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.
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.
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.
While the randomized levels encourage constant deliberation over rote memorization, the decisions you make would not be nearly as compelling without Spelunky‘s remarkably dense emergent gameplay. Today I Die creator Daniel Benmergui says of the game, “It’s what many people (including me!) wanted to do for a long time: set up basic navigation, encourage careful exploration over hoarding crap and add behavioral elements that produce emergent, ridiculous situations.”
Consider the shopkeepers, for instance. Sprinkled throughout the game’s 20 levels, shopkeepers offer everything from extra ropes to teleportation devices. Initially, you might assume these shopkeepers obey the single, illogical, unspoken rule of every videogame shopkeeper from The Legend of Zelda to Resident Evil 4: Despite the fact that you’re a heavily armed hero and he’s a business-minded entrepreneur, you can’t steal from him.
In Spelunky, this assumption is wrong. Awesomely so.
You can not only grab any item in the store and run out with it, but doing so will cause the aggrieved merchant to pull out an instant-kill shotgun and chase you to the end of the level, firing wildly. If that’s not enough, you can then kill the belligerent shopkeeper and take the shotgun for yourself. Of course, stealing from a merchant makes you a fugitive whose face adorns Wanted posters in every single shop you encounter until the end of the game. You’ll be fired on instantly by every shopkeeper without hesitation; the merciless bastards even set traps for you near level exits to avenge their fallen comrade. What initially seemed a simple situation – buy from a shopkeeper or don’t – suddenly turns into a multifaceted decision with wide-ranging consequences. Whether the second most powerful weapon in the game and a handful of booty is worth becoming a marked man is entirely up to you.
While Spelunky may not support quite as many emergent situations as a typical roguelike like NetHack, it gives you the freedom to express yourself through hundreds, if not thousands of emergent strategies without bewildering you through convoluted object relationships or a confusing interface. In a sense, Spelunky continually encourages the design ideal that Far Cry 2 Creative Director Clint Hocking calls “intentional play”: Rather than simply progress through a game utilizing learned skills as necessary, you’re able to plan and effect unique situations by using your imagination and a combination of the game’s core mechanics. Countless sandbox games take pride in the amount of supposed freedom they offer, but very few actually encourage the degree of intentional play that Spelunky does in every session.
Granted, “encourage” may not be the correct word – perhaps it’s better to say that Spelunky requires thoughtful, imaginative play. For all of Spelunky‘s platforming-centric improvements on the roguelike formula, it retains one of the genre’s most classic, controversial design choices: permanent player death. There are no saves or extra lives in Spelunky, only four sets of five punishing levels.
Just as in classic roguelikes, Spelunky‘s rigid definition of death forces you to treat every playthrough with a degree of care and foresight unheard of in today’s hand-holding, quicksave-heavy design landscape. Unlike classic roguelikes, however, it doesn’t feel like Spelunky derives a sadistic pleasure out of killing players simply for stepping onto invisible trap doors or picking up arbitrarily cursed items. “The thing that Spelunky totally nails,” says Braid creator Jonathan Blow, “is that whenever I die, there’s a good probability it was in a ridiculous fashion, yet the game always feels fair.”
A typical Spelunky playthrough lasts less than 15 minutes, encouraging constant replays. You’ll likely die a hundred times before finally becoming skilled enough to complete the final level, and even that is being generous. Spelunky is an unforgiving, unapologetic game where you can go from having five full hearts to zero thanks to a mistimed jump, but you always feel responsible for your own failure. With every death, you learn something new, gradually building your knowledge on an ever-growing pile of adorable pixelated adventurer corpses. “What I am mostly awed at,” Benmergui raves, “is the fact that you yourself are learning the survival skills the game needs … each time I played I learned something new that piled up with my real experience, and allowed me to go a little further this time (provided I didn’t make a stupid mistake). I didn’t even realize I was developing these skills.”
When you add up these three core design components – randomized platforming levels, emergent gameplay and permanent death – the result is far more than the sum of their parts. Nearly all aspects of Spelunky gracefully play off each other: The randomized levels make every play-through feel fresh, the high-stakes failure states make every level challenging and the elegant, interlacing gameplay mechanics allow you to overcome those challenges in innumerable different ways. In a world where games strive for replayability through unlockable content and higher difficulty modes, Spelunky’s measured, thoughtful design is so engrossing that an average player may end up replaying it literally hundreds of times. (“I actually have it as an icon in my quick launch bar now,” Blow confesses).
Where AAA games use bigger and bigger budgets to afford players more compelling choices, Derek Yu has singlehandedly created a game with more player agency than nearly every open-world RPG or sandbox title in recent memory. Where Fable II or Prince of Persia seek to make the act of play as consequence- and frustration-free as possible, Spelunky kills you thousands of times but keeps you coming back for more. It’s imaginative, polished and addictive, and it’s doing more to further the art of game design than most mainstream fare.
Oh, and did I mention it’s free?
Anthony Burch produces the web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin, writes about videogame-to-film adaptations at AMC and is the features editor for Destructoid.com. He recently completed Runner, his first artgame.