PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Spelunky,' Roguelikes, and the Good Death

In Spelunky, death is inevitable and swift. It's also extremely fulfilling.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.