The DigestVideo

Games Of July 2012: Spelunky

My Spelunky has a first name. It’s R-A-N-D-M.

By John Teti • August 7, 2012

Our monthly chat-and-chew extravaganza is back, and Steve Heisler makes a return appearance—even better dressed than last time! Slightly!

In this episode, we talk about Spelunky. I wrote a little thing last week about games that build their worlds on the fly in this kinda-random way, although Spelunky has a distinct feel from the main topic of that piece, The Binding Of Isaac. Steve and I ended up rhapsodizing about randomness for most of the shoot, because hey, we think it’s neat.

We also ate Honey Nut Cheerios Milk ’N Cereal Bars. If you thought finishing Spelunky was tough, try making your way through one of those.

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291 Responses to “Games Of July 2012: Spelunky

  1. Colonel says:

    This is the only game I’ve actually laughed at the different ways I die.  I can remember one time when I found an alien ship (I played the shit out of the PC version so anything new was amazing to me).  I fought my way through a totally alien (pun half-intended) environment and managed to beat the “boss” of the stage (some giant alien thing).  It dropped this cool gun and I immediately went to try it out.  Well, turns it out it has some nasty ricochet/recoil/whatever and I blew myself up without even knowing why.

    You just don’t understand Spelunky.  It’s a nice game, really.  It loves me.

  2. caspiancomic says:

    When I saw such a specific brand name product being used for the digest, I thought maybe this was some kind of product placement arrangement, but that suspicion pretty quickly evaporated.

    I haven’t played Spelunky, but it looks like it ought to be a blast. I was thinking myself of a way to design a sort of roguelike/metroidvania hybrid, but it looks like this game may have beaten me to it (not that there isn’t always room for more should it come to that). I thought of maybe doing something truly “randomly generated”, right down to the plot, which would be introduced with a kind of madlibs style fill-in-the-blank exposition screen. You know, you are _____, and your _____ has been kidnapped by _____, go _____ some _____! It would probably be a lot of work, but hey. Sort of like if Castlevania: SOTN only handed out a small handful of its weapons, armour, accessories, items, familiars, relics, rooms to explore, bosses to fight, and secrets to discover in any one playthrough. Actually, I’m basically just describing The Binding of Isaac except as a 2D platformer, so maybe this game has already been made out from underneath me twice over.

    Speaking of Isaac, I think I’m as close to “finished” with it as I’ll ever get. I finally unlocked and cleared The Chest last week, and got the 13th and apparently final ending. I still haven’t unlocked all the goodies (still have to finish some Challenges and beat the game with most of the other characters), but now that I’ve come this far I think I need a bit of a break. At first I didn’t understand the point of having so many roughly similar endings, but now that I’ve unlocked them all I can feel my drive to play the game again slowly leaving me. Still, I got 60 hours of fun out of it for like 3 dollars. It would take me as much time to play your average JRPG to completion, and it would have cost me 20 times that much to buy it.

    • Merve says:

      MadLib gaming is a brilliant idea:
      – You are a toaster, and your toast has been kidnapped by a refrigerator, go make some breakfast.
      – You are an artist, and your muse has been kidnapped by robbers, go write some sad poetry.
      – You are Generic Dudebro #5, and your son has been kidnapped by terrorists, go shoot some commie bastards.
      – You are a monkey, and your banana has been kidnapped by fruit pickers, go pick some more bananas.
      – You are Cole Phelps, and your mild-mannered restraint has been kidnapped by an incorrect dialogue choice, go yell at some arson victims.

      In all seriousness, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of practicality to have a dozen or so options for each blank in a short MadLib, and then build a game from there. You could get hundreds of different game combinations just by changing a few variables.

      • caspiancomic says:

         Oh man, I intended for the final two blanks to be a tastefully understated way of saying “kick some ass”, but I like your idea way better! By having even a modest handful of verbs and nouns for the imperative part of the story generator, you could actually randomly generate goals besides “kill the bad guys”. In the same engine you could create versions of the game where the goal is to defeat enemies, collect certain items, explore a given percentage of the map, reach a specific area, or any number of other gameplay options. I might have to start writing some of this down.

        Also, a game in which you play as a toaster? You’re hired!

      • Girard says:

         Your examples make me wonder if such a game would benefit or be hampered by an algorithm that ensures the motivation and response are appropriate (e.g. Terrorists have kidnapped your son, go kill terrorists).

        Would it be more open and inventive and fun to have the possibility of a game where your high school football team has been kidnapped by aliens, but the response you’re exhorted to have is simply to make breakfast? Or would that kind of nonsense make the randomness seem meaningless?

        • Effigy_Power says:

           I think that’s a question of frequency and game-length.
          IF the game does require you to defeat the aliens with a nutritious breakfast, good for you. It’ll take you like 2 minutes and you’re done.
          If however your dog peed on the carpet and in order to clean it up you have to arm-wrestle the nation of Cameroon, it would eat some time.
          As such the odd and downright bizarre responses to the task would sort of time-manage themselves. Plus you can always just accept that “You have to go on your first date, eat Chichister Cathedral.” isn’t for you, restart and reroll.

        • Electric Dragon says:

           “You have to go on your first date, eat Chichester Cathedral.”
          This would be appropriate if you were, say, Godzilla. Or the star of a series of British 80s adverts for a chewy sweet:

        • Effigy_Power says:

           Or your name was Ron Obvious… look it up.

