A Love Letter to Spelunky

I furrowed my brow
Drained the rest of my canteen
And thought of her one last time
— (Randomized) opening narration to Spelunky

Spelunky (spelunkyworld.com) is definitely one of my favorite games of all time — I’m not sure if it matters that the creator is Chinese. You can definitely read something into that I think, I was thinking about it the other day, when I died in the most ridiculous fashion for the Nth time and it sort of dawned on me that the game was designed to reward prudence rather than memorization. It felt like I was being taught a lesson, a Chinese sort of lesson. That is, the game is meant to be “unfair” to how we usually play — by becoming familiar with the surroundings and rushing through things. For example, ther is an arrow trap that is almost entirely harmless as long as you see it — like so many other things in this game — mostly harmless as long as you can plan for it. But if your rush through the trap will strike with a speed that is almost entirely impossible to respond to.

This is not an atypical response to Spelunky. Someone from Eurogamer recently wrote a review to the effect that it would be a great way to educate his daughter, by making her play this game. It tends to draw out that sort of reflective consideration. The emphasis on planning rather than memorization, on the dangers of assumptions, and so on.

Spelunky hails from a genre called “roguelikes” (fast becoming the genre for independent developers) that emphasizes difficulty, the combination of simple rules towards complex ends (usually resulting in death), and randomization. Perhaps the key aspect of roguelikes however, I mean, the principle upon which the above descriptive characteristics are founded, is the generation of reflective stories. The point of roguelikes, many a player may realize in a zen sort of moment, is not victory, nor doing one’s best, but the generation of interesting adventures. It’s fine to lose as long as one does it in an interesting way, in a way that, for example, reveals one’s own unexpected assumptions, or an entirely unexpected aspect of the universe, and so on. Of course, despite its emphasis on randomization, there is an overarching narrative of world view to roguelikes, which is what players of Spelunky pick up on.

This gets a at a general principle of game design. Game design is not the generation of a predefined experience, or a simulation of some form, but rather more of a kind of haphazard and sometimes random commentary on the player’s experience. One of the most fascinating aspects of roguelikes is that there is nothing really “outside the game”, I mean, in a game about “rogues”, about the exploitation of weakness, there is quite possibly no such thing as playing the game in a way that was “unintended”. And not even, perhaps, that, as they say, “the devteam thinks of everything”, that the game has completedly thought out all the N! interactions or whatever, but rather because the game comments on everything.

There are many striking aspects, in this regard, about Spelunky. Many have commented on its emphasis on a kind of internal reflection — as may be reflected from the (randomly generated) opening lines. It actually generates these reflections because it is enormously difficult — but in a particular kind of way. It is not difficult because it requires technical input or elaborate memorization, in other words, because of its learning curve but rather precisely because it is engineered, on some level, to defeat the learning curve, as much as that is possible. There are moments when one realizes that one is getting worse at the game. But, stepping back a bit, this is the sort of dialogue that we come to have with Spelunky, a kind of event that seems to occur on a different level altogether.

In general, a game may perhaps be defined by that territory that it claims ownership of, I mean, its field of commentary. The roguelike, traditionally conceived, provides a commentary on the windfalls, misfortunes, errors, gambits of the player within the system of the game. But there is another sort of commentary, which is why many find this game so endlessly fascinating, which derives from the way in which Spelunky anticipates how we approach games, our relationship to games in general and our relationship to memory. In this respect it also seems to reveal, in some sense, how stale the roguelike genre is in danger of becoming.

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