'Spelunky' Is Obsessed With Death
'Spelunky' is a game that is fundamentally about dying in interesting and spectacular ways
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
There is a certain kind of game that is all about death. Or, rather, there are games that exist where the most joyous encounters are the ones in which you die. Many of these are in the "roguelike" genre of game, a slippery categorization that doesn't do much to explain anything at all.
A roguelike is, to put it as neatly as possible, a game where interactions between procedurally generated elements in a simulated world create new and interesting ways for players to die. Everyone is mad about that definition, I'm sure of it, but I say all of that to get to what really matters here: Spelunky is a game that is fundamentally about dying in interesting and spectacular ways.
Like I said, roguelikes are about generating ways of dying, and there is a possible world where fans watch Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup playthroughs and cheer, scream, or groan at the moment when a player dies at the bottom of some hell pit. But that isn't the world we live in, at least not on the scale of Spelunky.
The reasons for this could be entirely about the knowledge of the viewer: It is easier to follow a goofy, fun platformer like Spelunky than it is to follow a game of Dungeon Crawl because most people already have some kind of experience with something like the former. The average human knows what a Mario is, or has at least seen some Marios in their day, and the jump-action-run gameplay of Spelunky is immediately more familiar than Dungeon Crawl's ASCII (or tile-based) monstrosity, where a text readout tells you that a goblin stole all your money and also your will to live.
In Spelunky, the moment where the game overcomes the player is a moment that viewers can empathize with. We can imagine ourselves, as players, coming to a similar end.
That, I believe, is why Spelunky is such a charming game. After all, isn't this why the Waypoint launch stream began with the game? Dying to snake spit, or falling from a great height to bounce off an ice platform, or being killed by a fly-barfing mummy are all comical and strange. These are moments where a player's skill is completely eradicated in the face of a system whose interrelations cooperated to do something horrible.
This, I think, is what makes watching Spelunky so fun. As designer and developer Derek Yu explains in his book on Spelunky (you can read my review here), the magic of the game is that everything is the same kind of entity. The player character is a humanoid that can pick things up, jump, and perform actions, and so all of the other humanoids can do that. Everything has gravity. Everything takes damage from explosions.
From a philosophical perspective, we would say that everything is "ontologically equivalent," which means (basically), that everything exists in the exact same way and under the same conditions. Think about other games you play: you can drive some cars, and you can't drive others; you can pick up an item if it's shiny, but not anything else; you can interact with a door if it has an icon, but not the other doors. Those games have worlds where interaction is determined by hierarchy, but Spelunky isn't like that. In Spelunky, the player is just another creature scrambling around the levels like all of the other creatures are.
I don't want to watch people succeed at Spelunky. I can appreciate the speedruns. I find the "eggplant run" to be hilarious, and I love that the game holds out hope that a player will travel to hell with an eggplant. My desires around this game have very little to do with watching people be very good at it, and maybe that's because the game does such a good job of making you feel like you could be good at it.
After all, every time I die, I get to watch my corpse bounce around and interact with all the creatures and objects around it. Each death in Spelunky is a lesson in context and conditions; you can see what killed you, and in what order, and you can make a mental note to never make those mistakes again. There's the possibility that you could avoid the mistakes that got you killed.
That's a lure. It's a brutal optimism. You can never cross the same river twice. You can never live the same life in Spelunky again.
The true draw of Spelunky is the spectacle of watching yourself, or another player, die over and over again. Like a game of peek-a-boo, playing Spelunky is about testing this system to its simulation limits and seeing what pops out. I enjoy watching my lifeless corpse ping pong around a level getting attacked by boomerang-wielding enemies more than I enjoy hopping on their heads. I want to see what this world of universal equivalence, where everything has a life of its own, can produce for me. I want to see what kind of death it can make. How can it stop me? And again? Again?
My friend Joel McCoy once made a bot that distills Spelunky down to this very nature. "The Book of the Dead" is a tumblr of collective death. As he explains in his writeup, the bot combs through recorded playthroughs linked to the Spelunky Explorers Club. From there, it scans the video for the moment of death, and then it preserves it in GIF form for all to see and witness until the end of time. I can scroll through it forever and never stop enjoying it.
Spelunky's spectacle of death alleviates so much anxiety. It shows that the best laid plans are nothing in the face of everything; it shows that one can fail, and end, and yet that isn't really the end. You can always try, but you will run into an end again. I mean, maybe you'll win the game. It's unlikely. Steam says that only 7% of players have gotten the achievement for beating the final boss. So then the vast majority of people who experience Spelunky understand it only in terms of failure, dying, and being a bouncing corpse.
In Spelunky, people die in fun and interesting ways because they are the same as everything else in the game. The player, minimized, gets to let go and just exist. That existence always ends in death, but there's no pressure of heroism. There's no expectation that you'll reach the end of the game. Instead, you merely go until you stop.