Meaning in Death – The Genius of Spelunky

Spelunky

Pleasure in pain

Spelunky is a masterstroke of replayability and tough but fair design. The game’s premise and general moment to moment action are delightfully simple, or they at least appear that way. The goal of reaching the exit of each level seems straightforward but the multitude of ways one can go about this is staggering, with a treasure trove of items to experiment with and secrets to uncover. Spelunky’s depth runs as deep as its deadly cavernous caves.

The fact that each run isn’t quite like the previous, due to the procedural nature of each level, helps to keep things fresh too, even after many failed attempts. Such disasters are an unavoidable reality of Spelunky and indeed, enjoying the game very much hinges on one accepting this early on. Unlike a lot of games however, death here isn’t meaningless. The brutality inherent in Spelunky is almost entirely offset by the fact that almost every time you die, you’ve learned something new about the world, about how its many perilous traps operate and how to circumvent them.

The journal that fills up as you discover more enemies and items is a quite literal representation of the player’s knowledge base growing and is easily the most valuable tool in the arsenal of any spelunker. In times when experience points and unlocks have reached the point of saturation in almost every popular genre so as to become nearly totally meaningless, it is incredibly refreshing for a game to successfully impart a genuine sense of progression that doesn’t feel arbitrary or implemented simply for sake of it.

Spelunky’s decision to believe in the player’s ability to uncover this information through unfettered exploration and experimentation is a similarly inspired decision on behalf of creator Derek Yu and is undeniably reminiscent of an older school of game design philosophy. It’s a way of thinking that has thankfully re-emerged in recent times with titles like Spelunky and Demon’s Souls embracing it wholeheartedly to a great effect.

Spelunky GuyI must have sank about twenty hours into the game so far and judging by my journal completion rate, I’ve only seen about half of the what the game has to offer, at least in terms of a purely numerical qualifier. It’s remarkable that despite each play session lasting on average between 1 and 10 minutes, Spelunky has more content and secrets to unearth than almost any big budget blockbuster I can think of. What’s even more crucial, is that these secrets require a type of hard graft that isn’t predicated by boring, endless collectibles, but rather, ingenious manipulation of existing rule sets and ideas. A cursory glance at the Spelunky wiki reveals a startling amount of hidden bonuses that have been right in front of the player’s eyes the whole time, thus demanding they get creative and be rewarded with a sense of real exhilaration whenever they stumble onto one of these rewarding bounties. The ever fragile nature of your fateful adventurer servers to further enhance these moments of empowerment.

I’ve been solely playing the PlayStation Vita version of the game, which in light of the recent patch, leads me to believe it is the definitive edition. The update added what had previously been a PC exclusive mode, the daily challenge, in which players have only one life to fill their pockets, in a series of levels that are the same for everyone playing on that day. It provides a good incentive to keep coming back although the game hardly needed it. It’s a perfect portable experience too, given the inevitable shortness of most sessions and the Vita’s well designed input controls are an ideal match for finesse often required in navigating yet another spike pit.

2013 hasn’t been lacking by any means so I wouldn’t have thought that a friendly looking and comparatively simple platformer would have been able to dethrone some of the great titles I’ve enjoyed in the month twelve months but it’s quickly becoming some of the most memorable time I’ve spent gaming in recent time. And the music, my God, the music.

I’m someone who gets very easily frustrated with failure and generally avoids playing on higher difficulties. The fact that I want to so desperately dive straight back into the gloom of the caves having succumbed to yet another ruthless death is surely no better sign of a game designed to perfection, an exacting mix of pleasure and pain. Spelunky is the abusive spouse I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bail on.

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