Not many people know this but there’s a cheat code in Spelunky. By pressing start, down, A and then X you can erase all of your past mistakes and begin with a clean slate. Overzealous use of this has shaped my approach to gaming.
One of the defining features of modern roguelikes is that you have only have one life to get things done. The constant threat of losing progression is meant to add tension to the game. Don’t screw up or you’ll have to start over.
Progression is such a valuable thing in so many games. It’s what you work towards. It’s a tangible way to mark the time you’ve spent with the game, be it through finding out more about the story, unlocking achievements or pimping out your character with ridiculous armour and stats.
I value my own progression as a player more than anything else a game has to offer and I blame Spelunky.
It started with an eggplant.
Twitch streamer Aaron Loder, better known as Bananasaurus Rex, had just completed the world’s first solo eggplant run in Spelunky. A seemingly impossible feat of taking a fragile hidden item to the game’s secret final boss, Yama, and throwing it in his face.
It was an awe-inspiring achievement and I started watching Loder’s stream to see what else he could do.
Seeing the stream live was a whole different experience to watching the run happen after the fact. While watching live I saw Loder reset over and over again after seeing the items in the shop on the second level. He wasn’t trying to progress. He was trying to find the right mix of items to do specific speedrun categories.
Sometimes he would find the right items and get going, only to die moments later to one of the many pitfalls Spelunky has to offer.
So Loder would start over. And over. And over.
Back then I didn’t quite get it but something about what I was watching appealed to me. I bought Spelunky and started playing it myself.
I died. I died frequently and with unsurprising regularity.
I’d misjudge a jump and land on spikes. I’d accidentally anger the shopkeeper and get blasted by his shotgun. I’d steal the golden idol and get crushed by a boulder.
Each death was a lesson. Some lessons took a while to stick. Yet still I would find myself obsessing over the idea of what could have been. I was caught up on the idea that I was getting closer and closer to success on the runs without realising that the individual failures didn’t matter.
Soon I was starting to replicate Loder, resetting over smaller and smaller mistakes. Didn’t see the right items at the first shop? Reset. Wasted bombs opening up an area that didn’t yield anything useful? Reset. Took unnecessary fall damage? Reset.
Instead of fixating on how far I had just got, I started to think about how far I could get this time.
I’m not sure how long it took me to beat Spelunky the first time. Maybe several weeks. As the credits rolled as I watched my happy little spelunker cross the desert with his loot. I picked my controller back up and started again.
Now it wasn’t about beating the game. I had done that. Now it was about being better at the game. That’s when it finally clicked.
I had stopped marking my progression by landmarks in the game. It wasn’t the achievements I had unlocked or the places I had visited but the skills that I used to get there.
Learning to deflect the arrows from arrow traps was a much bigger landmark than the unlocking any achievement in Spelunky. Working out how to rob a shopkeeper with only my whip and his shotgun unlocked whole new ways to play. Except those new play styles were never truly locked, anyone can access them if they master the appropriate skills.
That is the beauty of games like Spelunky. Practically everything is available to everyone from the start. You just have to work out how.
Even with this newfound mastery, mistakes would happen and I would reset. Individual attempts didn’t matter at all. They were inconsequential.
This bled into other games. Death in Dark Souls was meant to be a huge penalty. Failing to recover your lost souls meant that they were lost forever if you died again. There were always more souls, why worry about the ones I just dropped?
It was as relief to approach games like this. I could experiment more. Play more carefree and do things just to see what happened. All I would ever lose was the time I spent doing something. Apparently I don’t value my time very highly.