by L.B. Jeffries

12 April 2009

Spelunky strikes to the heart of the appeal of casual gaming by rewarding the player instantly and coupling that reward with a very real sense of risk.


US: Jan 2009

The roguelike is a kind of game that utilizes our relationship with experiencing failure and the belief that changed circumstances can alter such experiences. Games like Nethack or Weird Worlds do this by giving us a randomly generated world, accessible interface, and no ability to preserve progress. The genre becomes engaging because this is the one chance you’ll have at this map, at this particular challenge. After that it will be erased and there will be a new world to explore. Derek Yu, one of the creators behind Aquaria, has created a roguelike called Spelunky that merges platforming with the possibility for failure and the thrill of exploring a brand new world each and every time.

The game begins with any number of random introductory lines before the little spelunker treks across the screen and down into a cave. Arrow keys move the character, the space bar causes him to jump, and there are several buttons used with the numerous items you’ll be picking up. All of these can be remapped to suit your fancy. Bombs are key for removing walls and mining for gold since all of the terrain is destructible, while ropes are used to climb up to distant cliffs. Various complaints have been made about the controls but I get the impression while playing that Yu was trying to make a slightly slower paced platformer than the typical speedier ones. Trying to dash away from traps or enemies rarely works out and typically the best play sessions are the ones where you pay attention to everything. The controls are only difficult if you try to rush around at breakneck speed. Although each level does have a time limit before a Ghost appears and begins to chase you, striking a balance between progress and pacing yourself is encouraged by the controls anti-twitch nature.

A Rock, Paper, Shotgun article points out that one of the things the game does very well is constantly induce a sense of responsibility in the player. There are no sudden death puzzles, nothing that will surprise you after that first initial encounter with it. Dying in the game is purely a consequence of being impatient and doing something dumb. The other key element is the variety of rewards present for a player. Collecting gold and treasure encourages the score-hungry types while having dozens of items and events in the game means that the average play session will always deliver something new. Once you get far enough in the game, you discover brand new areas that have their own monsters and quirks. Smith in the RPS piece explains, “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.” Thus, part of what drives this game’s ability to avoid negative emotions comes from the variety of goals you can impose on yourself. You can milk points, challenge yourself to beat the last level, or just explore to see what’s new.

Arguably one of the most chafing things about modern video games is that they never quite strike the right balance with failure. The only real, 100% guaranteed thing that will make any player upset is to destroy their progress in a game. Titles like Eternal Darkness make a gag out of this threat, others like Far Cry 2 find ways to create temporary pockets of lost progress through sparse save points. If the player doesn’t have anything to lose by hitting reset on the game, then they are going to do it anytime they don’t have an optimal situation, which is what makes Spelunky such a remarkable game; you don’t mind the risk because everything in the game is so transient to begin with. Victory comes in tiny spurts every game: sometimes you get a high score with treasure, sometimes you discover some new item that you’ve never seen, or in a few rare games you’ll get a level further than you did last time. The way you make the player comfortable with loss is by creating incentives, which are always changing, to keep trying so that their loss is no more material than their gain. There is always something new.

It’s the tiny details that, for me personally, made this game come alive: the way shopkeepers will attack you if they catch you messing about, the crazy antics of trying to rescue a trapped blonde woman without getting both of you killed. If you drop her she gets upset, and if you get her killed then you won’t get a health bonus, the Yetis, the random dark sections, and the constant chunk of gold that’s just barely out of reach. Items that help you explore are also key, such as the shotgun, climbing gloves, or jumping boots. Spelunky strikes to the heart of the appeal of casual gaming by rewarding the player instantly and coupling that reward with a very real sense of risk.

In fairness to readers, I’ve not gotten even close to the last level, but the game does allow you to make shortcuts to at least let you skip a few levels so that you can pick up where you left off. Several comments on other sites have noted that these don’t work because the last level requires you to have all the items you would have collected in one trip through the game’s world. Although randomly generated, the tiles of each world must be traversed in a sequence before eventually sending you to the final boss. Given Yu’s love for arduous final boss fights, like in Aquaria, this isn’t really a surprise. The game is also not quite up to version 1.0 yet, meaning there is the occasional bug. Since the game doesn’t really preserve your progress and dying often is the norm, I suppose you can just think of it as another risk.

All things considered, the game is completely free to download and has something engaging for most players. Yu explains on his blog, “My intention was to trade some of the less intellectually interesting challenges of roguelikes (like memorization, micromanagement, etc.) for the more instantaneously-gratifying and easier-to-understand reflex-based challenges of the platformer.” The resulting combination is both potent and yet rarely overbearing. You can play for five minutes or for five hours just expect to be playing a lot.

Topics: derek yu | spelunky
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