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.

REVIEW: The Walking Dead: 400 Days

walking dead 400 days

The Walking Dead: 400 Days seems like a cobbled-together playlist of Season One’s deleted scenes. But fortunately, this content would have been cut for issues of time, not quality, because it plays like the best of Lee and Clem’s adventure.

The episode begins with five photos, each representing a character story, tacked to a bulletin board. The player selects any one of these and gets thrown into conflict.

Each story provides moral dilemmas onset by living in apocalyptic times that make my compassion and survivalist instincts clash. 400 Days steeps players in these biting ethical morasses immediately. No time is wasted on context or characterization, yet each 20-minute story develops its characters better than most 50-hour epics. All five survivors seem exceptionally human, which can be credited to Telltale’s talented wordsmiths. Nate, the bigoted pickup driver, never breaks character, nor does the overprotective older sister, Shel.

Will Shel leave the safety of her camp to avoid exposing her little sister to harsh, perhaps unavoidable realities of their new world? For how long will Russell tolerate Nate’s lewdness for a ride to see far-off family? This is familiar thematic material, but the personal and situational nature of these questions – and of your subsequent choices – makes revisiting them as gripping and tense as ever.

The Walking Dead series, at its core, has always been less about zombies and more about humans bickering over how to best survive. More than previous episodes, 400 Days focuses on its starkly human characters and what makes them so. In fact – and this is not an admonition – most episodes barely glance at the undead, sometimes ignoring their rotten flesh altogether.

The only caveat in all this praise is that I’m not sure where, if at all, the episode fits in relation to the five prior—or if it even matters. At times, 400 Days seems like a reel of deleted scenes in which Telltale flaunts its writing chops and masterful craft of complex issues. But at others, it seems like a well-positioned prologue to Season Two or a grab bag of compelling situations meant to tide players over until Season Two proper.

No matter what it is, The Walking Dead: 400 Days is so well-written, technically sound, and true to what makes its subject matter compelling that I forgave its muddled identity. Walking Dead fans, too, will likely accept it as another darkly satisfying exploration of humanity in the undead apocalypse.

REVIEW: BattleBlock Theater Explores Friendship Through Cooperation and Competition

BattleBlock Theater - BattleBlock Theater Ch 7 - 8

Normally, I wouldn’t care to play a game like BattleBlock Theater. Inundated with developer The Behemoth’s trademark crude humor, I’d be more likely to roll my eyes. But for all its feces-focused frivolity, BattleBlock Theater tries to be about something I do care about: friendship.

BattleBlock addresses friendship (the theme—not to be confused with the “S.S. Friend…Ship,” which transports you to a kitty-controlled Guantanamo to entertain the felines in brutal platforming stages) most directly in its cooperative mode. To my surprise, each session translated my general attitude toward Player 2 into corresponding in-game actions. With Nichole, my best friend and long-time girlfriend, I played carefully, helpfully, cooperatively; with Clark, also a good friend (though our common exchanges of sarcastic, cutting jests might suggest otherwise), I played fast and for myself.

This difference between cooperative and competitive play is made possible by an abundance of multi-purpose mechanics and in-game tools, either helpful or harmful. I helped Nichole up to an otherwise unreachable ledge, for example, but I pulled away from Clark so he would drown in acid. I threw my boomerang to block missiles barreling toward Nichole, but I couldn’t resist using the same tool to knock Clark from a carefully timed jump. I could go on. It didn’t take the entire 18 hours I played to realize that BattleBlock is always one of two games: 1) the game it was designed to be: a silly, stylized platformer, with myriad blocks and kitty jailers and antlered raccoon whatchamacallits; or 2) a game of pointless, back-and-forth fucking around with bombs and spikes and acid.

Co-op is admittedly a small piece of the game’s whole, and plenty of the remainder is executed either poorly or in poor taste. Though ostensibly a “puzzle-platformer,” puzzles are mostly nonexistent for half the game, and those thereafter offer little challenge. Rather than requiring conscious effort to use learned mechanics, level navigation often relies on player instincts (run to the right!) to set in motion a rigged-to-awe sequence of pinball-esque platforming. And thanks to the narrator—who oscillates between schizophrenic outbursts of poetic eloquence and prepubescent immaturity—my tolerance for poop and butt jokes is absolutely gone.

Still, with a little help from my friends, we made it to BattleBlock’s outrageous albeit fitting finale. And I’m glad.

Nichole and Clark are, too.