        • Girard says:

           @google-6108c5611fbc5b86af5df565c4b4b048:disqus : Holy crap. I’m not English, but did live in England during primary school, and I totally saw those commercials and are those candies (while gnoshing loudly and pretending I was that Godzilla beast thing). I had totally forgotten about that. That is some weird, out-of-left-field nostalgia.

        • Electric Dragon says:

          @Effigy_Power:disqus Yes, well, that’s a very nice webcomic you have, be a shame if someone set fire to it.

          Ok, ok, I’m a Python nerd and a little ashamed I didn’t spot the reference straight away. Especially as I’ve been going through the episodes again with the mothership’s TV Club Classic. They will be getting to Ron Obvious in a couple of weeks, although the Vercottis and their Protection Racket will be making an appearance this Thursday.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        “You are Cole Phelps, and your mild-mannered restraint has been kidnapped by an incorrect dialogue choice, go yell at some arson victims.”

        AHAHAHAHAA!  Well played, sir!

    • Enkidum says:

      I’ve spent a long time thinking about a procedural quest generator for rpgs – far longer than is probably healthy. Basically the idea would be that it could spontaneously generate 2-3 hour scenarios that would actually make sense and be interesting in their own rights, and wouldn’t all be fetch quests. This is a pretty tall order, of course, but I think it’s (at least in principle) doable.

      This started when I met this guy from MIT whose dissertation involved taking dozens of folk tales from around the globe, and basically breaking them down into atomic elements (e.g. wicked stepmother, magic sword, lovers from two different classes, whatever). I asked him if this was sort of like Joseph Campbell with scientific rigour, he said yes.* I have no idea how successful he was, but let’s suppose he got it working. Take, oh, every single story you can find that appeals to gamers and makes sense as something you can play. Feed all the hundreds or thousands of them into his system and break them down into whatever elements you can. Then the idea is that you reverse the process and create a story generator. Combine that with a physical environment/map generator along the lines of Diablo or Spelunky or BoI. And hey presto! you’ve made the best-selling game in history.

      What I really wanted to do** was combine this with an rpg that had a standard scripted world and main quest, and have this be the side quest generator. Ideally, actually, you’d have a mix of scripted and generated side quests, and you’d see if anyone could tell the difference. And if there was anything in the main quest that affected some of the elements of a generated story, you’d hopefully have defined the parameters of the story generator well enough that these things could affect it. So, suppose there was a quest that involved doing something for a holy order, but in the process of the main quest you’d pissed off the leader of the order. Then your experience of this quest drastically changes. The idea would be that every character would have opinions of every other character, faction, nation, town, whatever – if they weren’t specified by the main script, then they could be generated on the fly. These opinions would both change in response to events in the game, and change what the npcs were willing to do. Something like a Paradox game, in terms of how people would react to each other. So yeah, this is sort of a mashup of Skyrim/Diablo/Spelunky/CKII/Joseph Campbell.

      I’ve actually thought about this in a lot more detail, but yeah, you get the idea. Of course what I’ve just described would be one of the most complicated projects ever attempted by any group of people, ever. But, y’know, those are just details. Engineering problems! Don’t oppress me with your “facts” and “logic” and “real world”! 

      *I’ve never read Campbell, so this isn’t meant to be a putdown, just he wasn’t a scientist.

      **”wanted to do” is sort of along the lines of “wanted to be an astronaut” moreso than “was thinking of doing the next time I go to New York”…

      • Girard says:

         If you would like some more fuel for the rapidly spinning wheels in your brain, I recommend you look at:

        Vladimir Propp, a Soviet scholar, contemporaneous to Campbell (though I don’t tihnk they knew each other’s work), who did a very thorough, scientific, and systematic breakdown and taxonomy of the essential components out of which Russian folktales are assembled, which sounds similar to the MIT guy you were talking about.

        Markov chains (aka ‘context-free grammar’) A type of computer logic that first reads a ‘text’ (or texts) and records a table of the frequency of certain words following other words (essentially a sort of low-level ‘grammar’ without grammatical rules). This table can then be used to randomly generate ‘new’ texts based on the source texts. My freshman year I had to write such a program that would ‘read’ the complete works of Shakespeare, then spit out a ‘new’ Shakespeare play. The programmer at the link had his program read the Bible AND Alice in Wonderland to make its table, which then spit out weird hybrid texts.

        I’ve read about programmers using Markov chains with non-text sources, too. Like designing a bunch of platformer levels, then feeding those designs into the Markov program, which then can procedurally spit out new playable levels in the “style” of the source levels by chaining chunks of level “grammar”.

        Anyway, your talk of chunking stories, and of a game putting them together, immediately made me think of those two things…

        • Enkidum says:

          Thanks for the links! Didn’t know about Propp, though the name seems familiar for some reason. I’m actually using Markov chains for some work I’m doing now, although I suspect I implemented them in a hacky way that doesn’t really reflect their Markov-ness. 

          The platformer creator you’re describing sounds a lot like the neural nets that do things like create music in the style of particular composers. Something like that would definitely be needed for Enkidum’s Best Game Ever.

        • Girard says:

          @Enkidum:disqus  All of a sudden I want to make a Flash/Flixel game that’s just an endlessly self-generating Mario 1 level produced on the fly by a Markov-chain generator that has been fed with matrices describing every level in Mario 1…

           Except that’s one of those things that would take months and months to do, and turn out a cute little sawbuck game that people would probably play for all of 5 minutes, “get” the idea, and never bother with again.

