Games

'Spelunky' Is About the Cycle of Death and the Power of Community

Without people cheering me on and picking me up, I might have given up on 'Spelunky,' one of my favorite games, a long time ago.
September 15, 2020, 3:39pm
A screen shot from the video game Spelunky 2.
Screen shot courtesy of Mossmouth

When I think about Spelunky, I think about a lot of things. There's death, of course, but more importantly, it's community. A community finding secrets together, a community cheering one another one in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, a community lifting one another up when they die in the most unexpected and tragic of days. That makes Spelunky tick.

This is a weird thing to admit, but I can't play Spelunky without a camera turned on. Late at night, with everyone else in the house asleep, I've lately gone downstairs to my computer, turned on a web cam, and talked to myself as though there are people watching me play Spelunky 2. I've done this for seven hours, and expect to do it for, I dunno, another hundred, as I slowly plunge the game's depths and try to make sense of all the obstacles in my way. 

Spelunky is one of my favorite video games, a rare unicorn that I'd argue is legitimately perfect. I don't know what "perfect" even means, but if you ask me, Spelunky is a game that comes to mind. It's incredibly hard, punishing players for the slightest misstep and sending them back to the start with nothing more than knowledge of what happened along the way. You are meant to scream and crunch the plastic on your controller to the point of breaking—and then start again. The cycle is simultaneously agonizing and enthralling.

I bounced off Spelunky the way I bounced off Dark Souls, concluding these were games for weirdo masochists without realizing that I was, in fact, also one of those weirdo masochists. I later came back to Spelunky to conduct an experiment: record every minute I spend with Spelunky to demonstrate to viewers in real-time what it's like to learn a game. Because Spelunky is so specifically about rewarding patience and observation, it seemed like the ideal game to internalize over a long period of time with an audience every step of the way.

The result was a longrunning series called "Spelunkin' With Scoops," the "scoops" part riffing on a reporter nickname I had at one of my old employers. It remains one of the highlights of my career, because I really don't know that I would have stuck with Spelunky otherwise. 

Every day for months, I poured a cup of coffee, sat down at my computer, and spent an hour plunging into the mines, jungles, ice caves, and temples that make up Spelunky's endless unique deathtraps. The vast majority of those streams ended with me cursing a computer monitor, an hour spent going "forward" only to have it end with me all the way back at the start again.

Every time I died, though, I would look at the chat on Twitch and feel solace—inspiration even. People were usually laughing or cursing because I'd missed something obvious, but it was in service of the same idea: celebrating progress, usually in the form of one step forward and two steps back. Death was a means to an end, and even in frustration, there were dozens of people to pick me up, dust me off, and find the energy to try it all over again.

We became a community. Some people started playing the game themselves, but more often than not, other people considered their playthrough of Spelunky to be my playthrough, and so my victories became their victories. People would come up with theories on how to approach an area, what items to purchase, how to get out of a certain jam. I was the ultimate judge and jury, the one to take a leap and then screw it all up, but it was shared progress. 

People love to watch "Twitch plays [game]" streams, but this didn't feel all that different. We live in an era of Let's Plays, and experiencing a game no longer means holding a controller. Spelunky always felt like a game for that moment, even if it was unintentional.

Eventually, those lessons manifested in me beating the game in various forms—defeating the "first" final boss, Olmec, and eventually the "real" final boss hidden within Hell's depths. I was, at one point, even able to earn the "speedlunky" achievement by beating the game in under eight minutes. Even I was willing to admit that "damn, I got pretty good at Spelunky."

My community was a constant source of confidence and courage. So when it came time to start playing Spelunky 2 and I realized COVID-19 meant I couldn't spend my mornings before work streaming the game's tricks and traps, I went for the next best thing. I flipped on the web cam, introduced myself to an imaginary audience, and started playing Spelunky 2.

(It is funny, however, when I sneak in a recording during the day and my wife has to try and explain to my four-year-old daughter why daddy is screaming in his office by himself.)

When I died, I laughed. When I made progress, I cheered. I act different when the camera is on, but it's not fundamentally dishonest, either. My community isn't there to see my journey in real-time—I'll have to wait for the YouTube comments to show up—but even the facade is comforting. I know they'll have my back. I know, together, we'll eventually beat Spelunky 2.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).