I strikes me as a bit counterintuitive that I would enjoy Derek Yu’s Spelunky as much as I do, while I remain estranged from Dark Souls. Aren’t both games super-cruel dungeon crawls, presenting maddeningly difficult challenges while swiftly and severely punishing the slightest error? Perhaps, but they do so with practically opposite attitudes towards the player, a difference suggested by — but much deeper than — the two games’ radically different aesthetics.
Dark Souls treats player error as player failure. Like a draconian music teacher, when you misstep it cuffs you on the ear, sends you back to the start, and growls do it again. Over and over, from the top, until you get it right, or until your hour in the conservatory’s up and it sends you home with a sigh and a vague admonition to practice every day, making it clear with its tone that it knows you won’t.
Sure, this is fair — the notes are right there on the page, after all! You’re either playing them or you’re not, and when you’re not, you have introduced a state of objective error that has spoiled the whole performance, invalidating all your most recent effort. Eventually you’ll do this so many times that — if you’re like me — you’ll start feeling rather distant and disconnected from your past motivation for starting play.
This is not Spelunky’s way. Spelunky joyously scrambles up its world before every play, refusing to provide a rote book for you to follow, and instead handing you a crazy Burroughsian cut-up of a platformer level based on a capricious randomizer which the game itself seems barely in control of. While Spelunky has the visual trappings of an adventure game, I would argue it lies closer in spirit to a pinball game. Like a well-designed pinball table, the layout of a Spelunky level is inherently fair — there’s always a clear path from the start to the exit, littered with eminently surmountable obstacles. But the player’s by-definition unfamiliarity with the level, fresh from the procedural engine, plays the same role as physics does in pinball. While theoretically in total control of the game’s wholly deterministic world, the fallible player is guaranteed to slip up and either drain the ball or deposit the on-screen adventurer onto a bed of spikes, respectively.
Crucially, Spelunky responds to this eventuality by immediately crashing the curtain down with its game-over screen, sharing in a morbidly celebratory tone how well you did this time. Yay! it cries. You just finished another game of Spelunky! Did you have fun? Wanna play again? This is not a game that gapes in mock astonishment that you still haven’t gotten it right, nor will it speculate out loud that perhaps you’ve forgotten which part you’re supposed to blow into. Rather, Spelunky is all about mastery through iterative play. For all its on-screen depictions of death and dismemberment, its high-score tables and clever earned-shortcut system emphasizes the player’s own high-water marks, rather than their most recent mistakes.
As I write this, I know that I can get through the introductory mine levels without problem during most plays, a feat that seemed quite impossible when I was new to the game. While the subsequent jungle levels usually chew me up, I have seen the brutal ice caves that follow them at least a few times, and I know that in time even they will start to feel familiar. How different this feels than Dark Souls, which encourages worry and obsession between play sessions over the current obstacles between the player and the endgame, challenges that they’ll have to throw themselves against again and again until they finally nail it.
I have to admit it: for me, the prospect of mastering Dark Souls involved awakening an certain long-dormant internal voice muttering that my parents are paying good money for this, by god, and why would I have
asked for the trombone purchased the game if I didn’t seem to care about playing it right? I realize that not every player would find themselves similarly encumbered. But Spelunky, for all its various surface similarities, does not stir these feelings, even though I must have “lost” at Spelunky an order of magnitude more times than in Dark Souls. This suggests a fundamental difference that isn’t just about me, and tells me with certainty which of the two instruments I’d sooner recommend picking up.
Image credit: a cropped still from David O’Reilly’s amazing, variably tasteful, and entirely not-safe-for-work short film The External World.