        • Enkidum says:

          Same basic idea: I always wanted a procedural shmup generator. I mean I was always pretty good at Raiden (pretty good = sometimes got to the end of level 2 without losing a life and proceeded to die miserably). But a huge part of the skill set of expert players is just memorization of the different attack waves. I always liked the idea of reducing it to pure skill, as opposed to memorization. Just rules like “this many waves of this kind of opponent are allowed to immediately follow each other”, “no more than x number of power-ups per y pixels of travel”, etc. Could be totally awesome.

          But yeah, I have a non-gaming job, etc etc etc.

      • stakkalee says:

        I can think of 2 recent RPGs that had randomly-generated quests; not necessarily to the degree you’re talking about, but random nonetheless.

        Skyrim, of course, and it’s Radiant system, which has defined quests, with random start- and endpoints and rewards.  Radiant isn’t a truly random quest generator, though, since it really just makes cosmetic changes to existing quests.

        Neverwinter Nights had a DLC called Infinite Dungeons, and IT WAS AWESOME.  Ahem.  You enter a randomly-generated dungeon with several levels and a boss.  Apart from the bosses, everything in the dungeons was random.  Maps, as I mentioned, are random.  Random loot.  You may run across an NPC with a quest – find something and bring it to me, take a message to this place, escort me, etc.  The enemies were all level-dependent, so level 1 characters would get a couple of skeletons, while level 50 characters get 3 dragons in a cavern.  The bosses weren’t truly random; there was a pool of 7 different bosses the engine would choose from, but really that was just so they could create the “plot” content for that character, render appropriate cutscenes, and so forth.  It was epic, and it really extended the life of that game for me.

        I’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to slap together various dungeon-randomizing components into one package for a truly random RPG, but I’d imagine the error-checking between the various components (“Does my random dungeon design break my random quest?” “Does my random world-map break the villain’s random plot?”) would be a beast.

        Oh yeah, by the way Teti? Those cereal bars ain’t gonna be any better tomorrow.

        • Enkidum says:

          Yeah, the error-checking is one of the real problems. Especially if you want these quests to interact at all with events in the main storyline. Again, though, I think it could be done. 

          (If anyone else watched Will Wright’s presentation of Spore at whatever gaming con it was where he got like 8 standing ovations during the talk, and waved around a bunch of words like “procedurally generated” like magic incantations over a game that really wasn’t very good, my comments here are very much in that spirit.)

      • caspiancomic says:

         Enky, if you don’t- call I call you Enky?- if you don’t work in videogames, you’re in the wrong field.

        I’ve been thinking a lot myself about how to make an RPG style game with sufficient sidequest depth that doesn’t boil down to “kill this guy or recover this item and report back here”. I was particularly averse to having sidequests that forced you to return to old dungeons. What I ended up settling on (for now) is having “sidequests” that are as baked into the foundation of the game as the main quest. That is to say, all the sidequests have their own mini story arcs, they all have their own unique areas to unfold in (probably much smaller than a standard dungeon), and as much as possible they all have different goals. This would be a huge amount of work for everybody involved, of course, but as long as I’m designing games exclusively in the carefree carnival of my own mind and don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making it real, my dreams can be as impractical as you like.

        • Enkidum says:


          I keep thinking about quitting my current career (nearing completion of a PhD in cognitive psych, about to hop onto the job market and try to get a tenure track position at a research university) and going into gaming – I think I have a skill set that would actually make me pretty hire-able, and god knows gaming is one of the only growth fields these days (hint: cognitive psych is not…). But I like what I do, and for now I’ll stick with it. However if I don’t get a good job in the next two years or so you’re damn right I’m sending my CV to gaming companies. I know a few people who made that switch, and they’re pretty happy. Are you in gaming?

          Your sidequest idea sounds pretty appealing. I think if you combined it with a BoI/Spelunky-style map generator, you’d get rid of a lot of the work. Just have the quest goals and so forth be parameters that set certain constraints on the generation of the map, and – hey presto! – it would probably work. Of course you then need to have like 8 million parameters and dozens of pre-written stories. But again, this so-called “real world” need not oppress the carefree carnival of our minds any further.

          *Enkidum has absolutely no opinion about anything anyone calls him that isn’t slanderous. Something something late for breakfast, etc.

        • stakkalee says:

          Honestly, what would probably work best is not having an actual main quest, just randomly promote one of the sidequests to main quest.  That way you just have your quest generator with some sort of “promotion” script to pad out the main quest and maybe tie in a few of the other random sidequests, and pepper the map with a few more sidequests that don’t tie in to the main quest, but are just there to add flavor,  You can even extend the game by having your character(s) finish the quest, then be transported to a freshly-generated, level-appropriate new realm.  An RPG that never ends, and one where you can never go back to the previous world.  Have you ever read Michael Moorcock?  Eternal Champion.  Boom.

    • doyourealize says:

      There’s 13 fucking endings to BoI? Jesus. I got 2.

      • caspiancomic says:

         Well, sort of. There’s an “epilogue” which is a serviceable ending the first time through, then 12 endings where Isaac pulls a different item out of the chest at the end (unlocking different items or characters for the game), and then the 13th ending is as close to a “real” ending as the game really gets.

        Uh, spoilers? I guess? I don’t really know.

  3. HobbesMkii says:

    I’ve become impressed with the way some games have begun to integrate the concept of failure into the core of their gameplay. Binding of Isaac is, of course, the example Teti highlighted last week, and obviously Spelunky has at least some of it, but my mind immediately leaps to management-heavy games like Dwarf Fortress or Crusader Kings (I & II).

