Why Ice Levels Keep Showing Up In Video Games, Even Though Most Of Them Are Bad

Why Ice Levels Keep Showing Up In Video Games, Even Though Most Of Them Are Bad
Image: Naughty Dog / Kotaku
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In games as in life, slipping and sliding on ice patches while torrents of snow transform your eyelashes into crystalline daggers can be frustrating, to say the least. And yet, ice and snow levels are a time-honoured trope in video games. On this week’s episode of Kotaku’s Splitscreen podcast, we try to figure out why that is, fail, and then bring on Spelunky creator Derek Yu to explain it for us.

The episode opens with Ash, Fahey, and me spelunking the annals of ice level history and trying to figure out where the mechanics we often associate with them (slippery ground, weather that obscures vision, etc) first began. Then we move into a discussion of our favourite and least favourite ice levels, from the very new (Astro’s Playroom and Hades) to the ancients (Sonic on the darn Sega Game Gear, those fucking infuriating sliding puzzles in Pokémon Gold and Silver). We also discuss the concept of exploding penguins at length. Then, to close out the show, we bring on Spelunky and Spelunky 2 director Derek Yu to talk about his own approach to creating ice levels, how classic games informed his designs, and why ice levels keep appearing in games even though so many of them are frustrating as heck.

Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.

Nathan: To you, as somebody who creates games and levels and designs these things, what is the appeal of that slippery surface? Because I feel like that’s one of the things people tend to find most frustrating in ice levels. So what is the appeal of altering the player’s ability to move?

Derek Yu: It’s interesting. Like I said before, there are a lot of things one thinks about when designing an environment. And I have to be honest: I kind of feel like a lot of game designers add ice levels not particularly because they really like the slippery ice, but more because snowy, icy places — it’s just kind of a major biome in real life. I think it also brings with it a lot of colours we don’t often see in other biomes, and those are things we think about.

So to include it is to include a kind of variety that, in a way, is sort of hard to pass up, because it’s right there. People have certain expectations tied to it. Players implicitly understand what an ice-based world kind of means. You’re getting those expectations, those colours, those feelings for free. So I wouldn’t say that designers include them for the ice. I’d say the ice is maybe more of, like, sort of a side thing that just happens to come with the snowy or icy biome, which is the more interesting part for designers.

I do know that ice can be frustrating. I think it can be interesting to mess with the player’s sense of movement like that, but like we just said, you can also get around the ice and avoid it if you want in Spelunky. But I don’t think ice is the main feature designers are interested in adding. I mean, I’m speaking from my own personal experience, but there are just all these cool things that come with ice and icy environments.

Nathan: You were talking about how ice and the way it impacts movement is already enough of a challenge for players, so you sort of dialed back some other elements of the challenge in Spelunky’s ice levels to compensate. But when you were creating Spelunky and Spelunky 2‘s ice levels, were there ever any more elaborate ice-and-snow-based ideas you considered adding to the game — any that you thought about, only to decide “This is too much” or “This doesn’t fit Spelunky”?

Derek: I decided to keep the ice caves fairly minimal, just to fit with where it came in the game as kind of a break point for the player. I think Eirik Suhrke who did the music for the game also felt that feeling. In Spelunky 1, there’s kind of the infamous jazzy music track that Eirik wrote for it, and in Spelunky 2 there’s also a sort of more quiet and peaceful track. It’s different, and it signals a break in the game. I really think with game design, you want to think of it as a flow up and down, in terms of everything — including difficulty. That’s really where the ice caves come in in Spelunky. Having it feel a little more minimal, a little more peaceful in some way — that’s what I was going for.

Nathan: We’ve got to talk at least briefly about “wet fur” levels, because I really enjoy that terminology. When you were writing the text that describes the feeling of locations in Spelunky, why wet fur for icy areas with yetis?

Derek: It has always interested me that we can’t smell games. Obviously, in those levels in Spelunky 1, you’re introduced to the Yeti King, and in Spelunky 2 we kind of carry that further. So it is a signal that there are a lot of yetis in this level, on one hand. But on the other hand, those level feelings and that text is a great way to introduce another sensation you don’t normally get from playing the game itself, because we can’t smell games. So I just felt like, to me when I thought about the environment — this icy cave filled with all these yetis — somehow the smell of the place and the smell of their fur was a very strong sensation in my head. I kind of wanted to give the player that feeling when they entered the stage as well.

Nathan: Are we talking a sort of neutral scent, or is it like when a dog jumps in a pool and comes out smelling all salty, and you’re like “Why do you smell salty? Where did the salt come from?”

Derek: I think it’s more like a wet dog. I don’t know, some people might like that smell! But it’s an earthy smell, I think. It’s a smell of just too much nature concentrated and condensed in one place. So it’s a pungent smell that’s slightly uncomfortable, is how I’d put it. Dank.

In Spelunky, the yeti caves are pretty claustrophobic. So I think I wanted to get across that sense of claustrophobia. You know, sort of like a locker room kind of feeling. Imagine you’re in a locker room. You just played a full game of American football with a bunch of hairy yetis. What does that smell like?

Nathan: We’ve all been there. So Spelunky is a game where, canonically, you’re the one human being at Yeti High?

Derek: Yeah, exactly. And you’re just trying to, like, get back and say hi to your teammates again after having a falling out with them.

Nathan: Oh, that’s really nice. Well, I hope it goes well for them.

For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at [email protected] if you have questions or suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!

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