Here we must diverge from the poetic definition a bit. In poetry the ‘best words’ will carry with them the perfect literal and metaphoric meaning for their specific situation, the perfect emotional resonance through implications or cultural baggage from the word’s use history, as well as encompassing the perfect sound, cadence and metre. While still a factor in Spelunky’s epigrams, the latter factors about the words’ phonology matter less here.
This seems the best place for the ‘this is all subjective’ disclaimer. Language is a slippery fish. Consider yourself disclaimed.
Let me start by defining what I think a bad epigram is. Firstly it focuses mostly or solely on physical actions or descriptors. More extensive descriptions of what is physically happening in the world would be fine in a novel, but does not feel the best use of space when limited to three lines.
Spelunky has a simple graphical style, allowing the fast-changing situation to be read quickly and clearly during play Lines such as “and held my hat against the wind” do still add something in expanding the scene beyond what can be shown in the animation.
None of the lines themselves are particularly weak. But even these stable building blocks, when they come together just wrong, can produce a result that feels like something a primary-school child would write. For example:
It starts with something evident from the animation, leads into a cliché that – while it could be a reaction to the physical environment or offer a hint of internal life, or both – goes unexplored and ends with what is perhaps the vaguest, hedge-iest line in the game’s library.
This is a bad epigram, but it is not made of bad lines. The importance of the ‘best order’ is laid starkly bare. as a whole for now.
Just as purely physical stanzas (I’m getting tired of constantly repeating ‘epigraph’) are weak, focusing purely on the Spelunker’s internal life would also tend towards middling results. This was clearly evident to the developer, as while the opening and closing lines vary and can be physical, mental or situational, the middle line always contains a physical action. This is often paired with an insight into the Spelunker’s mind, either implied (“I furrowed my brow”, “I squeezed the whip at my side.”) or explicit (“I strode valiantly towards my destiny.”). Without this definite ‘motion’ linking the first and final lines, certain combinations could read as static; a pondering, rather than a decision to embark on adventure.
So effective is this that even the above, though uninspiring, is far from terrible. It is a little self-absorbed and static compared to some others but the hand tightening on the whip as the Spelunker considers fate and contemplates his future is not a bad image.
In coming back to the screens I took to write this article I was surprised by how good some of the stanzas I had designated ‘mid-low’ were – a two on my five point scale. This is not to say they need rescoring, but rather that the whole scale needs shifting upwards – I had taken for granted just how good the average was.
As for the strongest, like the procedural levels they require a little luck in that the correct constituent components all come together the right way. Certain lines when paired together hint at back-story or motivation, and some pairings of action and thought are particularly evocative. For example:
Putting the faded photo in my pocket,
I squinted into the darkness,
And thought of her one last time.
It was a photo/her pairing that inspired me to write this series, hence why this isn’t a screen-grab. I don’t even remember what the middle line of that original stanza was. Likewise:
The emotional weight of the ‘father’ opener makes it one of the strongest single lines, and often all following lines have to do to deliver a satisfying whole is not clash. Vowing to return victorious does not require any specific setup, it is a natural goal of treasure hunting. But when paired together, these two randomly plucked lines, as with the photo and ‘her’ above, combine to hint at a backstory while leaving room for the mind to wonder, to fill in the blanks for itself. It is these that have given me chills. You may see these pairings only once or twice in all your time playing the game.
I may have made a mistake in my last article. It’s likely that the epigrams are randomly generated rather than procedurally as the lines, unlike permutations of a level-space, are self-contained enough and few enough that any first, middle and last line can go together and still make sense.