Let’s come up with excuses for why I die in Spelunky

You’ve played Captain Forever, right? If you have, you’ve picked up the drips and slivers of its story. Despite its neon graphics and cheekily deadpanned flavor text, it’s secretly a soul-crippling tale of sacrifice and cyber-horror! Hooray! Captain Forever is a trapped pilot doomed to fly forever in a kamikaze ship that reassembles itself after destruction. He must kill hundreds of enemies in an infinite cycle of death and gruesome rebirth! It’s like something out of Harlan Ellison, but with less Harlan Ellison. I adore it.

See, it’s awesome when games bother to explain in-game death and rebirth. Lord knows they don’t have to—have you ever seen an arcade game that bothers explaining ‘INSERT COIN’ in the context of the game’s story? It’s hard to talk about that mechanic directly without leaving the perspective—the ‘diegesis’, to use the technical term—of the game-world. Farbs didn’t have to come up with a backstory that explains why I can play Captain Forever over and over again, even after losing. But he merged old-school permadeath shmup game-logic with a WOWlike focus on repeat play and mined this for every ounce of crazy, and it’s awesome.

I started thinking—what would it be like to explain permadeath and infinite rebirth in another game? How about Spelunky? What’s going on there? Shall we sink into the sweaty morass of its diegesis—down into those caverns where La Mulana and Nethack collide head-on? There are bits of brain spattered all over the walls. There are little bats squeaking adorably. I am killing the shopkeeper, over and over again, throughout eternity. Yes. Let’s do this. Let’s make this as crazy as possible.

There are many archaeologists.

Under layers of dirt and grime and tattered clothing, each archaeologist seems identical, but each is really a unique man, each capable of unique mistakes and uniquely spectacular deaths. Some die in a fluke accident five seconds inside—others last longer.

Some are wicked, heartless fellows. They toss the women around like beanbags. Some are kinder. Some proceed cautiously, wringing every last ounce of gold out of the place before creeping on. Some will use the lady’s corpse to bludgeon a skeleton to death. Some will sacrifice her to Kali! But in the end, everyone wants to kill the shopkeeper—web him to the floor, blow out his brains from behind with a pistol. What can we say? It’s something about these caves.

The archaeologist is a ghost.

That’s why you keep running the same dungeon over and over, see. You ran it once, in human form—you probably died in the tutorial cave, or moments afterwards, feeling the first bat’s teeth in your jugular. Whatever it was, it wasn’t impressive.

So now you’re a ghost. Still unwilling to release its pathetic grip on your corpse, your spirit dreams endlessly of running the dungeon, of the infinite disasters you would have met had insane chance allowed you to live a minute longer—another minute—a few seconds. You run the dungeon over and over and over again, but your imagination always fails you: you have not yet imagined the dungeon’s furthest point. Someday, you might. You might dream a victory profound enough to bring this all to an end.

It will probably take you a long time.

There is no archaeologist.

We plumbed these tunnels with sonar long ago, and found them so complex and endless that it would be madness to send a team down there—and worse than madness to send a man alone and unaided. So we’ve simulated all its terrors, and now we’re taking applications. Applications for Suicidal Hero, that is.

Each applicant is tested  against the program. We’re looking for the ideal string of hops and whips and sprints and crimes. We’ll put them through again and again until we’re sure: the perfect super-soldier. We’ll train him up. It’ll be like Ender’s Game, but underground. Or something. When it all comes down to the big win, the blood will be real. The archaeologist will be carrying a machine gun, and he’ll be wearing a super-science bodysuit that gives him super-strength, and he won’t actually be an archaeologist. If he dies on the spikes, it’ll be a lot grosser than what you’re used to in 8-bit.

The archaeologist is a mistake.

We didn’t mean for you to see us. Truly, we’re very sorry. Usually when we go out into public, we make sure the holographic cloaking devices are fully powered. Nobody wants to see a tentacle-beast straight out of HP Lovecraft go waddling down the street in full daylight, and none of us wants to have to hunt down and mind-erase the blistered memories of any Earthling who saw us like that. It’s a sticky business, it is.

But you—with you, we screwed up. By the time we found you huddled in the dumpster, brain a soup, face stained with tears and twisted permanently with disgust and horror, your memories were burned too deep to wipe away. So we gave you Spelunky instead: we took you to the orbiting mothership and hooked you up to the game. It’ll give you something to do while we research a cure for Madness. It’ll provide you with infinite bliss! There’s no getting tired of Spelunky. Not as far as we know, anyway—we once had a patient on it for forty years while we tried to fix him up, and we’ll keep you on it, too, as long as we feel is necessary. It’s like a kind of therapy. It’ll soothe your splintered consciousness back into shape, so it will. You’ll play it forever, if you have to!

And you can play it forever. That game is a bitch to beat, even when you’ve got forty tentacles, like we do, and a mind capable of thinking twelve thoughts simultaneously.

Pfft. Spelunky.