    Dwarf Fortress in particular, because the game is so complex and so challenging, seems to embrace the idea of failure, to the point where “Losing is fun!” is the unofficial motto of its fanbase. Here’s a game where you’ll carefully guide a small band of seven dwarves into a sprawling mountain complex complete with a self-sustaining economy, army, and government, only to be undone when a legendary dwarf attempts to build an artifact and doesn’t have a certain material available, goes berserk, and slaughters half your fortress, sending the survivors into a spiral of depression where they starve to death.

    Crusader Kings has a similar dynamic, where you can lay careful plans, arrange particular marriages, and just as you think it’s all going to come together, your eldest son dies without issue, allowing your lackwit yet cruel second son to ascend to your empire’s throne, splitting the realm in civil war. And after you put all that time and effort.

    And the key is the randomness of your failures. As Steve points out for Spelunky, you can prepare all you’d like, and be cautious as can be, but one wrong bounce off the wrong spider and all of it goes up in smoke. I think this “Failure is Random (and Success can be, too)” message is far more important and impacting than the messages conveyed in most AAA titles produced today, if such games have any such unified message to convey.

    • Electric Dragon says:

      Those of us of European nationality and with an interest in football (“soccer”) know this as “Football Manager Syndrome” (previously known as “Championship Manager Syndrome”).

      For those not in the know, Football Manager is a long-running series of football management simulation games. Often likened to a series of spreadsheets, the game has hardly any flashy graphics and you see very little of the actual match action. In earlier versions, in fact, the match was a series of text banners across the screen. “Player X shoots!” “It goes wide!!” kind of thing. But what it offers is a huge amount of tactical and financial micromanagement. Choose a formation: 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, catenaccio, Christmas tree. High intensity pressuring game, hold a low defensive line on the box etc. Negotiate player contracts, scout obscure Central European leagues for that hidden gem of a left back. In later editions you can even hold press conferences.

      But always this is subject to the whims of randomness. Your best striker breaks his leg. That left back you found in the Hungarian second division and made a star announces that he won’t sign a new contract and quite fancies a move to Barcelona. Worst of all, your team suffers terrible luck in a string of matches.

      I shared a house with some friends a number of years back, and we all went through a terrible addiction to the FM games. One friend in particular. One night his team had got to an important game (it might have been a Champions League semi-final or a Premiership decider) – and must have run over half a dozen black cats on the way to the game. They had over 20 shots at goal, but a) half of them missed the target and b) the opposing goalkeeper had a miraculous game. Their 20-odd shots produced no goals. The opposition’s only shot of the entire game produced the winning goal. And this was at the end of a several hour session, at 2am. His swearing woke the rest of us up. I think it took a week before he could bear to play again, and it was a miracle he didn’t throw his computer out of the window.

  4. Mookalakai says:

    I don’t know anything about Spelunky, but I used to eat those cereal bars all the time, and I don’t care who knows it.

    • Merve says:

      Yeah, Teti and Heisler are doing cereal bars all wrong. If they don’t contain enough chocolate to be virtually indistinguishable from candy bars, then you’re eating the wrong ones.

      • blue vodka lemonade says:

         I ate the honey-nut-cheerios-and-milkish-substance bars a lot during summer-school gym one year. They chew up your mouth more than you chew them.

  5. blue vodka lemonade says:

    Spelunky, BoI, NetHack, and the like are a source of constant interest for me, but I always feel a bit like a foreigner to their worlds.

    My first electronic games, aside from brief exposure to a few Genesis titles and maybe playing Mario Party at a family Hanukkah gathering once, were adventure games. It was possible to die, but if you saved scrupulously and wrote things down, that wasn’t much of a barrier to moving forward in the game. Even notoriously punishing titles like the King’s Quest series weren’t too difficult for the kind of kid who cheated at Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books by keeping her fingers stuck in the pages at each decision point in case she needed to backtrack.

    I haven’t put a lot of hours, at least compared to some people (and, based on the numbers Steam gives, very few compared to other Gameologists,) into Binding of Isaac. I’ve only once made it through all the basement levels. In a big way, I’m just not good at the game. The same goes for Spelunky–any time I make it to the second environment, it’s a huge deal for me. It’s very likely that I’ll never see the ice caves or the alien ships outside of other people’s screenshots.

    In “real life” I keep all my documents with me at all times. I never get rid of a book I’ve read, no matter if I’ll never read it again. I never call someone a  friend until I know they consider me to be theirs, and never take the first step to advance a relationship.

    So, in games where you can’t save, where having played before isn’t a ticket to breezing past those parts the next time through, where each decision might be your last, I never quite feel like I belong. Folks raised on arcade cabinets and NES, who thrive in “unfair” games and go up against great challenges with no ability to quicksave right before and no fear of death, are another race entirely, and I can only play at playing in their worlds.

    • Girard says:

       Get out of my brain, dude! I’d never made the connection between trepidation, preparation, and constant saving in my play-style, and a similar desire for caution and control in my real life (manifested as social caution re: friends, not getting rid of things, etc.).

      Out of curiosity, do you also have the habit in RPGs of hoarding healing items, saving them up for the big boss when you’re sure you’ll need them, but not even using them then, and beating the game with, like, 9 unused megalixirs in your inventory? Because I do that all the time, and I think it comes from the same part of my brain that can’t get rid of stuff because I “may need it later.”

