Spelunkoetry

The first in a series, closer examination of the epigraphs themselves will follow in later articles…

Nearly every part of Spelunky is procedurally generated. Not only the levels, but the positioning of the desert rocks and trees Spelunky Guy treks past when you boot the game, and the little epigraph that appears over this scene.

These three lines are the closest the game comes to having a plot. The camera pans down from the blazing desert sun, and as sand-laden winds whisper and rustle the palm fronds a diminutive adventurer, insignificant to the vastness of the desert, strides purposefully among the dunes:

With the desert stretching behind me,

I squeezed the whip at my side,

And felt the gods smiling upon me.

A sheer cliff suddenly rises from the desert and he strides into an opening, a long disused mine, without pausing. Darkness, the winds fall silent. The click and scrape of a flint and steel or perhaps a Zippo and whoosh; a torch ignites and the game’s swaggering, triumphant theme swells, so unlike any other music in the game.

I picked one of the stronger examples there, but why jeopardise this strong opening by making the lines random? After all, I’ve collected around forty examples (so far) and have categorised most of them as either ‘ok’ or ‘below average’.

Dissecting individual lines and how they pair well with others is for follow-up though. For now, I’m examining the idea. I will say however that the varied results you get from the same components which the procedural generation demonstrates is an excellent illustration of Coleridge’s idea that poetry is ‘the best words in their best order’, whether you consider the Spelunky epigraphs poetry or not.

The separate lines are generally good enough individually that what comes out is seldom awful, but it would be so much easier to guarantee a strong opening with a random pre-composed triplet, or with rules in place for which of the lines could go together.

But that would miss the point. The beauty in it is that the current system mirrors the game of Spelunky: things rarely go optimally; it’s often a mess; and the odd success shines all the more brightly for it. So too with the epigraph. When it goes well, it is special; not merely neat in a game full of neat things. Like any given level layout or run in Spelunky, part of what makes it special is that you may never see it again. I have got shivers from some of the evocative combinations that have been thrown up. Hell, I’ve got shivers reading over them again.

While there is deserved praise for ever better and deeper narratives in games, I’ve personally always found the enormous space for inference and invention around simple old fashioned plots, silent protagonists and cipher characters to be more intriguing. What is it that motivates the humble plumber of Super Mario Bros to go risk his life to save the princess? His duty as a good citizen with the power to make a difference? A chance for glory, to escape his mundane blue-collar job? An existing relationship? (He does seem to be the only other human, and the toads in the castles know his name.) The epigraphs offer a tantalising glimpse into the mute default avatar’s possible motivations, without giving too much away. None is contradictory, none is definitive.

And there are just so many as well. Around 25 captures after I decided to write this article – inspired by the first really strong one to make me shiver, unfortunately unrecorded – I had stopped seeing new lines and thought I had seen them all, only to be surprised by a completely new opening line. Then two games after that a new middle. Then four or five after that, another new opening.

Of course, the epitaph is completely inconsequential to the game itself. As is any narrative, really. Spelunky is not a game played for the plot, its Mario-level story of ‘your adventurer wants treasure’ a natural result of its influences – both mechanical and aesthetic – and the type of game it wants to be.

What happens when you point the camera at the ghost is also inconsequential, it could have simply paused for a moment like any other enemy, and so are the humorous death descriptions. But it’s these little touches, immaterial to the strong mechanical heart and procedural levels that makes the game great, that take Spelunky a step beyond.

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