Respecting Us to Death: Spelunky on XBLA

If you doubt for a moment that gaming is moving forward as a medium, or that new styles and genres are rapidly gaining mainstream acceptance, consider that Minecraft has sold well over a million copies as an Xbox 360 game—and then consider the impending Xbox release of another deep, gutsy, hour-devouring indie titan: Spelunky.

The Xbox Live Arcade has served as a launch pad for countless indie luminaries, from Braid to Super Meat Boy to Limbo to Fez, but those games have a funny way of finding their way to PC, and thereby to even greater financial success and an even larger following. (Fez has yet to make that leap, but give it a year or so). Minecraft and Spelunky, on the other hand, have been self-published PC mainstays for years, freely expanding and experimenting via free updates, and only now are they finding their way onto the mostly-benevolent island dictatorship of downloadable console games. Interesting times, folks.

Like Minecraft before it, Derek Yu and Andy Hull’s rougelike/platformer opus arrives with a newly-created tutorial and a robust in-game codex. And as in the case of Minecraft, the concessions to new players pretty much stop there.

Spelunky XBLA has plenty that the original PC game does not, from two-to-four-player co-op to overhauled audiovisuals to the aforementioned teaching tools, but the core design has not been mainstreamed for its mainstream release. It still belongs to that rapidly expanding swath of games that respect you enough to kill you over and over and over. As Yu told Gamasutra, he hopes “that casual players will see how much fun a tough game can be if it’s designed well.”

In other words, rather than lower the game to a dumber denominator, Yu saw this new version as an opportunity to exceed and elevate new players’ expectations, to invite the self-identified casual set into his high-minded, uncompromising fold. Whether that’s admirable or arrogant, I’m not quite sure. Like most genuinely ambitious projects, it’s probably a little of both.

When Spelunky debuted in 2008, it was the vanguard of cross-pollinating familiar NES-era designs with the opaque world-building, procedural generation, and permanent (sometimes inevitably cheap) death of rougelikes. This combination blew the mind of at least one Independent Games Festival judge, who said that where most games ask the player to learn and repeat a discrete sequence of actions, akin to learning a single instrumental line in a piece of music, Spelunky is about learning “the overall composition, understanding the overall system and how it works, and becoming fluent in that.” The lovestruck IGF judge went on to say that Spelunky

looks like a game of execution, but it’s really a game about information and decision-making. How good are you at looking at a situation and understanding what it means? You can’t memorize, and you can’t take time to carefully analyze, you must rely on your literacy of the system.

Which is not to imply the absence of execution challenges, mind you. Bad jumps are just as deadly as bad tactics, so this is not a mere genre bait-and-switch, a stern-faced RPG in the motley of a side-scrolling action game. Rather, Spelunky is aiming at a “holistic” mode of interaction where ideas become indistinct from their execution, every moment at once visceral and cerebral.

Spelunky was by no means the first game to generate its content procedurally, but it was one of the first to crystallize, refine, and expand what that technique could mean. Four years later, it remains one of the most compelling, maddening, compulsive games ever made, thanks in no small part to its oscillating cruelty and kindness, its ability to mete out fortune and misfortune in rapid succession or even simultaneously.

There’s a right and a wrong way to do this stuff, and Spelunky XBLA must be doing it right, given that I (usually) have a smile on my face after being impaled for the nth time. Of course, I’ve never been impaled in quite the same way twice, and it’s hard to overstate the degree to which that helps matters. There have been cheap deaths, to be sure, but they’ve been in the interest of forging a world that is irresistibly and often hilariously hostile. (Attack a shopkeeper, even accidentally, and you’ll see what I mean).

This is a game that allows for few non-fatal mistakes, but also few discoveries that are anything less than exhilarating and few successes that are anything less than triumphant. So then, one more comparison to Minecraft: while there will be plenty of people who respect the design more than they actually enjoy it, those who do fall for Spelunky XBLA will fall hard. Probably into lava or spikes or something. And then they’ll gladly fall all over again.

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