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.

Spelunking For Secrets

cityofgold

Spelunky is known for its secrets. They are well known, but only from second-hand experience. YouTube videos and TwitchTV live streams of the game both have exposed the uninitiated to Spelunky‘s hidden gems, but most people who have a 9-to-5 or kids or hobbies will never experience them first-hand. They 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—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.

It’s obvious Spelunky contains oodles of secrets from the get-go. The problem is knowing what to do with one upon finally encountering it. 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. I’ll run through a few of them to illustrate how much they all rely on a combination of luck, skill, and generosity from the game’s code.

The Udjat Eye

 

 

 

The Udjat Eye is one of the first mysterious objects players will come across in Spelunky. In either the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th level of the mines (the first of four sets of levels, followed by the jungle, ice caves, and Temple) a locked chest and key will appear. Seeing one indicates that the other is somewhere in the mine. If you manage to find the key and carry it to the chest, the chest unlocks and you are given the Udjat Eye, which appears equipped in your inventory but doesn’t seem to have a purpose.

For a while I quit unlocking the chest in the mines. I saw it as a distraction, because instead I could focus on reaching the exit safely. But once I was comfortable in my ability to navigate the mines and reach the jungle, I got interested again. Maybe that thing will do something in the jungle, I thought.

Sure enough, it did. On level 2-3 (Jungle level 3), after countless romps through the jungle that resulted in nothing, I noticed the Eye start to flicker. It flickered faster as I moved in one direction, until finally, it couldn’t flicker any faster. I noticed a grass-covered something behind the platform on which I was standing, so I blew it up with a bomb. A satisfying tune rang through my speakers and an exit was revealed, going to the “Black Market,” a place with shops that were filled with rare items. The exit from the Black Market brought me to level 2-4.

I found a secret—it took weeks, but I found one!—and my interest in the depth of Spelunky‘s was at an all-time high. It felt like I had only scratched the surface.

Hell

Hell is difficult. See: killer vampire bats, spinny spikeball chains. You don’t see: lava.

A pinnacle achievement in Spelunky is reaching Hell. Hell is a world made so inaccessible by the pure difficulty of the game and the obscurity of the items required to find it that less than 1% of players ever get there. Here’s everything one would need to do:

  • Obtain the Udjat Eye by finding both the key and chest somewhere in the mines.
  • Find the entrance to the Black Market somewhere in the jungle. The Udjat Eye flickers with light as you get closer.
  • Inside the Black Market you must buy the Ankh, another Egyptian artifact. It costs $50,000, a sum you like will not have, requiring you to kill the shopkeeper, steal it, and fight off angry shopkeepers for the rest of the game.
  • With the Ankh—and hopefully without those damn shopkeepers bothering you—you must reach the ice caves. This is difficult. There you must find the Moai, a large stone head of Egyptian style. If you have the Ankh and you die on the level that contains the Moai, upon death you will be resurrected inside the Moai, giving you the third of four Egyptian artifacts.
  • Next, complete the ice cave levels. Good luck.
  • When you’re in the Temple, a new enemy called Anubis carries a scepter. You must kill Anubis and take this scepter. Carry the scepter to level 4-2 and it functions as a key to the City of Gold.
  • No, you’re still not done.
  • Inside the City of Gold—the levels of which are just as brutally difficult as those of the Temple—you must locate and steal the Book of the Dead. When you do this, Anubis reappears and you must kill him, again.
  • Continue roughing it through the City. Level 4-4, what is usually considered the final boss level, contains a hidden door. The Book of the Dead allows you to open that door.

And through that door is Hell, another entire world filled with traps and enemies even more deadly than those of the earlier worlds. If you get through all four levels, there is a secret ending. Did I mention that you start with three hearts and cannot lose them throughout this entire process? If you do, it’s game over.

This process illustrates the incredible depth of Spelunky, but also the ridiculous amount of luck and skill and randomness that is involved in performing such a thing.

There’s more, though. The most legendary secret in gaming history is the “solo eggplant run.” It involves everything above and more, and watching it is incredible. The video is below, but the context, requirements, and story around this feat was chronicled in an excellent Polygon story by Douglas Wilson. I recommend both.

See you on Friday with a Spelunky review.

Infinite Cave Diving

spelunky-2013Make no mistake, I hate math. But I appreciate that, on rare occasions, it makes some really cool things possible. Spelunky is one of those things.

Designer Derek Yu and his indie development team Mossmouth released Spelunky as PC freeware way back in December 2008. The version I played is an updated version for Xbox 360, which released July 2012. In Spelunky you control a spelunker and 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.

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. 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. It is brutal.

Procedurally Generated Level Design…What?

This is where that math bit becomes relevant. Like Braid, the indie game I looked at last week, Spelunky is a 2D platformer. But to describe it as just that would be an injustice. 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.

This player decided to gamble: “That pile of bones probably won’t be the type that wakes up.” It was. Game over.

Take my first run for example. I’m good at Spelunky, so I made it to the fourth level of the mines no problem. I held my left analog stick down to shift the camera downward a few spaces so I could see what I’d be running into soon. A dark opening in the bottom middle of the screen signaled the exit, the portal from the fourth level of the mines to the first level of the jungle. I had an unobstructed route to the exit, but now I saw a gold key, too. The key opens a treasure chest within the level, but a vet like me knows that carrying the key from the mines to the entrance of the Temple, the fourth set of levels, creates a permanent shortcut there.