      That said, while I’m similarly awful at BoI, I do find it kind of exhilarating that it forces me to play “without a net,” so to speak. I still don’t play with as much zeal as most folks here, and it’s possible I will never beat it, but I enjoy how it forces me to change my play habits, but does so in a way that is kind  of inviting to me (unlike other randomly generated games that I’ve never gotten into, like Diablo, or Rogue).

      • doyourealize says:

        There’s a happy medium between what you and @green_gin_rickey:disqus do, and those who go for punishment in Spelunky and BoI, and I’m it. On the one hand, I too never get rid of my stash of Megalixirs, or even Elixirs, really, always believing I’ll need them for later (I still, after beating the game multiple times, have never used a Divine Blessing in Dark Souls). I hit the F5 key to quicksave about every 30 seconds in Morrowind, and I also used to finger my CYOA books. However, there’s something about quick, punishing games that draws me in, too. I haven’t played Spelunky, but BoI and Desktop Dungeons are my drugs of choice, as was, and at times still is, Super Meat Boy. Though the latter is not random, losing is still built into the game, and while all these can be frustrating, there’s something addicting about getting just a little further, or finding a new item, that keeps me coming back for more.

        I don’t know that I’ll ever log 60+ hours into BoI, or beat Super Meat Boy, or even Diablo for that matter, but I love being there for punishing amounts of time…over and over and over. But the same goes for save-whenever-you-want games. This is probably why I’ll never play every game I own.

        • blue vodka lemonade says:

           I can get into BoI and Spelunky at least a little, and they’re fun while they’re fun, but the thought of playing something like Dark Souls, where dying means re-doing a whole long, difficult sequence, gives me the heebyjeebies.

          One time I had an inventory full of gold and diamonds in Minecraft, and then I fell through the world and died. The thought of getting those materials over again made me give up on the game for months.

      • blue vodka lemonade says:

        When I payed Oblivion, my house in Anvil was a monument to hoarding. I kept piles of potions and ingredients and random junk in a cabinet in the corner, just in case I might need them at some point.

        “Maybe the game will get harder,” I say, even after I’ve finished the main plot and mostly just have “fetch ten wads of wool for Farmer Joe” and the like left in the quest log. I have a constant fear of somehow wandering into an un-winnable state.

        I’ve been playing Torchlight off-and-on, and I keep dumping all my healing items (besides the weakest ones) in my storage chest in town. When I run out of the weakest potions, I panic a little because I have to start using the “basic” ones, and OH NO WHAT IF I NEED THOSE LATER.

        It’s like being a grandpa who grew up in the Depression and can’t imagine throwing away a perfectly good pair of underpants just because they have a giant hole in them (and you have two packs of new underpants in your dresser anyway.)

        • Girard says:

           That is exactly how I am with that kind of stuff. Both in-game, and out. With potions and underpants…

        • blue vodka lemonade says:

           @bakana42:disqus I agree with your comments about 95% of the time, so chances are good that I’m just your distaff counterpart/horribly botched clone.

        • Enkidum says:

          I do exactly the same thing with healing potions. And true story: last time my parents came to visit they saw me wearing these tattered-ass boxer shorts and immediately started worrying about my wife and I’s financial state. With reason, too – normal people would not wear underwear like that.

        • Merve says:

          Another healing-item hoarder here. Whenever I play Deus Ex, I hoard medkits like a mofo. I don’t know why I do this, since I usually max out my health regeneration aug.

        • duwease says:

          This all sounds so eerily familiar..

      • SamPlays says:

        @bakana42:disqus and @green_gin_rickey:disqus I’ve learned to deal with this “Always Be Prepared” approach to playing games. There was a point in my gaming life when I was completely dissatisfied if my character was nothing less than perfect or well-prepared for any situation. Back in the 8-bit days, this meant never losing a life, or accumulating so many extra lives that losing one felt like a drop in the bucket. There were times when losing a life meant having to restart, the rationale being that I would need all of my lives in order to make it past the final boss(es). 
        This translated into RPG games, too. I rarely use items for fear of wasting them, my inventories were overly organized, I would hoard everything I could possibly find and I would take prioritization (when I ran out of space) very seriously. I often find the management aspect of these games to be like a mini-game of sorts. 

        Moving into the modern era, this approach has made much less sense because games are generally forgiving. If you die, you’ll simply reappear nearby and continue where you left off. Despite dying, there’s rarely a countdown of lives. However, my old habits will pop up still. For example, I’m working my way through Uncharted 3 (slight digression: so far it’s somewhat disappointing compared to the last one) and I will choose to use a crappier gun (like a Defender .45) over my assault rifle because I feel like I’ll need it for some hypothetical super-fight later on. Despite the fact that the game it littered with ammo for the stronger weapons. It’s such a weird way to approach things in a game, although it’s perfectly acceptable in real life. I’m fairly certain that any military organization would appreciate soldiers reserving larger, more expensive guns and ammo. I’m also fairly certain that hoarding guitar magazines from the 1990s will someday pay off when I choose to re-read them and re-learn all sorts of  techniques and songs. Likewise, I know I’ll re-play all those PS2 games sitting in a box in the basement.

        • Girard says:

           My mom’s basement contains a decade and a half of dog-eared Nintendo Powers and Official Playstation Magazines that testify to my similar “I’m SURE I’ll need this someday!” hoarding tendencies (and hers, too – I’ve definitely inherited that trait from her).

          I don’t play a lot of shooting games, but I’m similarly stingy with ammo. I treat every FPS like I’m in Resident Evil 1 and I have no idea where my next ammo clip is coming from.

