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Nothing Can Stop Spelunky

A conversation with Spelunky creator Derek Yu about the surprising longevity of his tough-as-nails cult hit.

Most games have a shelf life, especially if they don't include a series of multiplayer modes to keep people coming back over and over again. But Spelunky, first released in 2009, has a thriving scene in 2014.

This is what the original Spelunky looks like, and you can still play it for free. It's really similar and totally different.

There’s an aura of mystery to Spelunky. At face value, Spelunky is a devilishly hard action game, one that punishes players over and over again. It’s true that Spelunky is a hard game, but it’s a fair one. If one doesn’t listen to what Spelunky is trying to say, it kills you. "Try again." So you do.

Death is part of life in Spelunky, and the sooner one learns to cope with it, the sooner you’re on the road to Yama. (You know, the super secret boss that would be almost impossible to know about without the collective Internet having worked together to unlock the game’s myriad layered secrets buried under rocks.)

But when you die, you start over, and your gear is gone. It's back to four ropes and four bombs. Upon respawning, everything is the same and everything is different. Spelunky is not completely random, but it can feel that way. In reality, the game’s swapping around handmade pieces--architecture, enemies, items--every time you restart, which means you cannot rely on the previous path to inform the next one. You can, however, rely on your knowledge of how enemies act, how to find the black market, and more.

The only truly random element of Spelunky are the physics, which can cause havoc. But for a game predicated on feeling random, so much of it feels so precise, as though it came together from exploring a very specific mathematical algorithm. The game’s creator, Derek Yu, insists that’s not the case.

“When I’m working on the game, I don’t have necessarily the most concrete idea of what I’m trying to do as a whole,” he said. “For me, game making is one of the primary ways that I express myself.”

“When I’m working on the game, I don’t have necessarily the most concrete idea of what I’m trying to do as a whole.”

When Yu watches a high-level player like Bananasaurus Rex achieving an unprecedented high score in Spelunky, it’s both a vindication of Spelunky’s design and provides a new level of understanding for his creation.

“It sort of brings a new clarity of what I was trying to do that I didn’t have when I was working on it,” he said. “I don’t know if that makes sense, but it feels much more instinctual when I’m just working on the game itself.”

Some designers are okay with walking away from their games after they’re released into the wild, and let the players take over from there. That’s not been the case with Spelunky. Instead, Yu has kept a close eye on what people have been up to, and tries to cultivate a relationship with Spelunky fans.

Have you read about Douglas Wilson's essay on Bananasaurus Rex’s solo eggplant run? In short, and without getting deep into Spelunky jargon, he pulled off something deemed impossible: beating the game with the hidden eggplant item. It was thought an eggplant run would require two people, yet he did it by himself. Doing so required exploiting a known bug in Spelunky, in which players found a way to bust through the Moai head in the ice caves. The Moai head is supposed to be invincible...but it’s not.

“It just so happened that [with] the way we designed it, it was still possible to break it in this one way we didn’t think of,” he said. “But once people did break it and they’re doing these really cool things with it…basically, if people can do really cool things with it and it doesn’t ruin the game, then I think we’re happy to just leave it in or tweak it a little bit to make it seem more official after the fact."

This would have been an opportunity for Yu to claim he’d known the head was breakable all along, simply another in a long list of Spelunky secrets found after the game’s release. But, instead, Yu just laughed.

“’I’ll be honest, we get surprised a lot,” he said. “I mean, you could easily, this is my opportunity to be like, ‘oh, yeah, we totally had that in the beginning!’ But I’d be lying through my teeth. […] I think the reason why it’s so fun to work on a game like this is because you can expect to get surprised quite often after the game is released.”

Spelunky has an active relationship between the developers and the players, one that continues to this day. It's why the developers signed off on breaking the Moai head as legitimate.

Much of what defines Spelunky, both inside and out, has been discovered by the community. But that wasn’t true in the beginning, and it lead to a great many people, including yours truly, writing the game off. I didn’t come around to Spelunky until years after release. It's a viral game that's spread over years.

