My waddling explorer with the red clown nose has come so far. I pluck a golden bust from a crumbling bridge and stand two jumps away from the exit, a simple door laced in vines, when it happens again: A monkey jumps on my back, steals my loot, and throws it aside. I leap after the thief, knowing I shouldn’t, and miss, only to graze an orange frog with serious indigestion, and I lie crumpled and stunned, cartoon birdies flying around my cartoon head, and as the frog explodes, opening a hole in the ground through which I fall into a giant Venus Flytrap that swallows me whole, I come to a simple conclusion: I hate Spelunky.
The beginning shows our hero walking dutifully into the caves, his destiny yet to unfold. Each time, three opening lines introduce the task at hand, randomly assorted from a preset list of first, second, and third lines. Sometimes they sound like a poem; other times a grand epiphany, or a suicide note. They echo the waking words of a person ready to face the day with vigor and drive. And though they're likely meant as a joke, they reminded me of my own daily mantras, and how pitiable and unadventurous they had become.
The game itself seems quite simple: Thrust into a series of caverns, you push forward, jump from platform to platform, collect money, dodge or kill enemies, and try to reach the end safely; you open crates and treasure chests; you buy helpful items from merchants; you find power-ups that expand your abilities. Et cetera. The description could be applied to hundreds of games.
But then small nuances reveal themselves. Pick up a rock and throw it past a dubious-looking statue, setting off a hidden trap. Place stunned enemies on a bloody altar and wham!—the body poofs into an upward-floating spirit, a sacrifice to the gods. You’re unsure what is gained, but the act feels substantial. Bomb that same altar and be cursed with a torrent of spiders. You have angered the gods. Thou hath been smited. And you will be smited again.
You have learned, but the lesson keeps changing.
To play Spelunky is to ask for punishment. By pressing Start, you allow the game’s unseen developers to repeatedly punch you in the face. Plenty out there enjoy the pain. The hardcore gaming community has aligned around Spelunky as its most recent savior; follow journalists, developers, and Day One buyers on Twitter and prepare for an echo chamber of love. Markus Persson, aka Notch, the creator of Minecraft, says, “Spelunky is wonderful! […] I can’t stop squealing.” Tim Schafer of Double Fine asks, “Spelunky, why do you hate me so much?” But you can hear the fondness behind the fear. The outpouring resembles the magnified screams of masochists, all asking for more, please, harder, thank you.
The game’s challenge stems from your own vulnerability. Each environment—from dank Mines to lush Jungles to frosty Ice Caverns rendered in luscious 2D high-definition sprites—is rich in deadly flora and fauna. You start with four hearts, each depleted by the slightest tap of a bat’s wing. (You can only regain hearts by finding “damsels” [a lady, brute, or lazy-eyed pug] and bringing them to the level’s exit.) Lose them all and the game is over. No continues. No second chance. No return to a checkpoint two minutes ago, or 20. You go back to the beginning of the entire game and try again.
Play enough and certain shortcuts reveal themselves. But the push/pull between life and death here is so taut as to be almost entirely cruel. You soon become dulled to the pain, pressing forward stubbornly, aching for momentum that never comes.
The design, in spite of its randomness, provokes.
This is because each stage in Spelunky changes upon replay. Platforms, enemies, traps: all are randomly generated. In other platformers, repeat the same sequence enough and your fingers remember the necessary moves—muscle memory takes over, and you can now make that jump repeatedly. In Spelunky and other “roguelikes,” a subgenre named after the 1980 dungeon crawler Rogue, all foresight is neutered, your memories leeched of value. You have learned, but the lesson keeps changing.
Imagine trying to learn the words to a song, but each verse is improvised, and no chorus repeats itself. To try and play such music is to tap into madness. Spelunky is the definition of insanity, eviscerated and flipped inside out. I do something different every single time but always accomplish the same thing: Failure.
Playing Spelunky amounts to making a series of bad decisions, one after the other. The design, in spite of its randomness, provokes. Gold shimmers alongside a statue beset with thrusting spikes. Do I risk death to line my pockets? Every step, you must balance survival with wealth. Need an extra set of bombs? Buy some from the shopkeeper—or better yet, grab them and run. The ’keeper races after you, a pinballing, shotgun-wielding instrument of vengeance. I found myself tempted to incite the shopkeeper’s anger, even though the thievery is suicidal. As the saying goes, you can’t take it with you—when you die, all accumulated money and items disappear. With no experience points or leveling-up mechanic, the only thing gained is the realization of your own ineptitude.
Stages shift not only in arrangement but tone. Sometimes the stage will begin darkened, only a torch at hand to light the way. Sometimes the stage will be populated by capricious undead. Always you are one false step or precarious leap from death: a snake bite, an arrow plunged into vital organs, a pummeling by a caveman, a piranha's incisors, a fall too steep, a proximity mine. Take too long exploring, and Death itself materializes to take you away.