          And in the 90s when I glutted on PSX JRPGS, I quickly developed the habit of ONLY healing with magic, since that could be replenished endlessly at inns, whereas healing items could be used up. Meaning I would beat Sephiroth with 99 useless regular potions in my inventory (and 99 hi-potions, and every Elixir or Megalixir or whatever I had encountered at any point in the game…).

        • blue vodka lemonade says:

           @bakana42:disqus My mother has every episode of Twin Peaks on tape in a box, along with most of Buffy seasons 5-7, a lot of Night Court, all of Cop Rock, and God-knows-what-else. It’s definitely an inherited kinda thing. Every year when I pack up to go to school I have a set of books and card games and things which I know I’m not going to read or play in the coming ten months but which I can’t bear to leave behind, lest I suddenly feel the need to re-read The Hobbit when the library is closed.

        • SamPlays says:

          @green_gin_rickey:disqus Interesting. We had seasons 1-3 of the X-Files on VHS. And you know we weren’t messing around because we taped them using SP-mode to get higher quality.
          We were planning for the future, you know? 
          This meant we had only two shows per cassette, which is a whole lot of VHS tapes.  
          Mild digression: Our VCR let us record in three modes: SP for 2 hours, LP for 4 hours and EP for 6 hours. They referred to short-play, long-play and extended-play. The introduction of 8-hour cassettes was revolutionary at the time. You could buy the Sony tapes for ultimate quality but why not buy the Maxell and Memorex tapes at the local Bi-Way for the better deal (3 for $5)?

          Anyways, years after leaving home, I came across the tapes and none of them worked. Not sure if it was a moisture problem, if they got magnetized, or the tape simply deteriorated (goddamn you Memorex!) but I promptly threw all of them in the garbage. Several years later I bought the entire X-Files series for $20 a season. I think this is a metaphor for the circle of life. Or a lesson to never buy anything from your local Bi-Way. Ever.

        • Ghostfucker says:

          There should be a support group for “inventory hoarders”. I always finished the early RE games with a sack full of type writer ribbons and magnum ammo. I never used the healing function in Mass Effect until I tried the multiplayer in 3. I was lugging around boxes of energy bars and grenades by the end of Deus Ex HR….I could on, but I won’t.

      • caspiancomic says:

         I usually hoard all of my healing goodies until the very end of the game as well, although once I get to what I’m pretty sure is the final boss I usually say “screw it” and use a Megalixer like every turn. Also, unless I’m fighting a boss, I almost never use magic. I just don’t want to come up against the dungeon boss and his big glaring weakness for ice spells only to find I’ve used up all my MP.

        You know what game really knocked me out of this habit though? Radiant Historia, for DS. That game does a lot of things right, and its stance on “random battles” is pretty inspired. The idea is basically that in any given area, you fight a much smaller number of battles that are far more strategically demanding than those in other games. You need to use basically every tool in your arsenal to beat even the more modest standard enemy groups, and you’ll be running out of HP and MP really regularly, so you have to make a huge investment in restorative items and use them all the time. It was jarring at first, but after getting walloped in the first couple of dungeons for adhering to my usual stinginess, I was forced to update my strategies, and ended up really loving the game.

      • Colliewest says:

        “So you’ve saved the world again, what next?”

        “Well, I thought I’d have a yard sale. Need any megalixir?”

  6. Staggering Stew Bum says:

    Couldn’t help but notice the Six Feet Under DVDs in the background. Someone should totally make a video game version of that, I’d play it. If only for the level where you get carjacked and forced to smoke crack at gunpoint, before being doused with petrol.

    Other inclusions could be a corpse embalming minigame, a paragon/renegade choice to decide whether Billy is up or down today, and a ‘Flo On The Go’ style section where you have to arrange the coffin and flowers in the funeral parlour before seating funeral goers and providing timely consolations. Also I’d strongly recommend the option to gun down Claire’s irritating art school buds.

    “You got a brain tumour and then married nagging Lili Taylor: GAME OVER

    • blue vodka lemonade says:

       Don’t forget the minigame where you have to select the right object to style each body: which food cans do you use to prop up the porn star’s cans?

    • Ghostfucker says:

      The real question is why did Teti lose interest after season 4?

      • Staggering Stew Bum says:

        If John is anything like me he probably couldn’t take any more of Federico’s wife. You wouldn’t believe how much that character gave me the shits…

    • Electric Dragon says:

      I don’t know whether you know but Teti has been reviewing (or re-viewing) SFU for the mothership’s TV Club Classic feature.

  7. Ghostfucker says:

    From around the web: Man Wanted for Beating 2-Year-Old to Death Gets Freakishly Impaled

    This is actually pretty appropriate for an article on Spelunky.

    • blue vodka lemonade says:


      Anybody who hates babies that much doesn’t need a “plug in”, they need a punch in the throat. This article is disgusting. 

  8. Effigy_Power says:

    I can’t believe that neither Steve nor John, while chewing their disgusting compressed-hay-bars, nor anyone else in the comments, all so occupied with speaking from the heart and making real points rather than dumb puns, have cheapened themselves for the following quote and left it to me to once again degrade myself for your entertainment, but…


    I hope you’re all proud of yourself… you jerks.

    • Staggering Stew Bum says:

      …all so occupied with speaking from the heart and making real points rather than dumb puns…

      So you didn’t see my pointless and pitiful Six Feet Under video game idea then?

