Spelunky 2 can be a violent experience. While searching for the main character’s parents is its ostensible goal, you sure do a lot of killing along the way. I’m doing my part to stem the tide of violence with a self-imposed goal: kill as few enemies as possible.
Much like its predecessor, the world of Spelunky 2 is rich and vibrant. The opening mine levels eventually give way to environments like jungles, tide pools, and ice caverns, each with its own flora and fauna. It’s clear this is an ecosystem that has existed for centuries, if not millennia, by the time the protagonists arrive in a homemade rocket to the moon and explore it for the first time. And what’s the first thing they do? Kill everything they see, from bats and lizards to the indigenous civilisation that calls these caves home.
My pacifist ideals started with a clay pot. Spelunky 2 levels are littered with these earthen decorations, the contents of which can only be revealed by breaking them open. Sometimes you’re rewarded with a gem, and sometimes you get nothing at all, but more often than not the pots are home to creepy crawly creatures like snakes and spiders. My favourite tactic to avoid unnecessary damage is to shatter pots by tossing them at a nearby wall, which drops whatever wildlife might be lurking within at a safe distance.
During what felt like my millionth run through the mines, I happened upon a pot and a small pit. “I can toss this at the wall over the pit and any enemy that pops out will be easy pickings,” I thought to myself. “Devilishly clever, Ian!” My plan worked perfectly, of course, depositing a snake in the small 1×1 hole ready to be squashed under my boots. And that’s when it hit me: I didn’t need to kill this guy. It seemed content in its new home and wasn’t impeding my progress. “No harm no foul,” I shrugged, and continued on my way.
That small moment became a brain worm infecting every subsequent Spelunky 2 playthrough. I was the interloper; what right did I have to destroy everything in my path? I sized up every enemy encounter to decide whether it was necessary to whip them to bits or if I could simply find a way around. It felt like a completely new game. My goal was no longer to amass as much wealth as possible by plundering the game’s unsullied lands, but to explore in such a way that it didn’t harm the environment around me.
It’s easy to avoid the giant cave moles by tracking their movements through the ground. Snakes simply move back and forth on whatever platform they occupy. Horned lizards are a little trickier, but they can be stunned with a single whip crack, picked up, and placed somewhere else. The only animal that really pursues you in the early stages is the bat, but they can be led to spiderwebs or dead ends with a little finagling. It’s only natural that these oversized animals would see me, a soft and fleshy human, as prey, so it feels better to give them space instead of reducing them to a shower of blood and bones.
My vow of nonviolence naturally extends to Spelunky 2’s humanoid enemies. While I often die within just a few minutes of starting an expedition, the cavemen have been able to carve out lives in this hostile environment. This realisation made any attempt to meet their obvious animosity towards me with deadly force or steal their religious icons feel dirty. They also exhibit behaviour that wasn’t present in the previous games, like carrying around items and even holding casual conversations in the midst of all the chaos, which helps them feel more like living things than obstacles to be beaten to a pulp and sacrificed to Kali. So like the animals, I mostly just let them be. This turns Spelunky into a game of avoidance rather than a complete assault on my surroundings.
Spelunky 2 pacifist runs puts a greater emphasis on your character’s basic bomb and rope tools as well. Sometimes, passages are so small that there’s no avoiding a snake or a caveman that has taken up residence there, which makes forging my own path important to maintaining my fragile grip on life. And as I haven’t gotten around to forming a good strategy for stealing from the shopkeepers, every chance at buying new equipment must be carefully planned and budgeted.
But there’s another side to playing this way, one I didn’t realise until I was a few runs deep. Spelunky 2, for all its beauty and charm, is still a game about invading an established ecosystem that was doing just fine before you got there. It’s a tale as old as time. The implicit lesson is that the protagonist’s sense of adventure is more important than the people and wildlife that have somehow survived for generations on the moon, of all places. By playing normally, you’re often leaving a trail of broken, bloodied bodies in your wake, which I can’t help but consider a microcosm of human history.
I’m not saying everyone needs to play Spelunky 2 with the transatlantic slave trade or the genocide of indigenous peoples in North America firmly planted in the back of their minds. I understand the importance of video games as tools for both distracting from and coping with the horrors of real life, especially as the world hurtles towards the brink of climate catastrophe and fascist meltdowns. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to adhere to a pacifist ideology in subsequent biospheres; my rare trips to the jungle and industrial zones have been a nightmare, and I’ve often regressed to obliterating everything in my way as soon as I get there.
The self-imposed challenge of leaving the world of Spelunky 2 as I found it has given me new appreciation for the various mechanics and interactions developer Derek Yu and his team at Mossmouth have implemented in the game. It’s their dedication to making each area feel like a living, breathing ecosystem that first put this goal in my mind. Now, I see Spelunky’s levels less linearly and more like a veritable amusement park of secret passages and self-made escape routes. Running headlong into combat is just one strategy, but there are viable alternatives if you just take the time to look.
Maybe I’ve just allowed myself to succumb to the poison of overthinking a simple diversion, but I highly recommend trying to avoid killing the denizens of Spelunky 2, at least for a couple of runs. It makes for a compelling challenge.