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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.
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.
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.
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+