The intricate obsession we all have with exploring and discovering new things is, I think, the reason we play video games in the first place. But too often, games that tout the ability to discover new things are really touting their willingness to show them to you. Spelunky doesn’t show off its secrets. It’s not designed to show you something – it’s designed to help you show something to yourself.
This is not true of all games, but it is true of all addictions.
Exploration and action only become personal experiences when they can be interacted with. Even five years after its re-release on the console arcades, Spelunky is a game that still spills its secrets to me, in the puzzles of moment-to-moment action, in the discovery of a new approach to a situation that has killed me countless times before. Spelunky generates a new map every time you play, which many imitators have taken as an excuse to cram their games full of options and variations.
But what makes Spelunky special, what makes it endure as an obsession as enjoyable offhand as Tetris and Super Mario Bros., is not the algorithmic magic that makes it different every time, but the smart design that keeps the right things always the same.
Each level contains a few constants. There are treasures and enemies, a damsel to save from each level, an occasional shopkeeper, and an exit that’s always on the bottom floor. There are traps (wall darts, lava, etc.) but they’re specific to each of the game’s four worlds. This means that while exploration is hazardous, you will never be caught off-guard with something that the game generated on a whim: if you know the world, you should know what to watch out for. Enemies don’t attack you like they do in Galaga and Call of Duty. They let you come to them, and initiate your own combat strategy in your own time. Spelunky is almost tile-based, like a tactical mod for Super Mario World.
This places the focus of your playing on careful and considerate exploration rather than twitch reactions to unforeseen threats. It means that player experience is the single determining factor in your exploratory triumphs. And your spectacular failures.
There’s been debate since the release of Spelunky as to what really makes up a “roguelike” game. The limitations of defining any genre may prevent us from knowing for sure. But the ability of Spelunky to narrow the player’s view to see victory and defeat as an exclusive result of experience and not of powering up, makes it ideal to discuss the genre even if it doesn’t necessarily define it.
Whatever variations on the term (“rogue-lite” or “roguelike-like”) the essential premise of a roguelike goes beyond procedurally-generated maps, permanent death, and RPG elements. Its core principle is that player strength replaces avatar strength as the measure for success in the game’s challenges. Therefore, the chaos of designing the infinite worlds of a roguelike must be balanced with conformity. Luck, in a roguelike, would be the same as avatar strength since it emphasizes game conditions and not skills. Hitting on a great power-up in the first level should not mean a stronger in-game character, or a guarantee of more life as you spiral inevitably to your perma-death. It must simply be a factor that the player has to balance through experience.
Spelunky excels at this balance. Great power-ups can rarely be found, and are more commonly bought at the randomly-generated stores. But they cost you treasure – your score – and may cost you later in an inability to buy more crucial ropes and bombs. They fill up your hands, sometimes flabbergasting you in a crucial situation. Some even over-empower you, tempting you to risk too much and think too little. If you’re tight on cash you can kill the store owner, but this doesn’t let you off either: every shopkeeper in this playthrough will now begrudge you for your sins, and there will be an extra one patrolling every level exit, hoping to sabotage your clean escape.
Is it worth it? The brilliant contradiction of Spelunky is that it’s never worth it until you’ve experienced it enough times to get through it. In order to learn how to beat angry shopkeepers, you have to take a calculated leap into that danger. To win, you have to die, as surely as you did in Ghosts n’ Goblins. But instead of learning a specific pattern to overcome the errors of the game’s specific trials, in Spelunky you simply become more adept at managing your own limitations, and navigating the game’s constants in the face of an ever-changing dungeon design. Spelunky will turn you into a strategist, a miserly health manager, a resource pincher, and maybe even a bold explorer. It will do it because it teaches through experience, through your willingness to continue dying for the promise of a tiny step forward, not in the game’s progress, but in the progress of your skill.
And when you get good the whole game can be beaten in less than eight minutes (there’s a Steam achievement for doing just that). This isn’t new: despite some players spending years beating Castlevania on the NES, you don’t really need more than a half-hour if you know what you’re doing. Speed runs may be the domain of the hardcore, those who forced pleasurable games to become grueling through self-limitation, but Spelunky has that already built in. That’s its idea of you, the player it hopes to turn into an explorer.
The Indiana Jones aesthetic isn’t an accident: Spelunky loves and respects you. It thinks of you as possibly a stalwart and daring adventurer, someone who needs only the most basic tutorial before being let loose into its wild unknown. Though I was tentative at first, I found my idea of myself becoming a character arc worthy of an adventure movie. My experience instigated my belief in myself, my ability to face danger and overcome organic threats. I became more daring in my willingness to save the damsel, when I discovered how valuable her health boost was (it’s the only one you get). Then I did it just to save her for its own sake, for the romantic catharsis of seeing those cute lips meet my cheek after hazarding so much to get there. My greed for the store’s wares constantly conflicted with the potential dangers later on of making an enemy of the only other NPC.
Risk and reward is a cliché, but not often in video games. Spelunky is uniquely economic for how action-oriented it is in practice, rewarding clever management as much as platforming prowess. It asks you to be active in expanding your limitations, and it deserves you by having clear limitations on itself. The map is procedurally-generated but the rules aren’t. The best video games aren’t those that impacted us on a single playthrough (like the best movies might be). The true best games are those that have captivated our attentions for thousands of hours, games we play without even considering that we’ve sat down for a session. Games like Tetris set the standard for rewarding your addiction in a controlled environment. Spelunky has turned it into an epic quest, one that still steers the Indie market in the pursuit of the perfectly randomized adventure.
But with Spelunky, we might already have it.