Spelunky Journal Part I

Hello and welcome to another series of posts. I’ll be playing a very particular game on a daily basis, describing my experience with it, and analyzing the mechanics and overall game design that I’m able to observe as my understanding of the game grows larger with time. Sometimes I’ll focus on certain design choices, sometimes I’ll just tell you all what happened to my poor red-nosed character, and other times I’ll just make non-sequiturs because I had nothing to write.

I’ve already done this sort of thing before with the Nikopol demo, the pilot of Frayed Knights and the excruciating installation process of the Ceville demo, but here we are, a few months later with a new interesting game on our hands, so let’s get started:

As you might have guessed by the name of this series, Spelunky is the game that I’ll be playing in the next few weeks. It’s a game developed by Derek Yu and is based around procedurally generated levels where you are a spelunker in search of spelunky. Or in plain english: you are a copy of Indiana Jones and your mission is to advance to the next level while rescuing women, collecting gold and fighting nazis mean animals.

Day 1:

Ooohhh, pixely! The music is pleasant enough, although it is kind of repetitive. I guess that’s due to this game being nostalgia-based, what with the chiptune music and pixely graphics. Alright, tutorial level: signs populate the level explaining everything in text… which strikes me as unimaginative, but oh well, not everybody is Valve after all. Let’s see… jumping, crouching, picking up gold bars, whipping, opening chests, everything seems pretty standard. The controls feel kind of awkward but I guess this is the result of having to work with a keyboard rather than a standard controller. You know, the keyboard is not exactly a piece of hardware specifically designed for gaming. Anyhow, I just got killed by the first enemy. In the tutorial. No, I’m not that lame, I was supposed to hit a bat* with a rock but since this is the very first time I’ve EVER thrown anything in the game, I missed badly. This game is laaaame. Let’s see, I have to do the tutorial level all over again. What else can I do? Mmmmhhh, can I pick up the opened chest? Why, yes I can! … and I can throw it too! This game is awesome! I better quit on a high note, or otherwise I won’t play it again.

* the flying kind.

This game has a metric ton to talk about. Let's see, in this screenshot alone I can see a HUGE spider, a smaller spider but still the size of a man, a caveman, a pot, an idol, gold stuck in the walls, stairs and... well, that's pretty much it.
This game has a metric ton to talk about. Let's see, in this screenshot alone I can see a HUGE spider, a smaller spider ("only" the size of a human), a caveman, a pot, an idol, gold stuck in the walls, stairs and... well, that's pretty much it. Not counting the HUD that is.

Day 2:

I learned how to effectively kill that damned bat. It’s just a matter of trial and error until you learn the exact angle at which you throw things. After that, I’m stuck. I used one of the two ropes I had in order to advance a little more and get to a dead end. I tried going back but I wasted the other rope I had and now I can’t go back to the starting area. Oh well, I reset the tutorial aaaaand no, there wasn’t anything of importance in the starting area. Sure, there was some treasure I had left behind before but I’m quite sure that a door isn’t going to magically open for me once I have X amount of treasure. This isn’t one of those games. What’s this? A crate I didn’t notice that had two bombs inside that I could pick up? And the sign explicitly telling me about said crate? … alright, my fault, I’m an idiot. I guess I have to blow this wall over here, I guess that bombs destroy walls and I guess that the tutorial continues or ends on the other side of this wall. That’s a whole lot of guesses there, ya know? Let’s see, arm bomb aaaand place it! OH GOD OH GOD I SAID PLACE NOT THROW, RUN YOU STUPID CHARACTER, RUN. Phew, that almost killed me. Alright, it seems that I can’t just place bombs, I throw them. With great force. And they bounce back against walls. Into my face.

Moving on, I take my distance, throw my last bomb, it bounces back slightly, explodes and… victory! The wall of death was obliterated! Now I walk to the other room while making an obscene gesture to the previously omnipotent wall. Huh, there’s a hole in the form of an entrance here. I guess if I press up I will… yes, that was the exit and I just finished the tutorial. Hooray! Thank goodness I was already used to entering doors by pressing up. I wonder what would a normal person do? Flail around until they die from something totally unexpected? Probably.

Design lesson of the day: I wouldn’t have been so lost if I could see that the exit was at the other side of the wall, therefore rendering the explanation for “explode this wall” pointless. It’s the very worst example of showing, not telling that I’ve experienced in recent memory: Don’t tell me what to do at every step of the way, just tell me what’s my objective and where it might be and make it so that reaching said objective is only possible by doing the very things you want me to do. Sure, you have to put some kind of textual hints every once in a while (for controls mostly), but please when we are talking about a game this hard you have to respect your audience players a little more. We should be learning about the mechanics through play and observation rather than plain text.

Side-note:

I have somewhat of a no bullsh*t policy here, so I feel that I should probably mention that I’ve been playing Spelunky for the past two weeks and already have 18 “days” worth of material. In other words, the “days” separation I’m using here is not literal days, they are topics that have popped up in my mind or experiences I had. Though, these experiences and thoughts did happen in this order.

The funny thing is, I haven’t finished the game yet and have died 350 times already. I’m guessing that I’ve already passed the midway point but I base this only on circumstancial clues (like how many “shortcut doors” can fit in one screen (answer: three  (that is, in one screen, later it might add another room for shortcuts, and that would mean that I’m less than a third of the way through the game (anyway, aren’t nested parentheses awesome?)))).

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