‘Spelunky,’ Roguelikes, and the Good Death

With the recent PC release, I’ve fallen back down the deep, unforgiving chasm that is Spelunky. Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic. I actually love Spelunky and barely need an excuse to play it again. My most recent return to the game coincides with a host of other modern roguelikes (or roguelike-likes, or rogue-lites, if you’re so inclined) that bring with them a philosophy of unapologetically challenging the player. It’s fascinating to me that these games are thriving alongside experiential games like Gone Home as well as broadly accessible blockbusters that are meant to entertain rather than challenge. With that in mind, I wanted to do a little armchair mass-psychoanalysis on why many of us are so entranced by roguelikes.

No matter who you are, you’ll die a lot when playing Spelunky just as you will in most other roguelikes. These deaths can stem from a serious of infelicitous coincidences. They can come from your own hubris. They can be caused by your inability to execute your planned move. They all sting, but they are also good deaths. They aren’t sugar-coated, they’re comprehensible, and they provide closure for each individual playthrough.

These thoughts crystallized as I watched an interview with Derek Yu (Spelunky’s creator), Doug Wilson, and Anthony Carboni:

The whole video is well worth watching, but the beginning has some good bits that explain a roguelike’s appeal. Wilson praises Spelunky because “it treats you like an adult.” This isn’t to say that all other games are for kids. Instead, it’s more about finding a game that asks you to agree to consequences for failure. You have to make a decision: you agree to the rules of the game and the time necessary to gain proficiency or you simply choose not to play it.

As Derek Yu astutely notes, video games are extremely pedagogical by comparison to other art forms: “When people write a novel for adults, there’s not a section in the middle of the novel that’s like, ‘Oh and here’s a part for people that just started reading,’ but games do that all the time.” So many other games try to aim for some vague middle ground when it comes to challenge: multiple difficulty levels, sliding challenges based on performance, the ability to skip challenges entirely. The player is meant to be catered to, placated, and strung along at all costs. Knowledge is something transferred by the game, rather than something accumulated by the player.

Wilson, Yu, and Carboni joke around about Spelunky and its similarity to the works of Dostoevsky, but there is a thread of truth there: both works do minimal tutorializing. They expect certain base skills and an interest in improving them. The text doesn’t change to suit your need; you improve your understanding of it the same way that you learn enemy patterns and situational awareness. In a sea of quick time events and scaling difficulty, this kind of solidity is refreshing. Failure is cruel — but ultimately understandable.

In fact, failure is a core part of the game. As the video shows, a roguelike such as Spelunky easily thwarts its own creator. Because you start over after death, each playthrough then becomes a self contained story that never requires the suspension of disbelief needed for many story driven games. While playing The Last of Us, I saw Joel and Ellie “die” gruesomely dozens of times. These weren’t good deaths because they didn’t mean much: a quick respawn and I’m back where I started, oftentimes with now clear indication as to what killed me or how an enemy’s attack range works. Failure thus became a temporary setback that undercuts the structured narrative. Clearly, my deaths weren’t the canonical ones.

In a roguelike, the game’s story is your story from beginning to end, regardless of how glorious it is. The most unexpected events can be unraveled and explained. Why did that shopkeeper blast you seemingly unprovoked? Well, it turns out an enemy shoplifted something from the store, thus setting off a series of events in which the shopkeeper started rampaging through the level. Your death may in fact have been inevitable, but it was dictated by a series of fascinating rules that are individually static, but collectively dynamic. Every failure is another chance to learn more rather than a simple punishment for not memorizing a scripted sequence.

At the beginning of the video, Yu reminds Wilson that to “Try new things, it’s what [Spelunky is all about.” This is true of a variety of levels. Without heavy tutorializing, Spelunky forces you to take risks. The levels themselves change so that you’ll always find new terrain. You’ll also find yourself continually dispatched by new trap and enemy interactions. At the end of each run, you’ll have learned something, you’ll have tested your skills, and you’Il have your own unique story. This story will most likely end with your death, but it will be a good one.

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