Free Game: Spelunky (and an accidental diatribe on exquisiteness in games)

Some of the real thrill of an open internet is the altruism with which persons or communities come together to create things intended to be shared and experienced, whether for five minutes, or five hours. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up on movies and music designed to sell well to the most people possible, rather than please the creator and a smaller, more intimate audience, but when I see this kind of work put together with care and attention, and given away freely, no less, I’m a little humbled by it. Player appreciation, rather than the gee-whiz response elicited by a triple-A title, enriches the experience in a unique way.

Moving on, then. Spelunky is an Indy Jones-like treasure grab platformer, and like many small indie games these days, it borrows play elements from a number of other well-known games in an attempt to synthesize something that feels fresh and new, yet familiar and therefore intuitive. Have a couple screenies:

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Spelunky is among a class of games that are exquisite miniatures, little one-off masterpieces mainly developed by one or two persons, but often helped along by community of enthusiasts. The developer, Derek Yu, is an accomplished game designer, and even though Spelunky is still in beta, it’s nearly as mature as an old SNES title. To earn the “exquisite” part of my irritating phrase up there, a game should be somewhat “self-contained,” which I suppose needs its own explanation.

For Spelunky, this means it has it’s own tutorial level and a pre-alpha level editor, it generates an endless number of procedurally-generated, yet thoughtful levels, has little stores where items can be purchased, even a gambling hall, hard-coded mini-events such as a golden idol that triggers an Indiana Jones-like boulder trap. Oh, and all the levels are All these features never feel out of place or disparate, since they recall earlier game tropes, and they don’t get in the way of game goals; it’s always clear what you want to do, and you get a say in how to do it. Visually, all the elements of the game appear to belong there, there is nothing jarring or out of place, even with, say, a weapons retailer in the midst of a cavern populated by bats and spiders.

A huge, expansive game like Morrowind can’t feel quite this way, because it is too open and empty in its attempt to emulate an entire world of cultures and mythology and is therefore almost directionless, and Half-Life 2 can’t feel this way because it is on one-way-only rails, and interrupts gameplay with exposition and in-your-face visual effects. Finally, Left4Dead isn’t “exquisite” because its randomness just feels random: it’s a gray howling blur. The three above are all fine best-in-genre games, but none have the satisfaction that comes with a good game of Nethack or Spelunky, and I think it’s because of the genre: Morrowind wants to be the book your character is writing, and Half-Life 2 and Left4Dead want t0 make you feel like an important character in the movies. Spelunky and Nethack, on the other hand, have no such anxiety, and are happy just being games. They take pleasure in reminding you that you are, in fact, playing a game: Spelunky with its random challenges and quirky mini-events, Nethack with its bizarrely punishing emergent behavior, witty built-in bestiary and unapologizing ASCII graphics. They’re self-contained, self-sufficient games.

I apologize for the exposition above, and you won’t have hurt my feelings if you’ve skipped it: it’s a half-baked idea at best, but there is a clear difference in the pleasure of playing a game like Half-Life 2, and a game like this. But back to Spelunky:

Two things are really remarkable about this game: the gameplay and the use of procedural generation in level design. As for the gameplay, it’s a bit more complex than the typical platformer, but the grappling, crawling, bomb-throwing action of the game becomes intuitive rather quickly. It’s mostly polished and fun, but could do with some last-minute buffing before it breaks out of beta. Good gameplay is only really fun, however, with a suitable playground, and this is where Spelunky gets shiny. All the levels are procedurally generated, in a conscious emulation of Nethack and other Roguelikes, which results in a new experience every time, but the randomness is deliberately constrained similar to Nethack levels, which balance unpredictability with a little sensibility. Done right, this turns out levels that are random enough, but don’t necessarily feel so. Anna Anthropy describes Yu’s use of procedural generation best when she says, “…scattered throughout that map are the seeds of a story… even when a designer isn’t plotting out levels by hand, there are ways to shape the player’s experience.” Now, we could both be full of it and only ascribing meaning to random patterns, or maybe there’s a lesson here for those who would seek to better exploit the potential of procedural generation in gaming.

Regardless of my pseudointellectual babbling, it’s worth a play. You can download Spelunky here.

Discovered via Anna Anthropy’s Auntie Pixelante blog.

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