Spelunky Review: A Marvel of Game Design

Spelunky is an example of game design done right. It is a game that harkens back to the punishing arcade games of the 80s, where failure—and the lessons learned from it—are necessary. Its mechanics, structure, and difficulty ultimately intertwine to create an experience just tough enough to keep you exploring its surprising depth.

Designed by Derek Yu and his indie development team Mossmouth, Spelunky released as PC freeware way back in December 2008. I played the 2012 Xbox Live Arcade version, complete with updated graphics and better controls.

In Spelunky you explore mines filled with treasure and laden with dangerous creatures, rescuing damsels and encountering secret after secret along the way. You enter at the top of a level and must maneuver your way to an exit at the bottom using bombs, ropes, and a whip to get around killer snakes, spike pits, and other obstacles. There is a ghost that comes to get you if you wander a level for too long.

It is a deceptively short game, consisting of 16 levels. After working your way down four caves, there are four jungle levels, then four icy caverns, and then four Egypt-esque temple levels—each with their own hazards to bump the difficulty as you progress. Number of levels aside, Spelunky is ruthlessly difficult. You begin with only three hearts. These can be lost one at a time by touching one of more than 50 “monsters,” or all at once by succumbing to one of many traps. Hardly comforting, a heart can only be earned by finding a damsel and carrying it to the exit. When you lose your last heart, whether you’re on level 2 or level 15, it’s game over—back to level 1.

These are the rules of Spelunky, but what makes it work so well is its structure and how said rules work within that structure. Like Braid, the indie game I looked at last week, Spelunky is a 2D platformer. But it is also a roguelike, a sub-genre of games characterized by randomized levels and permanent death. Yu used scramble-my-brains complicated mathematical algorithms to achieve procedural level generation. In layman’s terms, math made it so Spelunky players will never encounter the same level layout twice.

This makes it easier to not throw your controller out a window when you play for hours and still can’t get past the mines, but it also (accidentally) creates situations that tempt the adventurous spirit inside of you. These situations are a constant. You will always be considering whether getting item X is worth taking a more dangerous route, or whether item Y is worth using one of your four bombs to clear the way. It is a perfect design: a short game stunted by a difficulty that’s just right, full of mysterious objects and places to explore. Spelunky dangles a carrot in front of players’ faces just long enough for them to fail—and then try twenty more times to get that one damn carrot. It is evil and brilliant.

In line with all indie games, which evangelize games as a storytelling medium, Spelunky intertwines its mechanics with its sparse narrative. Every time you fire up the game, a procedurally generated narrative is laid out for you.

So the first time you might be looking for someone(?):

Putting the faded photo in my pocket,
I dismounted my camel,
And felt the gods smiling upon me.

or hunting for treasure(?):

After I double-checked my map,
I spotted the cave’s entrance,
And wondered how long I’d be below.

or hunting for the treasure your father never found(?):

As I recalled my father’s last words,
I squeezed the whip at my side,
And thought of her one last time.

The story is what you make it—simple, yet apt and effective.

And when you’re down below, rescuing a damsel or whatever, there is a daunting number of things to do. Creatures to mess with, treasure to collect, places to explore. From the first level of the mines—a novice Spelunker will be there a while—there are two or three objects of mysterious purpose that piqued my interest. There are mysterious objects everywhere: sacrificial altars of unknown purpose, Egyptian artifacts, and an eggplant, the existence of which I’m sure would be mythical if it weren’t for the internet. These secrets go on, too, but most, like that eggplant, are too buried. They require too much simultaneous skill and luck. The latter because, given the game’s randomly generated levels, you can never anticipate exactly where they will be once you know how to recognize them—if they appear at all. Uncovering Spelunky’s secrets depends just as much on the game as it does on your diligent effort in finding them.

