Summary Judgment: Spelunky

                When thinking about the platformers of gaming’s genetic history, it’s easy to consider the genre as a series of growth tests.  Fundamentally, a platformer is largely about training oneself to surmount the challenges presented by the game in order to achieve a measure of progress through a number of levels.  Your growth, ultimately, is presented to you by a show of pure progress – you know how good you are because of how far you are in the game.

With Spelunky, that measure of progress is moved from the game to the player.  As the Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera said in his review, “Spelunky features a robust leveling and XP system, but it exists only in your heart.”  No truer words about Spelunky have ever been spoken.  It’s easy to think of progress in terms of completion or levels, but that would be a lie for Spelunky; the only levels you really complete are the ones in your mind and your skill.


Pictured: Optimism.


Spelunky is a game of endless optimism.  A platformer in the traditional style with a peculiar twist, each life in Spelunky consists of an attempt by the player to reach the bottom of a series of levels intact, with death being permanent.  Upon dying, the player is sent back to the beginning (or to the most recently unlocked shortcut) and the dungeon’s levels reassert themselves into new configurations, creating a new challenge for the player with each new attempt.  As a backdrop to all of this and a permanent temptation, the levels are filled with various special forms of loot and money, with the money serving a dual purpose as both a score mechanic and a means of purchasing powerful items to use in the attempt to reach the bottom.

The optimism comes in with each death.  Each new attempt to tackle the caverns is accompanied by the hope that this time, it will be different.  This time, I won’t hit spikes, or blow myself  up, or be shot by an arrow.  This time, I have the knowledge and experience necessary to make it farther than I’ve ever made it before.

And the beauty of this optimism is that every time you set back off thinking it will be better, it is.  Each new death teaches you something critically important for your success in the journey downward.  Got killed by a trap?  Now you know better.  Blew yourself up?  Now you understand the bomb physics a bit more.  Pissed off a shopkeeper?  Now you’re terrified of shopkeepers.  Every new death is a new lesson and a new chance to get better at the game, and I quickly found myself adapting and breezing through the levels that had previously given me seemingly endless trouble.

But that’s not to say that things get boring as you improve.  Even the basic levels in the mines still contain treasures that carry with them a risk of spikes or arrows, and each level can be as challenging or as easy as you’re willing to let it be.  Spelunky is entirely a reflection of the player, and that’s what makes it so damn compelling.


Okay, maybe this dog isn’t a reflection of the player.

So when I and others say that the progression of the game is internal, what we mean is that it contrasts to a normal platforming experience.  If I die on 8-1 in Super Mario Bros., I have to then approach that level again and think on ways to overcome that specific challenge.  If I die on 2-2 in Spelunky, then I need to get better at Spelunky.  As a result, even when I don’t make numerical progress through levels, it feels like I’m moving forward because I can tell that I’m improving at the game.


                Where the game really comes together is in the wonderful social connection you develop with the other people you know who are playing it.  Spelunky is practical a story generator, with each new death providing you with a crazy tale to spin about the circumstances that led up to your untimely demise.  Those of us who play the game form a community solely around the insane stories of our deaths and survivals, and it makes each new crack at the caverns a new chance to gain a conversation piece, because no two adventures are ever the same.


What could possibly go wrong?

On top of this, the Steam version of the game contains a staggeringly brilliant facet known as the “Daily Challenge”, a predetermined set of levels that every person playing the challenge has to confront.  The catch?  You have only one shot at conquering them, one chance to make it to the bottom for cash and glory on the leaderboard.  It provides that common ground that Spelunky stories were missing at times; if myself and a friend both tackle the Daily Challenge, we each have a story of that exact set of levels and where we screwed up, died, or survived miraculously.  It’s such a compelling social experience that Gunpoint’s Tom Francis has dedicated an entire site, the Spelunky Explorer’s Club, to chronicling and showcasing people’s daily attempts at the pregenerated, fixed set of levels.

Spelunky is worth taking a look at for anyone who enjoys growing as a player rather than as a number.  It’s available on Steam, the 360, and on the PSN, each with their own advantages: Steam has the Daily Challenge, the 360 has access to all of Xbox Live’s functionality, and the PSN version contains cross-buy and cross-play support for the Vita and PS3, enabling independent split-screen multiplayer across a Vita and PS3 on this version only.   Whatever platform you’re on, Spelunky is worth taking a look at.  You just might find yourself learning a thing or two about improving as a gamer along the way.


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