It required patience, but Yu said he had “faith” people would understand the game over time.

“If you put enough in there for players to discover and learn and understand then you really don’t need to do too much handholding,” he said. “And here’s the thing: I actually think that Spelunky is not that hard once you understand how it works. It’s not a game that requires the best reflexes out there or anything like that. For the most part, I think I’m pretty good at video games, but I’m not like, top tier by any means. I can beat the game [Spelunky] more often than not when I play, and it’s just because I’ve been playing the game so much.”

It’s heartening to know the creator of Spelunky also dies in Spelunky.

Even when Spelunky enters the headlines for someone’s score-breaking antics, Yu might not see it. He finds the whole enterprise “too intense.” Occasionally, he will watch streamers trying the latest crazy thing with Spelunky, but not often. These days, he’s focused on what comes next. (He didn’t give hints.)

Spelunky's designer didn't play Dark Souls until well after releasing Spelunky, but he now understands the comparisons.

When we spoke, Dark Souls II was a few weeks from release. It’s, perhaps, of little surprise Yu was really looking forward to its release, as Dark Souls and Spelunky’s design are invoked in the same breath.

“I think it’s wrong to say a game like Dark Souls is just a hard game that’s there to just punish you,” he said. “Because it is punishing, but it does all these other things to make that punishment so worthwhile. It’s not just hard for the sake of being hard. […] I feel like it really respects the player a lot. That’s one of the reasons why I like it so much.”

That respect comes from a new streak of game designers seeking to reinvent what death means in a video game. It used to mean putting in another quarter, and games were designed to make sure the player put in another quarter. That’s not the case these days, so long as we’re not talking about free-to-play. The question of challenge is being reinvented by games like Spelunky and Dark Souls.

“I like games that really embrace their challenge, “ he said. “Sometimes it feels like the challenge is just there to make the experience last longer or just to make it a video game in the first place. I think [in] a lot of those games, the challenge just doesn’t feel as meaningful. I mean, I’d rather play an old arcade game that I’ve got to feed a lot of quarters into to beat than a game where it doesn’t really matter whether I die or not.”

Patrick Klepek on Google+
46 Comments
Posted by Matt_Rogan1407

Great Article

Posted by HammondofTexas

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Posted by csl316

I was off Spelunky. Then Patrick played, then I tried a daily challenge, now it feels like a privilage when 7 o'clock rolls around and I can jump on the next daily.

Posted by PurpleMoustache

Amazing work as usual, Patrick!

Posted by Flavbot

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Posted by HammondofTexas

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Giant Bomb acapella group assemble!!

Posted by Fobwashed

A good death in games is a really hard thing to do. The hard part is keeping the death fair and at the fault of the player and not the game. If the death is a result of something under the player's control they can learn from their mistakes while if it's not then it just makes the entire experience frustrating. If a player can't look at a death in game and determine what they needed to have done differently to have survived, the game is broken.

Great work Mr. Klepek! Really looking forward to hearing what Derek is up to next.

Posted by ComradeCrash

Very good write up!

Posted by Noogy

Great read. Derek is one of my favorite modern designers, and a genuinely nice guy. He's also incredibly supportive of other independent developers.

Edited by Y2Ken

Thanks for posting this Patrick, a great read. Spelunky is a really strong achievement. I listen to the Crate & Crowbar podcast regularly (comprised of former and current PC Gamer UK staffers, including Gunpoint creator Tom Francis), and several of them have made compelling arguments on that show for why they think Spelunky may be the most perfectly-designed game ever released.

It's not quite my number one, but it's an incredible piece of design nonetheless, and I love it every single time I jump in, no matter what struggles and torment that game continues to throw at me.

Edited by Pirateogta

Just wish they would add Daily Challenges to the XBLA version.

Posted by Tortoise

I hear people like Spelunky and Dark Souls?

Online
Edited by nickhead

Always interesting to hear more from developers. Spelunkin' with Scoops got me to finally put a lot of time into the game and I'm glad I did, I can safely say it is one of my favorite platformers ever.