Unlike Braid, this is not a serious game—not artsy or pretentious or driven by a narrative of any sort. But Spelunky should be taken seriously, as its design is flawless. It does not condescend or guide your way through, because that’s what makes it special. The sense of discovery—the epiphany of how to do or find or conquer something, then the rush of actually doing it—makes Spelunky an thoroughly entertaining and challenging diversion game. But that sense is also the heart of what makes Spelunky effective at subverting old videogame conventions and implementing characteristics unique to indie games. Its overall design made something that looks familiar, typical, and safe feel absolutely new.

Braid, Thought Provoking and Fully Authored, Is an Artistic Triumph

braidpuzzleThe 2008 brainchild of indie game developer Jonathan Blow, Braid spurred the indie renaissance—and for good reason. It received all the fruits of critical and commercial success despite being made primarily by just two people, David Hellman, the visual artist, and Blow, the everything-else artist. Blow nurtured a few thoughts with the power of code until they became a fully realized experience only proper in game form. That experience, which drips with meaning at every nook, devotes itself to a single theme like the auteur films of the 70s or the fully authored text of a short story. It is an artistic triumph.

Braid is not perfect—the controls are imprecise, which is irritating—but art is imperfect. Its existence confirms that artistic and intellectual sophistication is possible for video games, so I have no reservations calling it a tour de force. Braid comments on human existence in a uniquely video game way, doing so impressively under the guise of 30-year-old videogame tropes (think Mario rescuing Princess Peach) and within the restrictions of a platforming game (think Mario again, jumping from platform to platform)—eventually, like a Modernist writer deconstructing Romanticism, undercutting and satirizing the tropes altogether.

The story is simple. You are Tim, a man questing to rescue a Princess. The hope is that, having learned from past mistakes, things with her will be different. But Braid is as much about the imperiled Princess as Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is about drinking wine and eating hors d’oeuvres. The cliché rescue mission becomes less what it seems as you go on, and the quest for the Princess becomes less a literal task and more a mental or philosophical effort for something incorporeal.

A contemplative, zen score of licensed music and a dreamlike aesthetic compliments the time-laced narrative and puzzles perfectly. Crafted by artist David Hellman to fit Blow’s vision, the art pairs well with any scene or mood conveyed in a given area. Late in the game, as Tim’s goal becomes ambiguous and the time-rewind mechanic becomes more fantastical, thought provoking oddities show in the background and foregrounds. Mysterious headless statues recur throughout one particularly weird level. Others are made up of gently percolating clouds rendered like water-color paintings. It’s a peaceful, weird place.

More than the visuals provides a sense of peace while performing the mental exercise that Braid requires. The gameplay—how players interact with the game and do things—revolves around two things: platforming and, complimentary to this, its brain-shattering puzzles. Unlike Mario, the platforming doesn’t require twitchy reflexes or split-second decision making. It encourages the opposite. These puzzles are the sip-your-coffee-and-think type, mentally taxing but peaceful in that the game doesn’t burden you with superfluous obstacles.

This is all in line with Braid‘s theme of time, which it explores throughout. At the outset, the glowing pages of a book Tim encounters reads “If we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?” This question pertains to the narrative, the unplayable backdrop of the game, but quickly you realize that the act of playing Braid is an act of exploring Tim’s question. You don’t die in Braid. If you fall victim to something, rather than getting a “game over” screen, you can rewind time at the press of a button. Having learned from your mistakes, you are free to continue playing. You made a mistake, you learned, you continue as if the mistake never happened.

Braid alters this mechanic repeatedly throughout its six worlds to explore the ideas of causality, permanence, and interactivity in increasingly intricate ways. The first world allows you to rewind time, learn from your mistakes, and move on. In the second, sometimes certain objects, made apparent by a green glow, are impervious to your time twisting. This allows you to, say, grab a key (impervious to time manipulation), and rewind time key-in-hand to rush under a closing door. Objects become impervious to your manipulation of time in that world, and Tim’s movement left or right alters how things move in the next. In another, after you rewind to a point in time, a sort of alternate-universe Tim silhouette performs the action that you just rewound. After some careful abstract thinking, this allows you to solve puzzles by being in two places at once.