Game Over has always equaled a kind of dying. To lose means you are out of “lives,” whether by alien laser or bottomless pit. Take a hit and your “health” dwindles. Your temporary failure is almost always seen as a death.
But rarely has an avatar’s untimely demise provoked in this player so intense a response. “Intense” isn’t quite right—the word conveys a sharp, momentary pain. The pain Spelunky gives is an enduring throb, punctuated with, depending on the moment, self-pity, sheer rage, or a dull finality of surrender. The first time I jumped off a platform and landed in a pit of spikes below the screen, my wife’s cat had sauntered into the room. Our Tortie must have seen the shine in my eyes, recognized the look of a desperate hunter, and kept its distance. An hour later, after my next missteps—into a sea full of giant piranhas, or a never-before-seen hive of mutant bees—I felt nothing but the immediate press of my thumb on the X button, signaling a “quick retry” and another futile chance at survival.
That’s why death is so alluring, so horrific and pure: It is always uncontrollable, unforeseen. Yet somehow, using our evolved brains, our diet books and half-hour jogs and fat-free butter, we always think we can win. And we will never not be wrong. This is the lesson Spelunky teaches us.
Oh, I could beat the game: Go deep enough underground and survive the four increasingly complex caves and I’d come out the other side, bruised but still breathing. It’s just bloody unlikely. The game itself flaunts my skim odds. The Player Stat screen boils all that time and energy down to a single triptych. My Player Stats after a week of play:
Plays – 198. Deaths – 198. Wins – 0.
Spelunky belongs to that recent category of indie platformers that feature brutal difficulty as a selling point, but it acknowledges our efforts with a unique morbidity. Super Meat Boy’s all-at-once replays were a grand celebration; Bit.Trip Runner’s immediate restart acted as purposeful amnesia; VVVVVV’s constant checkpoints and minimal animation envisioned the ultimate vacuum of space as a game. Mossmouth’s take is different.
My dead character does not simply vanish and respawn. An instant reincarnation is too merciful. At the center of the Game Over screen is a Polaroid photograph of my corpse. In the thickened border, a single phrase, the Kill verb itself: Impaled; Stomped; Eaten; Beaten Up; Poisoned. A yellow sticky note describes the cause: “I fell on some spikes.” “I’ve been destroyed by the jackal-headed god Anubis.” The first-person pronoun is the tip-off. This isn’t the game describing my failures; this is a journal. The menu screen itself resembles the pages of a frayed book: my Adventurer’s diary, the type of journal into which intrepid travelers scratch their musings upon spying new worlds. Instead of exotic cuisine or inspiring vistas, our hero documents his perpetual demise. Spelunky turns the oft-fondled Moleskine into a catalogue of death.
I realized I didn’t just hate Spelunky—I hated what it taught me about my own proclivities.
Stay stubborn and you begin to live longer, and more consistently. For me, this happened around Play 199: I finally gave in and heeded the rules of the caves instead of my own animalistic pangs for gold or treachery. I hopped across rope-vines with practiced expertise. I whipped a Tiki Man’s head, grabbed his boomerang, and flung it across a watery expanse to knock away a bubble-spewing snail. I evaded UFO fire and stomped a Yeti. I was finally, if briefly, in control of a cursed world. And then I died again. And began to wonder if such pain was worth the time and effort.
I realized I didn’t just hate Spelunky—I hated what it taught me about my own proclivities. Playing this game, or any game, means I run on a wheel that goes nowhere. When, by some mystical act of grace, I reach the end of a cave and nab that carrot, the satisfaction rings hollow. “I did it,” I tell myself, fueled by the same shred of hope we burn through every time we cast ourselves into the fire of imagined progress. I tried over 200 times, the game reminds me, and failed every time. Some find strength in repeated failure; we tell ourselves we’ve burnished our skin to rhino-solidity. But the scar tissue weighs us down. We exit this troubled world and enter another one, our own, and wonder why we suddenly feel so heavy.
My experience with Spelunky did little other than bleed time and raise my blood pressure. That’s not to say the game is bad. Rather, it’s like anything that flaunts its superlative wares to the detriment of the user: impulsive sex, hot fudge sundaes, the Ducati 1098S. Its brilliant, repetitive struggle shines a light on my own: I'm self-employed for the moment, inefficiently at that. My caves are lit with fluorescent lamps, my poisonous spider the aforementioned hairball-spewing cat. For the first time, a hard game that sucked me in wasn't just a hard game: it was a 46” high-definition funhouse mirror, a questioning affront to my stagnant life station. It reflected my own journey, one that looked more feeble with every mistimed leap.
Maybe I don’t hate playing Spelunky. Instead, Spelunky makes me hate the flawed participant, the unworthy one. It makes me hate myself.