  9. Matthew Smith says:

    You bring up the fact that the game is not about learning (its about reacting), and while this game is definitely mostly about adapting and reacting, there is still always a process of learning how stuff works, how enemies/traps function and how to handle general situations. Its closer to the kind of situational learning we take in real life, where we never encounter the same situation again but we use knowledge that we have gained in the past to adapt and find solutions to current problems.

    Also comparing to Binding of Issac, that game is pretty much always learning in terms of discovering what enemies do, what items do, learning new strategies for approaching levels, discovering the best ways to beat certain enemies and bosses etc

    In fact I believe that learning is a vital part of any game, and learning/improving(in the case of reflex/active tasks) is pretty much the main reason why games are fun. Its kind of interesting to think about, but if you think back to when you stopped playing a game, its mostly either going to be because there was nothing more to learn, or you felt like it would require so much more time or effort to learn anything more.

    • Girard says:

       Some recently super-popular games like Minecraft and Terraria are all about the meta-game of learning how to play, too. You basically can’t survive those games without constant alt+tabbing to a wiki page and tons of trial and error.

    • John Teti says:

      Very well put, Matthew, and agreed.

    • blue vodka lemonade says:

       I’m reading Reality Is Broken right now and there’s a lot about the learning-to-play aspect of playing. For lots of games (like Minecraft+Terraria as @bakana42:disqus mentioned, as well as Dark Souls, most Metroidvanias, etc etc) the most engaging state is cycling through challenge, learning to overcome that challenge, overcoming, and meeting a new challenge–games (and other experiences) which provide a constant stream of new things to learn and problems to solve are great happiness engines.

      • Matthew Smith says:

        I need to get around to reading that, but what little I have heard/read about it is what got me thinking about learning in video games in the first place.

        • blue vodka lemonade says:

           It’s a really well-written book, and even though some sections were familiar ground for me (and would be for anyone with a background in education/positive psych) there’s a lot of cool examples and things to think about along the way.

          I can only say I wish it were slightly more illustrated, because there are some ideas I wanted to see rather than read, and maybe that it were also a little bit shorter. As it is it’s a strong, accessible case for games as a medium, great conversation fodder, and downright inspirational in all the real-world applications and life-improvement hacks it suggests are possible.

    • SamPlays says:

      I agree that learning is vital to the gaming experience but I would suggest that learning plays a moderating role in terms of “Game Fun”. I’m not sure the process of learning is fun per se but the resulting knowledge, skills and abilities allow you to have fun with a game. 

      For example, I might take several minutes studying the button layout and functions of the controller and spend the early portions of a game exercising my knowledge in terms of practical game play. These moments are (hopefully) interesting and engagement but I’m not sure I would classify it as fun. Often, at least in my case, the fun-factor enters once I’ve been able to sufficiently practice what I’ve learned and my experience becomes more focused on mastery (i.e., successfully applying what I’ve learned). 

      The best games, IMO, are the ones that build upon the basics by intuitively and seamlessly introducing new gameplay elements as you progress through the game. In particular, I like games that require you to adapt prior knowledge, skills and abilities in a new context, or that shift the balance on what skills are necessary for a given situation. The true gems will challenge you to rethink the strategies that are learned and carried over from game to game by subverting genre (and general gameplay) conventions. A lot of the Sawbuck Games discussed on this site tend to fall in that category.

      On a related note, I suspect this is why many people are exhausted with the FPS genre. Honestly, there’s only a few variations on the mechanics that work really well and the nature of the genre is that you can literally pick-up-and-play almost any title without any additional learning. This might explain why is such an incredibly popular genre (i.e., it’s easy to get into) yet so many people are vocal about their dissatisfaction with a majority of the games (i.e., there’s not much variation across games outside of graphics and AI).

      • Matthew Smith says:

        I would classify mastery as a type of learning – you are not actively learning but you are becoming mentally better (or physically better in the case of sports). It is a kind of passive learning.
        Mastery is harder to get into I think, so a game focused solely on mastery and not learning much else is not going to appeal to a lot of people, but being able to master your skills is definitely going to be a good idea if you want people to play your game long after they stopped actively learning things

  10. Jeff Bandy says:

    Spelunky is my favorite game ever, and the XBLA update is pure joy. I finished Hell this past weekend, and once it was all over, I thought back on all those little micro-decisions that had gotten me there, all starting with going homicidal the moment I saw that shiny blue jetpack in a shop in the mines. In retrospect, the story that grew out of all of my own little decisions was probably the best video game story I’ve experienced since Grim Fandango. The most wonderful and unique thing about Spelunky is that you never expect success until it happens, whereas other games are constantly laying down tracks for you to ride into Success Station. If you are able to beat King Yama, it’s because you’re awesome, full stop. Thanks for more Digest, guys, and good luck with the cereal bars. Woof!

    • John Teti says:

      That’s such a great and important point. When people say that video games are bad at narrative, I often reply that I actually think games are amazing narrative machines. It’s just that the scripted story is often lousy in mainstream games. (I think you can make a great script for a game, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those purists who says that a game without a script is more of a “true” game; that stuff is too narrow and dogmatic for me.) But you don’t need a script to produce a compelling narrative, as your experience bears out.

      I guess you could say I’m just arguing semantics, but I think it’s important to put these matters in perspective, and I like the way you think about it.