Really, by the end, it seems that that was Blow’s goal: to get players thinking about time and how with its change, we change. Braid closes with a scene as thematically appropriate and inventive as the rest of the game, wrapping up a personal narrative that can also be interpreted broadly as one about the nature of human error and regret. It’s jarring to see such a profound statement conveyed so seamlessly from this medium, and that’s coming from someone who’s been doing this a while.

The greatest praise I can give Braid, though, is that after the credits I’m still thinking about it.

Understanding the Interplay of Braid’s Mechanics and Narrative

This is the second part of my week-long look at Braid, Jonathan Blow and David Hellman’s much-lauded 2008 indie game. On Wednesdays I will examine a particularly noteworthy aspect of the week’s game, followed by a review on Friday. Today I’ll be taking a closer look at Braid—specifically, the interplay between its narrative and mechanics. Before you go on, be sure to read Monday’s post on the circumstances that made Braid what it is today.
Warning: This post contains spoilers.


The best art expresses ideas in ways unique to its medium. The film The Godfather, for example, uses uniquely cinematic techniques—editing, lighting, mise en cine—to enhance the story that unfolds on-screen. It’s why The Godfather is an enduring work, entertaining and teaching us about film 30 years after its release.

Thirty years from now, for this reason, Braid will be an enduring work.

The story is simple. You are Tim, a man—in true cliché video game fashion—questing to rescue a Princess. The hope is that, having learned from past mistakes, things with her will be different.

Braid concerns itself most with using interactivity and discovery to tell a story in a way only a game can. Its gameplay mechanics and narrative depend on one another from the beginning. At the outset, the glowing pages of a book Tim encounters reads “If we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?” This question pertains to the narrative, the unplayable backdrop of the game, but quickly you realize that the act of playing Braid is an act of exploring Tim’s question. You don’t die in Braid. If you fall victim to something, rather than presenting a “game over” screen, you can rewind time at the press of a button. Having learned from your mistakes, you are free to continue playing. You made a mistake, you learned, you get a do-over as if the mistake never happened.

The mechanic changes over the course of Braid‘s six worlds, compounding as you explore the ideas of causality, permanence, and interactivity at increasingly intricate levels. The first world allows you to rewind time, learn from your mistakes, and move on. In the second, sometimes certain objects, made apparent by a green glow, are impervious to your time twisting. This allows you to, say, grab a key (impervious to time manipulation), and rewind time key-in-hand to rush under a closing door.

Objects become impervious to your manipulation of time in that world, and Tim’s movement left or right alters how things move in the next. In another, after you rewind to a point in time, a sort of alternate-universe Tim silhouette performs the action that you just rewound. In this way, after some careful abstract thinking, you can solve puzzles by being in two places at once.

Further blending the gameplay mechanics with the narrative, the ways in which you bend time grow more fantastical as the narrative begins to take on disillusioned tones. By World 6, you use what I can only describe as a portable time bubble, which slows all objects within its radius; in that same world, the character whose previous narrative function was to say “Sorry, the Princess must be in another castle” begins to speak of the Princess as increasingly incorporeal. “I’ve never met her…,” it says. “Are you sure she exists?”

In some of the later exposition, Tim’s end goal mysteriously becomes an understanding of the Princess, whatever “the Princess” may be, as well as freedom from the alienation that results from thinking of nothing but this understanding. Very quickly we go from Tim rescuing the Princess to Jonathan Blow attaining enlightenment—and Braid itself seems to be the means by which Blow sought his understanding.

After implementing gameplay mechanics that reflect Tim (and Blow’s) journey—after fusing narrative and mechanical expression—Blow, in the pages of one of those glowing green books, seems content with having sought this understanding in the first place:

“He cannot say he has understood all of this. Possibly he’s more confused now than ever.”

and then

“But what he’s got, now, feels like an acceptable start.”