Edited by cloudymusic

That respect comes from a new streak of game designers seeking to reinvent what death means in a video game. It used to mean putting in another quarter, and games were designed to make sure the player put in another quarter.

“I like games that really embrace their challenge, “ he said. “Sometimes it feels like the challenge is just there to make the experience last longer or just to make it a video game in the first place. I think [in] a lot of those games, the challenge just doesn’t feel as meaningful. I mean, I’d rather play an old arcade game that I’ve got to feed a lot of quarters into to beat than a game where it doesn’t really matter whether I die or not.”

There are plenty of old arcade games that were designed to be credit-munchers, sure, but there are many out there (I'd argue the vast majority) that are completely possible to complete on one credit, given that you learn the nuances of the game and figure out how to circumvent challenges rather than just declaring it to be "cheap" or "unfair." It's extremely similar to Spelunky in that way, and I think that learning to 1CC a difficult arcade game (even though it seemed impossible when you first started) is directly analogous to finally beating Yama. There's a rich catalog of deeply challenging and rewarding games out there -- more than you'll ever have time to play in your lifetime -- provided that you're willing to dive into the past a little bit.

Edited by NEONBEAR

now if only a mac version for the updated spelunky would come out.

Edited by joshwent

Interesting article, but you avoid some of the more influential reasons why the game has had such a huge resurgence. Namely the PS3/Vita version last year, price drops/Steam sales, and implementation of daily challenges.

What has sustained its popularity since then is the excellent gameplay, sure, but this article paints a slightly skewed picture of a game that, 5 years out, is still widely played simply on its own merits.

I'd say it's less of a "viral game that's spread over years", as you put it, and much more of an excellent game that gradually found an audience thanks to well-timed recent new platform releases and promotions.

Posted by Migsse

will there be an audio version of this article?

Posted by TurboMan

great read... reminded me to do today's daily.

Spelunky might be one of my favorite games of all time, I like it that much.

Posted by patrickklepek

@migsse said:

will there be an audio version of this article?

Yes, tomorrow.

Edited by Darlan

Great read! I've been waiting for Spelunky to go on a Steam sale ever since the Spelunk'n with Scoops feature started...here's hoping we don't have to wait until the next winter sale for it to happen again.

Edit: Not that it doesn't look like it's worth fifteen bucks, Steam has just trained me to expect a game to go on sale for like nothing the day after you give in and buy it for full price.

Edited by zlo2

Any word on what the man is working on now? I'd love to play whatever he comes up with next.

Posted by The_Nubster

I think it's great the Yu is so upfront and honest about things, and that he's willing to allow the game to take on a life beyond what he'd envisioned for it. So many designers would double down on bugs and glitches such as the breaking of the Moai head, but that takes away what makes the game so special. Death of the author and all that.

Posted by DevourerOfTime

Have no fear we've got stories for years
Like the spelunker becomes a robot
Maybe Yama gets a cell phone
Has Olmec ever owned a bear?
Or, how about a crazy wedding?
Where something happens
doo dodoo doo dodooooo

Posted by patrickklepek

I think it's great the Yu is so upfront and honest about things, and that he's willing to allow the game to take on a life beyond what he'd envisioned for it. So many designers would double down on bugs and glitches such as the breaking of the Moai head, but that takes away what makes the game so special. Death of the author and all that.

It seems that Yu becomes less of an author and more of a curator.

Posted by chocolaterhinovampire

@patrickklepek: Great article Patrick. When you nail it, you nail it. I got Spelunky around December and only now am I starting to really understand it's nuances.

Posted by Phatmac

Love Spelunky and I can't wait to see what Yu makes next.

Edited by ProfessorEss

My short-lived, Splunkin'-with-Scoops inspired addiction has passed for now without delving into secrets, only getting to the ice cave a handful of times but I love getting a new game like this that I know will give me fits and bursts for years to come.

I got my eye on Yu.

No wait... Gentlemen, Yu had my curiosity, but now Yu has my attention.

Anyways, I also can't wait to see what he's thinking next.

Edited by YummyTreeSap

“The only truly random element of Spelunky are the physics, which can cause havoc.”

