Why I still play Spelunky

Piano lessonI 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.

This entry was posted in Essays, Jmac on Games  and tagged  , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why I still play Spelunky

  1. Mick Maus says:

    Spelunky as pinball is probably the best way to describe the feeling of the game. When I'm doing really well, i feel like I'm flowing between all the dangerous spots and artfully bouncing between walls and ropes. When I'm screwing up I very quickly 'drain' out.

  2. Doodpants says:

    I'm currently lovin' me some Spelunky.

    I recently made a decision to take an indefinite hiatus from story-based adventure games (games which you basically just play through once and then you're done, modulo perhaps some achievement hunting), in favor of focusing exclusively on skill-based games. This was prompted by one or two too many games which only took me a couple of weeks to finish, leaving me to wonder if I really got my money's worth. (I'm looking at you, Sonic 4 Episode 2. And Bastion*. And Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. And Outland. And...) Plus, it seems most such games require little skill to complete, because the publishers want everyone to be able to finish the story, so there's very little challenge. Sure, there may be a couple of tough spots, but you only have to get through each such spot once, and then your progress gets saved. It's a bit unsatisfying.

    So, about a month ago I picked up Mutant Storm Reloaded, which kept me occupied until Spelunky was released. Since starting Spelunky, I've joked to some of my friends that I'm done buying video games FOREVER, since I can't see myself ever needing to play anything else. :-) This could truly become my favorite video game ever, and I say that as someone who's been playing video games since the late 70's, like yourself.

    *The best thing about Bastion is the soundtrack, an album of which is available for purchase, and totally worth buying even if you haven't played the game.

  3. Robyrt says:

    Great analysis: even though my personal reaction was just the opposite, the analogy still holds. I can't get enough of Dark Souls - coming back to it again and again, despite hundreds of deaths - precisely because it is a piece of music, with an overarching internal structure and recurring themes and a narrative arc. Eventually I pass beyond learning by rote and start playing from the heart, anticipating the correct action to take before I see it. I know I'm going to a specific place and I can feel the pull of the storyline and gameplay elements drawing me into it. Instead of worrying about the game when I'm not playing, I find myself replaying those sections in my mind like a catchy melody, thinking of new strategies and plans rather than resigning myself to some new horror.

    By contrast, the pinball-like feel of Spelunky and other random-generator games provide the feeling of listening to someone vamp on a tune: sure, I've heard that one about the cave levels before, but I don't know quite where the composer is going and I know it's not going to ever settle down into something I can memorize.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>