      • SamPlays says:

        A quick observation: John, your comments tend to be supportive and encouraging, even when you disagree (not that you’re disagreeing right now but you have in prior discussions). That kind of diplomacy is a great way to share constructive feedback. Jesus Christ, I don’t know why I just said that but we’re talking about learning a few post above and I’m in a “positive reinforcement” kind of mood.

        Anyways, I agree that games are a terrific narrative platform but they are too often saddled with terrible stories, bad writing and bad actors (even the supposedly “good” ones are iffy). Most games would be terrible movies, especially if the quality of writing, directing and acting were kept intact. 

        I suspect this is stemming from the misguided idea that video games can somehow recreate the experience of watching a film but (oddly) with an interactive component. I’m looking at you, Uncharted, but there are many other examples. Maybe it’s just me but lately I find the whole “cinematic” vibe in games to be a distraction rather than something that adds value. And because a story is being told, my decisions as a game player are generally funneled into highly specific moments. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good games that take this approach but there’s something intrinsically off about it. If I want to hear music, I play a record. If I want to read, I pick up a book. If I want to watch a movie, I don’t play a video game. I guess my point is that having a narrative, which is generally desirable in a video game, does not require film conventions to become part of the equation.

        • John Teti says:

          I’ll admit I have my weaker moments where I’m not always supportive, but I certainly aspire to be. Thank you for noticing.

          One of the things I like about video games is how deftly they can appropriate the conventions of different media and remix/recontextualize them to create new experiences. So while I think that a century’s worth of cinema provides a lot of fodder for reinvention, I heartily agree that simply taking some cinematic template and trying to bolt some “game-ness” onto it tends to lead to unsatisfying works, in general. Who knows, maybe someone could make it genius. A critic should never say never. But I rarely see it paying dividends. To me, it’s just not a great approach regardless of the art form you’re working in.

      • caspiancomic says:

         I think it’s this phenomenon that leads me to care way more about my generic units than my plot-important characters in Final Fantasy Tactics. The story characters have all got their own stuff going on, whatever, but can you believe that Rad is two-timing Alicia with Jennifer!?

      • Girard says:

         Simpler games that are more open to interpretation seem to function especially well as the “narrative machines” you’re describing, experiences where the player is as much an author of the experience as the game-maker, and the stories consequently often have a kind of personal resonance.

        It makes sense that a “simple” game like Spelunky might generate a compelling narrative not necessarily installed by the designer, as Jeff describes. Likewise, your write-up on Binding of Isaac last week took a game that is largely a “simple” and mechanical affair (with a cursory narrative set-up) and added another interpretive layer of depth to the narrative based on your gameplay experience. And in the comments I went a bit into an interpretation of Zelda I that indicated the narrative could be read as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress religious allegory thing.

        I think this is especially prevalent in older games (like Zelda), which had necessarily lower levels of visual and narrative “resolution.” You had to interpret and reconstruct a lot of what you were seeing, both in terms of interpreting the abstracted, iconic pixel graphics, and in terms of interpreting/imposing a narrative upon the sometimes ludicrous goings-on on-screen.

        Talking on the playground, you got the feeling everyone was playing a slightly different “Super Mario Bros,” and even the ‘canonical’ story in the instruction booklet wasn’t really treated as canon (did anyone really believe that all of the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom were turned into bricks?). Mario, his story, and his world were more interpretive, plastic, and personal, which is partly why we saw so many wildly different visions of him when Mario was brought up to higher narrative and visual resolutions: the cartoon, the Lou Albano Super Show, that insane film, various Japanese and American comics, and the notebook drawings of a million elementary schoolers in the early 90s all fleshed out Mario’s world in different, idiosyncratic ways.

        I think as games have increased their potential for both narrative and visual resolution, we’ve of course gained some things and lost some things. But the indie boom seems to have revived games that either pare down their story, and allow the mechanics to generate interesting narratives (Spelunky), pare down their graphics, and allow the player to interpret abstracted or iconic images in their own way (most “pixel” games), or do both (Dwarf Fortress).

        I think it’s useful for (some) AAA games to move forward and try things that are more deliberate from a visual or narrative standpoint, and that most/all AAA games are moving in that direction has become less lamentable now that more and more independent games are existing alongside them and extolling different, less prescriptive, aesthetic values.

  11. Effigy_Power says:

    I didn’t like Spelunky at all, not even a bit. I was frequently frustrated and fed up, cursed bad luck and myself constantly being flabbergasted, and later the ghost, since I hate playing against the clock.
    That being said, I still found that I couldn’t stop playing. Instead of having the positive experience of most people, that… I beat this and only because I am good, I had the “Game. I hate you. You hate me. But I am stronger than you.” experience.
    I must have played for about 5 hours until fatigue more than anything else got to me. I couldn’t let this damn game win and in the process managed to get out of the first world, only to be faced with more terrible monstrosities, spikes and blades and shit.
    I have hated a few games in my years of gaming and I have had games I simply had to finish, but very rarely were both so aligned. I would say that if a game can keep me trying for hours, despite all the rage and frustration, it has got to be a good game. Not for myself, but in general…

    • GhaleonQ says:


      Though I won’t lie: “I had the ‘Game. I hate you. You hate me. But I am stronger than you.’ experience.”  I have fist-pumped at a video game (RIGHT IN ITS FACE) before.

  12. drdarke says:

    Nice, @JohnTeti:disqus .

    Now, stop screwing around and finish up reviewing this season of PROJECT RUNWAY. Margaret Eby is nice, but not close to up to your weight – and all of Phil Nugent’s attempts to sound like you…really. don’t. work.

    At all.