from scratch. Deep breath time!

Here’s why, as a PC gamer, you should really know all about Spelunky:

Spelunky is a flawless marriage of two well established genres, okay? It’s a frothing alchemical mix clutched in the calloused hand of a beaming mad scientist- the upsettingly talented Derek Yu. This man operates TIGSource as well as illustrating, designing, coding and writing music for games that are his and his alone.

Spelunky is his attempt to take a platformer and blend it with the key elements of roguelikes- randomised levels, exploration, and a permanent need for caution due to the constant risk of brutal death that’ll dump you right back to the start of the game. I say Spelunky is an attempt- Spelunky’s not notable because it’s just some experiment. Spelunky is notable because it’s a /brilliant idea/ that, for whatever reason, exploded into the head of Derek Yu (maybe he took a trip to a cave that day or ate a particularly unforgiving sandwich) and he was just the kind of multi-talented, single-minded savant to not rest until he had that idea physically represented in front of him in the form of a freely distributed videogame. Honest to God, this guy is the videogame industry’s own Richard Miller.

As to why Spelunky is actually good… okay.

First and foremost, it’s a tight platformer. The premise is as perfect as you like. In the opening cutscene you see a lone adventurer arrive at a cave following a long trek through the desert. The fact that he’s alone and heavily equipped tells you everything you need to know- that he’s come here to explore the cave. When control is transferred to you there’s no need for the game to say another word. There’s also an instant attraction formed between the player and the character on screen both because there’s the underdog pull of this figure being so tiny and alone yet so determined looking and the emotional bond of neither of you knowing what’s inside the cave.

Your avatar controls perfectly for the challenges the game sets in front of him, the jumping, climbing, fighting or some combination of the three. The speed available to you and the fact that there’s like, 10 whole buttons to memorise means a lot of people dismissed Spelunky as fiddly (probably pronouncing it “fuddluh” because at the time their mouth was full of very unhealthy foodstuffs). Spelunky isn’t fiddly. A decent player will have that sprite doing what he wants to the pixel every single time. What Spelunky’s controls are is manic and precise. The speed that’s available to you, that run key that causes you to dash across the screen like a man possessed, is simply an option you have at all times.

So with the fact that Spelunky’s a neat platformer in mind let’s start looking at why Spelunky is absolutely not just some neat platformer thankyouverymuch, starting with level randomisation. The randomisation in Spelunky is vitally important for the exact same reasons it’s important in roguelikes. These are games about exploration, and a player can’t explore a space he’s seen before. An equally important part of the randomisation is that when it’s done well, like it is here, it eliminates most of the negative emotions of being dumped back to the start of the game with each death. There’s none of the Megaman style horror of having to play through all that crap again?! When you die in Spelunky you don’t have to retrace any steps, you’re not punished, you simply lose what you’d achieved which (just like in the best Roguelikes and arcade games) will always manage to get off the screen and right under your skin, and it’s horrible, and you’ll scream, and the world will stop turning for a second and your mother will ask you if you’ve done your homework and you seriously haven’t. But all of this happens with a minimum of frustration or annoyance. Because it’s you and only you who fucked up, there is no resentment. Once the dust settles the only thing left is a gnawing desire to kick the game’s ass right back.

This is real knife-edge game design, the kind of risky business for renegade mavericks that we’re seeing less and less of in the mainstream. You can draw any player further into your game by giving them something they can actually lose (an item, an NPC, or in the case of roguelikes absolutely everything), but you need to make sure the player feels like it’s their fault when they do inevitably lose what’s at stake. To safely give the player the emotional high that comes from succeeding when something tangible they care about is on the table, the tornado of emotional pain that bursts into life when the player does fail needs to be focused entirely inward- the player needs to be angry with themselves with minimal splashback on the game.

The way Spelunky achieves this is simple. First of all, it makes you achingly vulnerable. In most contemporary games you can fail. In plenty of those you can die. Spelunky’s a little bit different. Spelunky is a game that just fucking murders you.

In the first world alone you have to watch for spikes, snakes, bats, arrows, spiders, boulders, GIANT spiders, ghosts, bombs, skeletons and traps, all of which will silence the game’s soundtrack and dump you to a high score screen if you so much as dare to fuck up. Most awesomely for a game about travelling ever-downwards, there’s also falling damage. Derek Yu even pulls the dick move of coupling falling damage with you being knocked unconscious for a few seconds, your wheezing body a beacon to any roving creatures you happened to fall near.

