Today, my roommate Nicklas – the renown Swedish indie developer better known as “Nifflas” – beat the secret “Hell” world in Spelunky. It was truly a run for the ages, full of daring feats of skill and a well-timed miracle or two.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! First, some background:
Over the course of this past summer, I gradually got sucked into the game. Nifflas is very good at the original version, and so he’s been teaching me along the way. Of course, Nifflas has had to adjust to the new XBLA controls, so we’ve both been honing our skills.
About a month ago, Nifflas and I started a daily tradition – a ritual, if you will. Every night, each of us gets one – and only one – Spelunky run. The other sits and watches, cheering along and providing advice. On rare days we’ll indulge in a few practice runs, but it’s only the “official” run that really matters – at least to us!
This ritual has been deeply enjoyable for several reasons. First, the tradition gives us something to look forward to every evening. Second, the “stakes” of the game feel so much more real when you only get one shot. One error and you’re done for the day. Nerve-wracking, but invigorating! Third, and perhaps most importantly, I find that it’s far more rewarding to play the game with somebody spectating – a witness with whom to share your triumphs and tribulations. After all, Spelunky is all about the stories you the player end up producing. As my hero Hannah Arendt puts it: “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”
Jokingly, before each run, we make a little prayer to Derek Yu, the game’s creator. (For example: “Derek Yu, please grant us plentiful bombs and protect us from dark levels. Amen.”). The prayer has itself become a key part of our daily ritual – to the point where we feel like we’ve almost created a Spelunky religion/cult. Like, why do bad things happen to good Spelunky players? And does Derek Yu even exist? Spelunky theology is tricky!
This leads us to Nifflas’ epic victory today. (Warning: spoilers ahead).
Hell is a secret world in the XBLA version of Spelunky. Actually, it’s a kind of secret within a secret. First, you have to make it to the well-hidden City of Gold – a difficult task that itself relies on beating a very particular sequence of secret challenges. I myself have managed to make it past the City of Gold, but I’ve never made it to the Hell world.
There were many highlights of Nifflas’ run, including how he (barely) managed to rob the Black Market (and the Ankh) despite the level being shrouded in darkness. However, there is one particular moment that stands out – a genuine Spelunky miracle.
By the time Nifflas had reached Olmec (the boss of World 4), he was almost out of ropes, and almost out of bombs. Worse yet, he possessed no flying gear (cape or jetpack). Of course, it would have been possible to beat Olmec, though trickier. But forget conquering Hell without flying gear – it just wouldn’t have happened.
Now, above Olmec, if you can make it up that high, you’ll find a treasure trove of crates and items. Nifflas proceeded to use the rest of his ropes, making it up to one platform with one crate. Unfortunately, the other crate-harboring platforms were out of reach.
And what did he find in that crate?
A jetpack. A fucking jetpack!
Unbelievable! With hope all but lost, Nifflas found exactly the item he needed. First, it allowed him to scour the rest of the level to collect the bombs he needed to defeat Olmec. Second, that jetpack would allow him to safely navigate the treacherous Hell levels.
I want to take a moment to emphasize how miraculous this turn of events was. I have played Spelunky for hours and hours, raiding countless crates, and I have never found a jetpack. The odds must be one in thousands. We felt like Derek Yu had finally answered our prayers – like Derek Yu himself was blessing the run. “Yes, Nifflas. After countless deaths, you have finally paid your dues. Go forth to Hell, and godspeed.”
I almost wonder whether the Spelunky code knew to “load the dice” in this situation. Did the game “know” that Nifflas desperately needed a jetpack? If so, Derek Yu (and his team) is a goddamn genius. Thinking about game design and procedural content, it seems to me that games like Spelunky should load the dice in very rare situations like this one. Don’t ever let the player know of course, but grant them some miracles… occasionally. Enable these kinds of epic tales! A powerful design trick indeed (albeit a dangerous one).
Well, Nifflas made good on his opportunity, and managed to conquer Hell – on his very first go! Some tips we learned along the way: in retrospect, it was fortunate indeed that he had robbed the Black Market. As it turns out, angry shopkeepers still guard the exits in Hell (who knew?). This allowed Nifflas to acquire a shotgun, which proves very useful against the final boss. Earlier in the run, he had also picked up a pitcher’s mitt and sticky bombs – both critically important for beating the boss in his final floating-head incarnation.
All in all, I feel very lucky to have witnessed Nifflas’ Spelunky miracle. Maybe it’s one of those things where “you just had to be there,” but it certainly ranks among my most memorable videogame moments.
Perhaps it’s Yang who puts it best: “the journey is its own reward and mastery is the greatest treasure of them all!” Or maybe Yang only has it partly right. Mastery, yes, but also camaraderie, as we’ve learned from our daily Spelunky ritual.
Finally, on a more personal level, I just want to say that I am so, so honored that one of my own games, J.S. Joust, was nominated along with Spelunky for the IGF 2012 Seamus McNally Grand Prize. To even be mentioned in the same breath with a game as well-designed as Spelunky is just mind-blowing. Amen indeed.