The Depths of Spelunky

I’m behind the game on this one, but Derek “Tigsource and Aquaria” Yu has pre-released a game called Spelunky, and it’s the best roguelike I’ve ever played. Yu bills it as a cross between La Mulana and Nethack, but it’s fairer and more fun than either. The procedurally-generated levels and swift death is balanced by an incredible depth that has helped me finally grok what the whole roguelike thing is all about.

I read somewhere that the most important experience gained when playing a roguelike is not gained by the player character, but by the player. Roguelikes are typically text-based dungeon-crawlers with random, procedurally-generated levels and permanent death. With each swift and sudden death, the player learns something; usually it’s “don’t get mauled by a suspiciously vicious rat,” but sometimes it’s “check to see if items are cursed” or “fountains are really weird.” Instead of the normal single-playthrough-with-restored-savegames path of most digital games, roguelike players will make and kill off hundreds of characters before they win. Even though I could appreciate what fans saw in the games, they always struck me as too obtuse and frustrating for my tastes.

But I get it now. Spelunky is cute and accessible, with smooth platform-jumping mechanics and an appealing Indiana-Jones-like theme. At the same time, players will die. A lot. They’ll be impaled by traps, crushed by boulders, exsanguinated by spiders and bats, and embarrassingly brained by their own ricocheting thrown rock. With each death, the player learns a bit more. This kind of block often fires darts. That high of a fall is painful. I never felt cheated when I died; I knew it was fair. I was too careless, or I’d never encountered a situation before.

I think what makes the game especially compelling is its excellent simulationism. All of the level terrain is destroyable by bomb or boulder, thrown objects react with believable physics, and the level generation makes spaces that feel real. Anything that should be possible is: the player can steal from stores, kill giant spiders with bombs, and pull off clever and daring escapes from fiendish traps.

It makes me feel a little less like a high-faluting intellectual ludologist, but I’ll take cute pixelly tomb-raiding over text-mode item-identifying dungeons any day. Check out Spelunky and snatch a few idols of your own. Let me know of any interesting stories you discover in the comments.