But here’s the thing. Not one of these individual elements is that hard to deal with. Move slowly and traps don’t get you. Time your whippage right and you’ll vapourize most monsters. Jump to get over the spikes. Approach corpses slowly and if they leap up as skeletons you’ll be out of their attack range. If any of these obstacles ever get you, and they will get you, it’s because you were dumb and so the rage gets focused inward. The game’s lack of a big ol’ health bar is just as important- if you could take a lot of damage and keep going then when death finally came around you’d be left with a greasy taste in your mouth that it was the game’s difficulty, and not any one error on your part, that killed you.

Another interesting pose Spelunky strikes is the wealth of equipment and options it gives you. As well as your default whip attack you start with a limited number of ropes that can be thrown upwards and climbed, and a few bombs which can be either thrown or dropped in the name of killing, destroying or digging. You can actually throw just about everything in the game- rocks, corpses, chests. Then there’s all the gear you can stumble across- the pickaxe, jetpack, climbing gloves, pitching mitt, shotgun, teleporter, web gun, jumping shoes, machete, glasses, glue and much more.

But the thing about all this crap is all it does is gives you alternative means of interacting with a world that’s still unbelievably dangerous. All of this equipment is yet more elements to Spelunky that follow very clear rules and aren’t that dangerous unto themselves, yet are painstakingly designed to give you the opportunity to fuck up.

Take the machete, a bonus item you can stumble across. The first thing I did when I got it was go sneaking up to a spider the size of a minivan that was sleeping right next to a ledge I quite wanted to drop down. My plan was to cut that thing to ribbons before it could wake up, which it turns out was a flawed plan because the machete is /balls./ What followed was the scariest chase sequence I’ve ever experienced in a game before I was finally left staring open-mouthed at a screen showing this spider jumping up and down on my corpse.

My friend had an even better experience with the teleporter. Following an experimental trip shifting himself up into some open air he began zapping himself about in blind glee. The world was his for the taking! Not even walls could stop him! Ten seconds later he’d misjudged a jump and fused himself with the insides of a rock.

And while we’re on the subject I remember the moment I first realised you can set off traps with thrown objects. I saw an arrow-shooting face in the distance and, pleased as punch, threw my pistol past it to trigger the arrow. Yeah! What I neglected to notice was the snake pit just past the trap, although I did spot it just in time to watch my pistol disappear into it.

Anyway, so far so videogame. Now think this one through. You’re Derek Yu. You’ve just built a tight, randomised platformer with tons of freedom and plenty of juicy secrets that’s ridiculously tense and engaging through player vulnerability and the harsh penalty for death. The game’s tough but fair since the only causes of player death are idiocy, ambition, encountering something for the first time and just plain fucking up.

So riddle me this: What’s the move you can now pull to make your game addictive, satisfying and rewarding? What’s the move you can pull of to make the whole thing a rounded, desirable package?

No idea? It’s so simple! You litter levels with treasure and structure the whole thing around a high score. That way the player knows exactly how well he’s done at the end of each damp-armpitted playthrough, but most importantly it makes the entire game, a game that’s fundamentally about caution, reliant on risk-reward. Buried gems, protected idols, locked chests and loose gold nuggets all scream out at you as you make your way through levels where the only way to survive is to play it safe. Spelunky is like walking a tightrope with notes of money suspended by string on either side of you. A tightrope with cute 2D graphics and a great soundtrack.

Okay, that should probably be enough to make you sit up and play this fucking game properly, which means I guess I’m done. Although I will say that there’s so, so much I haven’t talked about for spoilers’ sake.

I’ve just noticed the Spelunky thread on the RPS forums is three posts long, which is a serious disgrace, with the saving grace that IncognitoGBG spends his post calling it one of the greatest achievements in the platform genre. Still, three damn posts. Fix this! Start comparing high scores and dumb deaths. Somebody cause a scandal by saying they’ve finished the game when they actually haven’t, or something. I’m going to make myself some coffee and then continue playing Resident Evil 5 co-op with my flatmate.

Hey, did you know Resident Evil 5 is fucking terrible? It is! It really, really is. It’s like Capcom hand-picked the entire team out of employees they knew wouldn’t cross a street that’s empty right up to the horizon until they were told to walk by the little green man. It is at least as awful as Spelunky is good! Go play Spelunky!

101 Comments

  1. Tei says:

    News from a alternate universe:

    Rock Paper Cynic comic about “Fractal Zelda”
    link to rockpapercynic.com