Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence
Infinite Caves, Infinite Stories

Anthony Burch | 7 Jul 2009 12:07
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The level exit is within sight. A careful downward leap will see both me and the blonde damsel I'm carrying in both arms to the next world. Only a single trap stands in my way: a gargoyle mouth that will belch out an arrow the moment I drop past it, skewering me and easily wiping out my last bit of health. If only I could throw something else at the trap to set it off prematurely ... but I'm out of bombs, and there's nothing nearby to throw. Nothing save for the helpless maiden weighing me down, anyway.

Hmm.

She plummets downward like a rock, triggering the trap and taking an arrow point-blank to the face. The force of the impact sends her body bouncing across the cave floor until it lands on a rather surprised snake, instantly crushing it to death. I pause to mourn her as I drop down safely to the exit, but only for a moment - I've still got 15 more procedurally-generated floors to go.

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Derek Yu's Spelunky may well be one of the most unassumingly mindblowing games of the last 10 years. It has no official website (its closest approximation is a stickied forum post at Yu's TIGSource.com) and isn't even technically at version 1.0 yet, but it's still managed to enthrall the independent gaming world - and even that feels like an understatement. Yu's roguelike platformer not only incorporates many design philosophies that most modern AAA designers have yet to fully achieve, but it's actively expanding the horizons of today's top indie designers.

"Spelunky has totally revamped my thinking about single-player videogame design," says Passage and Between designer Jason Rohrer. In Rohrer's 2009 GDC talk "Beyond Single Player," he held up infinitely replayable, inexhaustible multiplayer games like Go as examples of truly "deep" gameplay, in contrast to consumable, mechanically shallow games like Braid or Passage. In the realm of single-player games, Rohrer initially felt "deep" gameplay could only be partially achieved in two ways: in games like Pac-Man, in which "play is based on the dynamics of a chaotic system instead of a series of hand-crafted situations," or Tetris, in which you compete with pure, abstract randomness. "But chaotic-system reflex challenges and random sequences just don't have the texture and atmosphere that explorable content has. How do we craft textured, atmospheric single-player games that are still challenging, yet never tedious? Spelunky answers that question."

By mixing the randomly generated levels native to roguelikes with a familiar 2-D perspective and intuitive, decidedly un-roguelike game mechanics, Spelunky becomes something completely new: a perpetually fresh, challenging experience that is as accessible as it is complex. Since you navigate the environment via platforming, Spelunky's procedurally generated maps actually impact your overall strategy more than almost any other game to use similar randomization. While you can easily conquer every randomized dungeon in a game like Diablo II through brute force and determination, Spelunky forces you to constantly make meaningful decisions in order to progress. Do you risk making a blind leap down a chasm, hoping that water rather than spikes await you at the bottom? Do you save your bombs for bosses, or do you use them to blow holes in the level topography and create a more direct route to the level exit? These are not binary, one-off decisions that exist independently from the gameplay - the entire process of playing Spelunky requires you to make new and interesting choices like these, over and over again.

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