To elicit cries of pedantry, I take issue with this wording. The physics of Spelunky are anything but random, let alone "truly random." Unpredictable or chaotic at times, most certainly, but random? Absolutely not.

Every single time you enter any situation in Spelunky, you can play out in your head how everything is going to react. You might end up being dead wrong and find yourself at the wrong end of an explosion, for example, but it's not so much a case of randomness coming into play as it is a miscalculation on your part.

It is this lack of randomness that makes Spelunky such a special game. What initially appears to be pure chaos unveils itself as calculable after some experience with the game; the overwhelming becomes manageable. When I first started getting into it really hard, I was having Spelunky dreams. I was, in my sleep, actually seeding perfectly playable worlds and situations, and then I was playing through them totally in line with the physics of the game. This was before I had an understanding of the way the levels are generated, which shows just how engrained the game's processes become in one's head.

So, I mean, I totally get what you're saying, just, I do take issue with the wording “truly random,” when the level generation itself is the only element of randomness in the game (and even that is far from truly random).

Sorry to be that dude.

Posted by PurpleSpandex

Surprisingly light on actual content for how much he talked up this article.

Posted by Dan_CiTi

@yummytreesap: I thought even B. Rex has gone on about how the physics are essentially too complex to discern while playing, so they may as well be random, especially when dealing with stuff like angry Shopkeepers.

Posted by forheiszombie

...So when's it coming to PS4?!

(please?)

Posted by Majkiboy

Great article! But there is one thing that bothers me, you are using the word "reinventing" to describe what dark souls and spelunky does. They are not reinventing anything. Hard games like thesee have been there all the time. Think of all the rouge-likes. Think of Monster Hunter? Im sure there are great examples of challenging games, I'm just to tired to come up with more. But hey, let's try! Diablo 1 and Resident Evil 1 were pretty hard and challenging! Or hell, take a random bullet hell shooter.

Posted by allenibrahim

@rorie: Peekaboo, I see you, Mr. Test Post!

P.S. Are you gonna be at PAX East with the rest of the guys? I'd love to get a picture and chat!

Edited by Tiny_Tank

Great article Patrick, also thanks for including Douglas Wilson's article it was great to read especially after watching Bananasaurus Rex's over 3mil score run. I like seeing a community of people dedicated to these things and being able to watch it and feel like I'm getting to be a part of something even though I don't have as much time to play as I'd like or watch the streams live all the time or anything like that.

Posted by GnaTSoL

Any mention of a sequel!?!

Posted by OCD12345

Yum.

Posted by SPCTRE

Am I a bad person for being aggressively disinterested in this?

Posted by patrickklepek

“The only truly random element of Spelunky are the physics, which can cause havoc.”

To elicit cries of pedantry, I take issue with this wording. The physics of Spelunky are anything but random, let alone "truly random." Unpredictable or chaotic at times, most certainly, but random? Absolutely not.

Every single time you enter any situation in Spelunky, you can play out in your head how everything is going to react. You might end up being dead wrong and find yourself at the wrong end of an explosion, for example, but it's not so much a case of randomness coming into play as it is a miscalculation on your part.

Are you sure? :) I've walked into rooms where bombs went off and I died before I could even move.

I certainly know what you mean, though.

Posted by Zevvion

I still don't like Spelunky. I've only played it for two hours though. I should give it more of a chance at some point. I just didn't get the purpose of the game. You can collect gold and all that, but the objective is to run towards the next level, which you can easily just do.

Maybe it is one of those games where it's easy to play but tough to get a high score? I can respect that. I'm just not having that much fun with the base game to care about increasing my score.

Edited by flippyandnod

I think if I were a game developer I'd want to make procedurally-generated games. Because if you make a scripted game, you can't enjoy it as much because you always knows what's going to happen next. With a procedurally-generated game, even the person who made it can experience it with some surprise.

Posted by Sooty

Spelunky and Dark Souls, the game no GiantBomber can seem to escape.

Edited by DantronLesotho

I can't believe you didn't talk to him about Bat-Tech