Mary Rose Cook

Spelunky, stories and trying to relate to other people

In Spelunky, you go through a learning experience that is like the learning experience you go through in the real world. First, you become familiar with the behaviour of the elements of the game. The arc described by a projectile. The beat walked by a cave man. The activation perimeter of the spikes in a totem pole. Second, you learn strategies for overcoming these elements. Land your jump on top of that totem pole. Strike a cave man three times with your boomerang to kill him. Third, you learn back-up strategies for the moments when your primary strategies won’t work. Activate the totem pole spikes by passing near them. Just as they are withdrawing, jump, hang onto the edge of the pole and haul yourself up. Jump on the cave man’s head to stun him. Throw him somewhere else. Fourth, you learn to combine the behaviours of elements. Whip a cave man until he sees stars. Throw him at the foot of a totem pole. Watch him get spiked to death.

But Spelunky is better than the real world, because it is simpler. There are fewer active elements, and no redundant elements. This makes the rules of the world easier to understand. It makes it easier to concoct a plan. It makes it easier to understand why the plan went wrong.

In Spelunky, you are always having fun. What type of fun? You are always on the edge of your seat because you lose everything when you die. You are never frustrated because the levels are randomly generated, so you need never replay any part of the game. You are always in an intellectually stimulating situation. Each level gives you a new combination of obstacles. And you can make the game as hard as you like. You can go for the riskily placed bars of gold, or the valuable artifacts that set off traps when you pick them up, or the items that you are too poor to buy and that must be stolen.

In Spelunky, you must balance risk and reward. Do you jump into that pit to try and grab those bars of gold, knowing that you might get unlucky, miss the jump out and get eaten by that man trap? This decision has multiple dimensions. The amount of gold you have determines your score, which might be important to you. But it also determines what you can buy. What you can buy affects your options for dealing with situations. You can buy more ropes and bombs. You can buy items with specific uses like ice guns, springs for your shoes, parachutes, and sticky gloves. Having extra things makes you more adaptable.

And what you can buy affects concerns outside your current life. Each death resets everything, besides the experience and skills you (not your avatar) have acquired on this go-round. But, very occasionally, there will be an artifact of your life that survives you. There are four worlds. Surviving the first leads you to the second. Surviving the second leads you to the third. Usually, death means starting right back at the beginning of the first world. But, if you make it through a world bearing particular gifts - a sizeable amount of gold, a bomb, a rope, it depends - someone called the Tunnel Man will dig you a permanent short cut to the beginning of that world. And purchase is one of the ways you can get hold of these gifts.

I have spent most of my game time this Christmas trying to make it to the end of world two with a shotgun for the Tunnel Man. To do this, I must battle through the jungle, at some point lay my hands on a shotgun, then make it to the end of the world alive.

Purchasing a shotgun is one of the options at my disposal. But shotguns are expensive and rarely in stock. In practice, I find myself making my way through the jungle, hoping to stumble across one of the two beings who carry shotguns: the shop keeper and the man guarding treasure. As I go, I try and accrue gold, bombs, extra health and some sort of projectile weapon.

If I see a mark, I do one of a range of colossally stupid things that will, almost certainly, end in my death. The least terrible plan is to use bombs to blast my way down into the shop or treasure trove, then keep throwing bombs in, hoping to kill the target. If I don’t have enough bombs, and I have a boomerang, I might try and stun the keeper/hoarder and then kill him with his own shotgun. If I have no boomerang, I will resort to doing the stunning with a lobbed rock, skull or damsel in distress.

The day before yesterday, I managed to get a shotgun. Afterwards, I proceeded very carefully. I made a beeline for each level exit. I collected no gold. I stayed back and shotgunned enemies.

I reached a row of vines hanging above spikes (instant death). These vines separated me from the world exit and the Tunnel Man. I drew a preparatory breath (in my actual lungs, not my explorer avatar’s lungs - breathing is not modelled in Spelunky) and thought, “Now, Mary, be careful. You’re not very good at these vines. You sometimes forget you have to hold up on the controller to cling on.” I leapt out over the pit, forgot to hold up and died.

I’ve just told you a gaming story, a monologue that tries to connect a series of disparate events into a causal, meaningful narrative. People attempt to turn the events in their own lives into narratives in the same way. We try and find causality in a world far too complex for our tiny brains to understand. I say, “I keep on moving from city to city, from country to country, because I can’t stand easiness.” We try to find meaning in causality. I say, “I can’t stand easiness because I’m searching for something that I feel is missing.”

Connecting events together into a narrative to find causality takes us a step from alarming randomness into delicious patterns. Using narrative devices - revelation, symmetry, ellipsis - to create meaning takes us another reassuring step into even more delicious, higher level patterns.

The Pitchfork review of Moonface’s record, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, said Sunset Rubdown’s record, Dragonslayer, is “A personal record about the toll that the worlds inside someone’s head take on his relationships.”

Spencer Krug, the songwriter for Moonface and Sunset Rubdown, expresses patterns in his art that he cannot adequately communicate to the people in his life. This type of communication failure can also occur when reacting to art by another. I’ve tried so many times to explain to people what I like about Sunset Rubdown, how the corridors of the basement of the House of Leaves make me feel, what I see in Al Pacino’s eyes when Frank Serpico realises that his girlfriend is about to leave. But I can’t make myself understood.

With games, it’s even worse. I have some hope that I could make the people I care for understand why I like Hoop Dreams, because they know how documentaries work. But the structure and tropes of games are a mystery to my beloveds. We do not even have a common ground from which to start. So the things I learn from games, the feelings I get, the experiences I have, are locked up inside me, inexpressible.