I sprint and land in spikes. The familiar screen stretches out once more. I am dead. Try again? Video-games since their very inception have championed ridiculous ideas around death. The near immortality guaranteed by a ‘respawn system’ removes all consequences from the player’s hands. You are dispensable. Perhaps it’s the missing ingredient missing from video-games as an artistic force? An ability to consider and contemplate death. It’s utterly fascinating when the idea of a ‘one life’ is introduced into a video-game setting. The interactions, your approaches, your pace and your courage all feed into a singular playthrough. There is no turning back.
Permanent death in the modern video-game setting hasn’t been championed as much as it was back in some of gaming’s early days. There were ‘rogue-likes’ and ‘dungeon crawlers’ and a variety of genres that spun the idea of permanent death into the fabric of interaction. Since the beginning of gaming, however, the whole idea of ‘death’ within the interactive context is that (for most titles) death caries no consequence. It seems odd to me that we have to brand it, almost with a tickle of humour, as ‘permanent death’ (or permadeath) but the entire setting of the video-game medium probably demands this approach to the lexicon. There are a few modern titles that do embody permadeath: The Binding of Isaac by Edmund McMillen, introducing permadeath into Far Cry 2 arguably creates the most immersive video-game experience of all time and then there’s Spelunky.
Derek Yu’s Spelunky started out as a little freeware title that felt like an Indiana Jones dungeon crawler. I remember playing it for the first time and disliking it. Maybe it was the retro, pixelated aesthetic or the harshness of the game. It frustrated me heavily and so I decided never to return again. I later started reading up on the game and caught an article from Tom Francis in late 2009 (now available online) and rediscovered the game. I realized that my frustration at the video-game had been misdirected because I was actually ignoring my own failures. Spelunky is, at its very core, about failure.
It’s an incredibly harsh, infuriating and maddening experience but never does it feel unfair. There are no glitches or lags in animation nor any control malfunctions, the action is all in your hands. The mistakes are yours alone. It becomes readily apparent a good way into the game that you’re an idiot. You need to learn. Patience, courage, thoughtfulness and all the systems of the game. How much does a box of 12 bombs cost? Is it worth getting the damsel? These are questions that slowly bleed you into the world of Spelunky and after 100s of hours logged into the game I have a confession to make: I have never completed it.
The freeware version still sits on my computer. I have been inches away from the fabled ‘City of Gold’, I have had 8 hearts and a full inventory of luxuries and I’ve even defeated the final boss only to clumsily slip to my death. Death. Mistakes. Spelunky is about failure and it includes the art of death within the sphere of failure. Every decision you make has an impact on your survival; every item, damsel and fall from a ledge. It’s thrilling to look down and not know where the ground is, to gulp when the ghost appears or when you’re trapped with one heart with ghouls and ghastlies all around.
The Xbox Live version of the game is largely unchanged, but there’s subtle tweaks and graphical elevations that just bring the game to a stage unparalleled. The connection that you make with the game’s world is made more merrier. The game has some wickedly absurd humour, you can now rescue ‘pugs’ instead of ‘damsels’ (or a ‘mansel’), and there’s a real weight of care carried to every level. It feels handcrafted in a way, and there’s some subtle things that make the game that much sweeter. Even if you’re playing as the same sex of a ‘damsel’ or a ‘mansel’ there’s still a kiss to be had. There’s no hornblowing for gay rights, it just happens. Kisses are kisses bro.
As you progress through the game, and I only got a twinge of this feeling with the freeware version, the value of your life increases. You gain items and inventory, obviously, but what makes the art of death truly artful is the value of an experience. I played for twenty minutes only to fall to my death and on that reset screen you just look back to that self-contained episode. You talk about your life. Not the game as a whole, not your kill/death ratio on Call of Duty nor how awesome it was to finally ‘beat the boss’. There is a boss in Spelunky, but getting to him takes a literal lifetime.
I might as well state that Spelunky (XBLA) is my current game of the year thus far. It’s a smart piece of interaction. Its randomized levels make every life feel like a life, unique, and the systems are all fair. The game is pure skill and patience. It requires dying. It requires learning. Most of all it requires us to learn a lesson, that ‘getting to the boss’ doesn’t matter in the end. Spelunky, if anything, can be summed up as a tremendous effort in survival.
I will be writing on Spelunky in the near future with a focus on its aesthetic, some of its visual themes, its callbacks to the retro world of gaming and perhaps some other topics. It’s a deep, enriching game and an incredible feet of both technical engineering and emotional construction.