On the surface, Spelunky is a rogue-like platformer where you become like Indiana Jones, going farther and farther inside ancient caves holding untold riches and perhaps even lost civilisations. You have some rope, some bombs, a whip and whatever else you find along the way. It’s a difficult game, and you will die a ton. But death is also a tool in your arsenal: eventually, you’ll have a repertoire of mistakes that help guide your future spelunkers to make better decisions.
Oh but to leave Spelunky, the Xbox 360 remake of the PC freeware title by Derek Yu, at simply that description would be a colossal mistake. There is more, so much more. There is so much here that even now, playing it months after release, and despite playing it religiously, I am still learning new things about how it works.
Mysteries sure have a way of holding a vice grip over us, huh? And yes, the totality of the game is a mystery to me: there are areas I’ve never been to, enemies I’ve never faced, items that work in surprising ways I haven’t tried yet, and secrets requiring esoteric actions. I’m not good enough at the game for all of this to ever change, and this fact aggravates me. It also keeps me coming back for more.
A good lover knows how important it is to keep things interesting, as well as when to fight and defy you. More: a good lover beckons and refuses at both the best and worst times. Spelunky embodies these things through its procedural generation, its difficulty, its mystery, and all of these things work together to captivate me and frustrate me.
To avoid taking the lover metaphor too far, a collection of things that Spelunky is:
Spelunky is never letting go of the run button, it’s refusing to look before you jump, it’s taking the golden head statue no matter what trap it sets off — a million small acts of exhilarating defiance and recklessness through which I want to prove that I can take what Spelunky throws and me, and more. It’s losing track of who is in command of who.
Spelunky is crowding a group of friends around a TV, fighting over who gets to go first, and then spending five minutes whipping each other instead of playing. It’s competing to get the gold, the girl (or dog, or guy!), or the exit. It’s accidentally killing each other, or intentionally killing each other because screw you, I want that item!
Spelunky is holding a damsel in distress, seeing that the only thing standing between you and the exit is an arrow trap, and deciding that you’re going to chuck the damsel at the trap instead of sacrificing your last remaining heart. And you’re not even sorry.
Spelunky is always holding something in your hand: a rock, a skull, a vase. Whatever might help with the eventual threat. And then: it’s realising you will never actually be ready for what actually kills you.
Spelunky is nights of drunken belligerence where I am intent on finally beating the game — this time for sure! — and then never making it past the first floor. And still having fun in spite of that.
Spelunky is seeking out all the spiders and snakes because I want to feel them splat underneath my boot, convinced that the sensation is better than stomping on a thousand goombas, convinced it is better than leaving no leaf uncrunched on an autumn stroll.
Spelunky is not letting that stupid death ghost deter you from picking up every treasure along the way.
Spelunky is deciding to antagonise the shopkeeper when you see him because he’s going to go berserk no matter what you do anyway — might as well speed things up. And then it’s having nearly every one of these plots to kill the shopkeeper fail.
Spelunky is knowing I will never get to the end — not even close! — and having that not matter.
Spelunky is the tension between wanting it all — the treasure, the girl, the items — and learning to compromise if it means staying alive just a bit longer. It’s resenting that the game is making me choose at all, but taking solace in knowing my compromise is not a choice, but rather a necessity.
Spelunky is the inability to explain what the game is about without feeling that incessant urge to go, boot up the 360 right now, and start playing. It will be played. It must be played.
Spelunky is my game of the year 2012.