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It's fun when Spelunky kicks you down the stairs | Why I Love

Jori Ryan explores how Spelunky brought her back to her retro roots and inspired the intense action platformer CreatorCrate

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Jori Ryan, developer of CreatorCrate.

I just released CreatorCrate, a chaotic action platformer about an escaped appliance in a procedural, labyrinthine space station. It's a surprising, ambitious game, full of vicious hazards. It's a game where players are crushed by massive robots, dissolved in rising pools of acid, and gunned down by distant snipers. It's a game where the player has an intimate connection to the items around them, throwing knives to disarm traps and hiding behind dressers to survive hails of bullets.

There are two questions that I get asked the most about my game CreatorCrate: 'How did you come up with it?,' and 'Why did you make it so hard?' Spelunky has a lot to do with both of those.

I heard about Spelunky from a friend. Looking back, it's interesting to think about how describing a game like that was different at the time. There was barely anything like it.

"It's a platformer but it's not like other platformers."

"Why isn't it like them?"

"Well, it doesn't let you save, but that's why it's fun. Also, it has infinite levels."

Spelunky felt like something fresh in the world that hadn't been tried before.

Death comes frequently in Spelunky, particularly for newcomers

Death comes frequently in Spelunky, particularly for newcomers

My first experience in Spelunky was getting impaled by an arrow that seemed to come out of nowhere. As I played more, I learned to watch for traps and anticipate how systems would conspire to murder me. As I saw the hidden dangers, I started to weigh my options more carefully. Is rescuing the dog really worth it for the extra health, or am I going to get more injured in the process? Do I use my bombs to scour the level for treasure and risk being killed by the ghost, or should I use my bombs to make a shortcut to the exit? Spelunky is all about reading the situation.

As experimental as Spelunky was at the time, aspects of it were deeply familiar to me.

Nearly everything I played on the C64 had the same philosophy: death is permanent, winning is unlikely, learning is progress

I remember my first computer, a Commodore 64 that my family bought used out of some guy's garage when I was 8. It came with boxes of dusty cartridges and unpackaged floppy disks with no labels. I never played Spelunky's ancestor Spelunker on the C64, but it makes perfect sense that's where Spelunky was coming from. Nearly everything I played on the C64 had the same philosophy: death is permanent, winning is unlikely, learning is progress.

After the C64, my dad started salvaging PCs out of dumpsters from office buildings. These were heavily out of date, but they let me play freeware games like Jill of the Jungle and Commander Keen. On later computers, I played Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, and so many other games. As time went on, there were huge improvements in graphics and content. Games went from simple premises to full blown stories with characters, branching paths, and unlockables.

These games are some of my all-time favorites, but I also got into habits that made the games less fun. No matter what the game was, I'd save every two minutes because I didn't want to lose progress. I'd choose the easiest difficulty setting. I hoarded consumable items right until the end. What if I waste my healing potions now and I need them later? Games like Spelunky changed that for me.

For a long time, I couldn't progress much in Spelunky. I'd die, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, without any measurable progress. One mistake spirals into a chain reaction of being knocked from one danger to another, right back to the start. The game can be fantastically cruel. Somehow, though, not being able to save my progress undid the anxiety I usually felt about losing progress. There were no difficulty settings, so there was no fear that I'd made the game unwinnable by setting it too hard.

You can't hoard items if you're dead, so use it or lose it!

Not being able to reach the later levels augmented the areas I hadn't seen with a kind of mystery. For all I knew, anything could be down there. The game could stretch for a hundred more areas. If I just did a little better this run, I might see it. Instead of feeling discouraged, I was incredibly motivated by playing a game where winning was always just out of reach.

Later levels carried an aura of mystery

Later levels carried an aura of mystery

Spelunky is especially cruel in how it handles checkpoints. You meet Tunnel Man at the end of each area, and he asks you to bring him things to help him dig a shortcut to the new area. He starts with a simple request for a bomb. Soon though, he asks for a shotgun. Looking back, there are other ways, but at the time, the only option I knew of was to take it from the shopkeeper.

I was horrified. I had barely been able to make it to the end of the level in the first place. Every time that I fought the shopkeeper, I died. Now I was being asked to combine these two. It seemed absurd.

After many, many, many deaths, I managed to take the shotgun and bring it to the end of the level.

I didn't care anymore if I won or not. I wanted to have fun trying

I was so excited. The thrill of doing something that you didn't think you could do is so rewarding and so hard to reproduce. It requires players to keep going, even though they don't believe that winning is possible. The best way to explain it is that I didn't care anymore if I won or not. I wanted to have fun trying. This is a quality that I've really come to value in games. A difficult goal is set, and the goal stays exactly the same while I try, and maybe fail, to become the kind of player who can achieve it.

I think there's a myth that people who like difficult games are just good at games. It's more complicated than that. I've never been skilled enough to win a lot of my favorite games. The reality is that I'm not a super talented player as much as I'm a player who likes it when a game kicks me down the stairs.

The challenge needs to be mixed with fairness, though, and Spelunky really shines here. The difficulty could be arbitrarily inflated by giving enemies thousands of hit points or by filling the screen with impossibly dense bullet patterns. Instead, Spelunky gives players abilities that are on the same level as the dangers. You disarm a trap by throwing a single rock. You knock out an enemy by jumping on them once.

Upgrades are helpful, but not strictly necessary

Upgrades are helpful, but not strictly necessary

In the same way that the challenges are on the scale of the player character, the upgrades are on the scale of the player's starting abilities. Spring boots let you jump higher and a cape lets you fall slower, but there isn't the massive accumulation of stats and modifiers that you see in a game like Risk of Rain. This has a few effects. Simpler equipment management means that players spend more time thinking about the minute-to-minute gameplay. It means that every advantage you scrape out matters because your spring boots aren't just stacking another +1 onto a heap of jump boost items.

The small scale of upgrades means that even a player with no items stands a chance in the hardest situation. It's never time to give up yet.

With no room borders, systems bash against each other in chaotic ways

Above all else though, Spelunky inspired me in crafting the circular level generation of my game CreatorCrate. Spelunky has one of the best level generators I've ever seen. Not at the time. Ever. Many games procedurally generate levels by joining together distinct rooms. You kill the monsters in one room. You go through the door and do it again in the next randomly selected room.

On the back end, Spelunky, too, is made of joined together pieces of predesigned content. The difference is that Spelunky makes these rooms tiny and connected. Many rooms are just large enough to contain a single piece of legible gameplay. These tiny bits of gameplay combine into coherent levels that become more than their parts. A wall bombed out in one room will lead you to treasure in another room. With no room borders, systems bash against each other in chaotic ways. An enemy in one room chases you to another room. A trap in that room kills the enemy from the previous room.

As far as the player is concerned, there are no rooms. There's only living in the moment and trying to survive a little longer.

Without Spelunky, I might never have started CreatorCrate or learned that enjoying the time you spend with a game is so much more valuable than winning it. Like Spelunky, I made CreatorCrate as a game that focuses on quickly reading complex situations and learning from deadly mistakes. It's a game where the scale of the danger is directly proportional to your speed and potential for using complex systems to your advantage.

Spelunky was one of the games that brought me back to appreciating this feeling of living in the moment. It's the reason why I made CreatorCrate balance procedurally generated levels against daunting challenges. It's why I made a game where you're always on the knife's edge. Learning is progress. Everything will be lost, and it might be lost soon if you're not careful.

. . . also, rescuing the dog is always worth it.

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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