I was rusty, but I thought I was playing patiently enough to try the latter. I didn’t need treasure, I wanted the shortcut. Like a cruel joke, a poignant reminder of how important patience and close observation is while playing Spelunky, I approached the gold key but was stopped just short. A patterned silver block shot an arrow at me. The pattern signals that it’s an arrow trap, but only the pattern distinguishes it from numerous other silver blocks. I overlooked that detail.

It took my last two hearts. Game over.

I’ll try again right now. And tomorrow I’ll write more about the hidden nooks and crannies of Spelunky, including how the game’s random level design exponentially increases the difficulty in uncovering its secrets.

Passion Behind the Pixels

Indie Game: The Movie is less about games and more about the interesting people who make them, suggesting along the way that these auteurs make art—not simple, pixelated diversions.

Filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky have woven four vignettes of the indie game development process into a compelling underdog story. They follow one game during development, one as it releases, and one post-release. I felt invested in the outcome of each project early on despite this fragmentation.

 The Indie Approach

In 1967, the film industry struggled and corporations hoped for a filmmaker to provide a replicable formula for success. Mike Nichols and his film The Graduate provided just the opposite. It featured a tailored soundtrack, counter-culture themes, and symbolic characters and dialogue—all components of Nichols’ artistic vision. It was not replicable in any sense, yet it earned $40 million in its first theatrical run.

This sparked the so-called auteur renaissance, a period in which corporations allowed filmmakers to make a film based on one artistic vision. It was an industry first, changing the course of film history forever. IGTM makes the bold suggestion that the videogame industry is going through a similar artistic transformation.

More Than A Product

By tradition, games are large-scale, multi-million-dollar ventures made by hundreds of people. Like in movies, this approach stifles creativity—it is antithetical to making something people can connect with emotionally. Often developed with corporate interests in mind, AAA games have become formulaic, lacking originality and eschewing artistic merit for easy-to-sell bombastic spectacle. These are games, I imagine with a shudder, Michael Bay would endorse.

The film then asserts that indie games—small games developed by a small group of people with little money—are the solution to that problem. The lack of resources and funding causes indie developers problems of their own, but detached from publisher interests, they find their newfound artistic freedom worth the struggle. It’s the auteur renaissance all over again.

“I will kill myself”

IGTM paints intimate portraits of each developer. Phil Fish is a nerve-wracking loudmouth, Tommy Refenes is a worrisome social recluse, Edmund McMillen is a loveable artist of monsters and female genitalia, and Jonathan Blow is the wise veteran of the ten-year-old indie scene. Pajot and Swirsky document each of their anxieties, fears, and quirks in a humanizing light. It all feels honest—often too honest, making me feel guilty for seeing someone at perhaps their worst. Or maybe it’s just jarring to see the creative process drive someone to the precipice of insanity.

Both apply when it comes to Phil Fish. This emotional, extemporaneous loud-mouth, provides the dramatic core of this documentary. He’s filmed during the development of his game Fez, a “stop-and-smell-the-flowers” game in which players navigate a cubis painting. Fez is clamored for by fans but halted in legal limbo and threatened by dwindling funds. Pressured to finish it under these circumstances by an impatient “army of assholes,” as he calls Fez fans, Phil never seems far from a nervous breakdown. At one point he holds himself hostage, threatening that if the legal situation doesn’t get resolved and Fez cannot release, “I will kill myself.”

Mona Lisa, The Starry Night, Super Meat Boy

The game design process is glossed over a few times, but only to springboard to other topics. One of those topics reeks of controversy, at least among art purists: IGTM suggests that games—indie games, at least—are art, reflecting the psychology and emotion of their creators.

The idea is most clear as Edmund McMillen, comic teddy bear of the film and co-creator of Super Meat Boy, explains the creative impetus for his game’s all-meat protagonist. Skinless Meat Boy, he says, must rescue Bandage Girl because she completes him. Meanwhile, panning shots of a woman making Meat Boy merch reveal her to be McMillen’s wife. Hearing McMillen’s voice crack with emotion as he talks about a blob of meat needing a bandage is just as heartwarming as it is cliché. Seeing McMillen’s connection to the game, Meat Boy co-creator Tommy Refenes’ words resonate: “We made this game for ourselves.”

Consequences of Expression

Indie gaming veteran Jon Blow completes the loose structure of the documentary with post-release insight, his game, Braid, being a case study in commercial success despite an artistic message that often escapes its audience. Blow is neither dramatic nor fun to watch, but he provokes thought, theorizing about game design and how to connect with audiences through art.

In line with Fish’s meltdowns and Team Meat’s creative and social anxieties, Blow admits he fell into a crippling depression when he noticed audiences missing the point of Braid’s time-rewind mechanic, apparently one with metaphorical narrative significance. This anxiety pervades the other narratives, too. If the developers themselves aren’t worried about post-release reception, now we are, because Phil Fish just threatened to end his life if Fez doesn’t release. Suddenly we wonder what will happen if it releases to its “army of assholes” only to be abhorred, or perhaps worse, misunderstood.

IGTM is indeed a movie about games, but on a deeper level it is about people struggling through the tribulations of the creative process. If the subject matter doesn’t grab you, the nervous tension of being on the verge of success and failure along with the developers will. It is what makes this film, and this burgeoning genre of games, well worth your time and attention.

This review was originally published on This Is Online, an online magazine for Bemidji State University’s Web Content Writing course.