What Spelunky Teaches Us

Video games have never really been my bag.

Even so, about a year ago I bought a Play Station 4 specifically for MLB The Show — in time for baseball’s regular season. Until that point, the only game I played with any regularity was still MVP Baseball 2005, and that was on the PS2 of all things. It had been nearly 15 years since I invested in a new console.

Spelunky was introduced to me last summer when, for whatever reason, I saw my older brother playing it and instantly got reeled in. I asked what game it was and what the objectives were, and he responded by saying it was complicated to explain (which it was), and even more difficult to play (which was also true). He then said it was one of his favorite games specifically because it’s so challenging. I was immediately all-in. That afternoon I splurged for the $14.99 price tag in the Play Station Store, and haven’t looked back since.

Per Chris Plant of Polygon, who I think puts it best, “Despite its colorful, cartoon aesthetic, Spelunky is known for its steep and rewarding learning curve.” Indeed. In that sentence, the words “steep” and “rewarding” are arguably understated: the game is so difficult that I imagine most people wouldn’t find it fun in the least. To beat it — which I probably do about once every 10 or 15 runs, at best — feels like a triumph of the human will.

Okay. . . Maybe that’s excessive. But I’m serious when I say it is really fucking hard. That is probably the biggest reason why I believe Spelunky is the greatest video game of all-time.

There are four worlds in the Spelunky universe — the Mines, Jungle, Ice Caves and Temple — but a fifth, Hell, is unlocked if you beat the first four traveling on a specific path. There are four levels you must complete in each individual world (making 16 total levels) before moving onto the next, and each world offers different monsters that can kill you and unique obstacles you must learn to navigate through. (If you somehow reach the final level of Hell, it’s actually 20 total levels, but that’s besides the point.)

For a novice, playing Spelunky is an exercise in futility. It took me nearly a full month just to complete the Mines (the first world) and advance to the Jungle (the second), and another few months — and 1,500 or so deaths — before I eventually beat the game for the first time. Even now, as a somewhat seasoned Spelunky veteran, it isn’t uncommon to go several days without besting the final boss.

To give some glimpse into the type of mental fortitude it can take to continue on with the game, IGN’s Mitch Dyer wrote in 2013 that

Spelunky can feel like a complete waste of time. It doesn’t want you to proceed to the next cave, and you can go hours without making an inch of progress. Spelunky’s charming music and colorful art is a ruse — it will punish the faint of heart and emotionally unstable. Death is permanent, gain is minimal, and you start from scratch every time you play. As such, you’ll care when you do something right, when you narrowly avoid death. You’ll cherish your fragile little life and appreciate what you earn, without a single concern for in-game unlocks. [Emphasis mine.]

It requires some level of masochism to get really good. You have to embrace the process of being defeated. For this, as you know, is one of the only surefire ways of getting better.

Congruent with the formidable challenge Spelunky so often presents is something sickeningly true to life. There are times you make it all the way to the end only to have something fluky happen that ends up killing you, stopping an otherwise superb run right in its tracks. Other times, you could be on the brink of death on multiple occasions, play too fast and/or too loose, and end up winning. That doesn’t seem fair.

Only, that’s exactly how real life operates. Think of all the instances when you did seemingly everything right, were as careful and as calculated as possible, and still got fucked by something that’s out of your control. Conversely think about all the times you gave a half-assed effort, refused to give a damn, and winded up not getting punished for it. The difference between those two outcomes could not be more stark, yet the Spelunky universe (just as with our own) does not seem to make that distinction, or give even a single shit about the feelings of the individual adventurer. You play, and you lose. And sometimes you win.

From a different Plante article:

The advanced player never stops learning variations on that theme. The longer you play Spelunky, the deeper you go into its mines, the more you learn, the more the game rewires your brain to consider and preemptively act upon the potential repercussions of every action.

The beauty of Spelunky is how constantly it encourages learning by doing; it does not tell, show or coddle. Spelunky is an elaborate series of mechanisms that react not just to you, but one another. [Emphasis mine.]

I used to play a bowling app on my phone when I was a freshman in high school, and back when my phone was a Motorola Razor. This would have been 2004. The game was relatively difficult until you figured out the exact speed and exact spin you needed to put on the ball to earn you a strike. Once you did that, after a few weeks or months of playing, it wasn’t uncommon to throw a perfect game. I remember I played it so much, and got so good at it, that I would quit every time I was in the third or fourth frame and didn’t record a strike; I would just start over and try to bowl a 300 the next time.

In a nutshell, that is what my gaming experience has always been like. I played MVP Baseball 2005, and Madden 2008, for so many years that I basically knew exactly what the opponent was trying to do on every possession. I played on the most difficult level, and routinely won the baseball games 15-0 and the football games 60-0. Anything less than perfection was not good enough.

This, in some way, satisfies the dominant math-and-logic side of my brain. Part of the allure to playing video games is to have fun and enjoy myself; the deeper aspect is that of figuring out the game, getting so good that it is essentially impossible to get better at it. In my “gaming history,” or lack thereof, it has been proven that I would rather spend five or ten years mastering an outdated game than I would staying current, or participating online in the more popular role-playing games. I’m boring like that.

Spelunky is perfect, or perhaps even better: it’s just right. There isn’t a real Spelunky player who would tell you they have learned everything there is to learn, or seen everything there is to see. Just as with the adage that “the day you stop growing up is the day you die,” in Spelunky the learning and experiencing never stops. There are always ways to get better, or be more efficient.

Unsurprisingly, that same outlook is why I enjoy my job as a craps dealer so much. I’ve now been dealing the game for almost three years and still come across bets I’ve never seen before, and payouts I’ve never before had to calculate on the spot. As such (and just as with Spelunky), you can instantaneously discredit any craps dealer who says they “have seen it all.” It’s simply untrue, no matter how experienced they may be.

I’m not sure about you, dear reader, but I happen to love this idea — the idea that you never stop learning, and improving. While this is beginning to sound like a Hallmark card more than I’d prefer, the point is Spelunky is an awesome game on a myriad of planes. With particular respect to how far it goes to punish overconfidence, I’m somehow utilizing this game to learn things about myself.

The universe does not care if you win or lose; it’s indifferent to your accomplishments and failures, ecstasies and miseries; it offers no congratulations for the pinnacle you may never reach, and no sympathies for the rock bottom you never knew you were in; it treats the pompous asshole and humble Samaritan alike. It has always been this way. It always will be this way. And Spelunky is no different.

These are the only truths I know.

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