Leave a comment


  1. Switchbreak

     /  April 19, 2010

    I need to play more Spelunky. I started it once and never got very far.

    My favorite narratively explained death mechanic was the silly one in Prey. When you died in that game you would go into the spirit-world, fight off a few demons, then pop right back to life at the same spot where you just died. It really made me laugh when I was fighting the final boss, because she spends the whole time taunting you, even though she is ostensibly able to see that you are just jumping back up every time she kills you. “You’re going to die here!” Well, yeah – you saw me die here about 40 times so far, and it hasn’t slowed me down yet.

    • lauramichet

       /  April 19, 2010

      My favorite death-rebirth explanation is still The Sands of Time: death is a mistake in a storyteller’s memory. I always thought that was particularly stylish. When you’re actually playing the game, though, it can get a little tiresome if you’re dying simply CONSTANTLY.

      • Shnissugah

         /  April 19, 2010

        If you suck at Sands of Time it’s just alzheimer’s seizing the prince’s mind… Which might also explain why he sucks at solving puzzles…

      • Stay with this guys, you\’re helping a lot of poeple.

  2. theprettiestboyontheplanet

     /  April 21, 2010

    The Sands of Time method would have to be my favorite explanation for spontaneous player rebirth as well. It’s effortlessly charming, despite not making even the faintest semblance of sense if you think about it for more than ten seconds.

    “Queens”, a tiny indie platformer by Noonat, has an interesting way of addressing player mortality as well. Each time the cruel king manages to kill your queenly self, you are immediately thrust into the slippers of his next royal victim and forced to start his gauntlet again from the beginning.

    I haven’t actually played this one, but apparently Romancing SaGa 2 uses a generational system, wherein each player death sees you reborn as one of your various heirs. Each hero exists roughly a century after his or her predecessor, with the town that serves as their base of operations growing in size and function as time passes.

    Also, I just wanted to briefly mention that I’ve recently discovered this site (by way of RPS) and am seriously enjoying what you guys have produced so far. The conversational tone of the articles is refreshing, as is the reduced focus on reviews and “breaking news”. The very best of luck to you both, please continue to write about computer and video games.

    • lauramichet

       /  April 21, 2010

      Hey, thanks for the comment! We’re glad that people like our different focus. We work hard to to say things that nobody else has even had a think about yet, and it’s great to know that our attitude is getting across.

      I must say that I LOVE QUEENS. I have never beaten it and I still love it. It’s one of the games that I whip out whenever somebody asks me to explain indie games to them– it’s tiny, absurdly silly in its difficulty, and a great example of the kind of stuff that can come out of successful game jams. I hadn’t even thought about it as per in-story death– thanks for reminding me!

      I have never played Romancing SaGa 2– I was five when it came out and haven’t played anything on the Super Famicom– but after reading you describe it here I went and looked it up and watched some videos and it seems pretty interesting. That’s a neat death mechanic, too. Does this happen after EVERY in-game death, or are the deaths scheduled into the story?

    • Hey,
      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the kind words. It means a lot!

      • theprettiestboyontheplanet

         /  April 21, 2010

        No problem guys, I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it must be to start such a project from scratch. Huzzah for thoughtful, engaged discussion of games.

        Queens would definitely make for a good introduction to indie games, especially with it being playable in-browser. I usually turn to Mighty Jill Off or Flywrench when I’m trying to get folks excited about indies, but both of those have their problems.

        I haven’t played SaGa 2 either, mostly on account of being in preschool at the time of its release. It’s still a pretty neat mechanic, though. As far as I can tell, you are handed control of a new king or queen with each player death.

  3. Smedlorificus

     /  May 9, 2010

    I always think that each archaeologist is the son of the previous archaeologist, who himself is the son of the archaeologist before him. Each one hears his father’s last words from their mother, who is one of the damsels. This also explains why the cave systems change each time, because it takes a few years for each son to grow up before he can go and explore.

    • lauramichet

       /  May 9, 2010

      I like this explanation! It reminds me a bit of the plot of La Mulana. There was an archaeologist dad involved in that one, right?

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  4. Freud

     /  May 9, 2010

    Here is an explanation of why you can’t die in Spelunky.

    Stop thinking of Spelunky as a platformer; think of it as an adventure.

    It is a story that starts with you climbing into a cave.
    You are pitted against foes and perils in your quest to the bottom of the mystery.
    Finally you come to the big confrontation. You win, you are a hero.

    Your adventure is only complete if you reach this ending.
    Death is not part of this story.
    Dying is like a stubborn puzzle in an adventure game; once you have solved it, doesn’t matter if you have taken a minute, a day or a week. One, ten or fifty tries.

    Consider Planescape: Torment, a game with a strong story.
    Death in Planescape is impossible. Your character is immortal: any death means immediate rebirth.

    It goes so far as (HUGE SPOILER AHEAD) to send you in search of your own mortality. In a sense, completing the game is your death. (END SPOILER)

    The stronger is a game’s narrative, the more it is like a closed cycle: beginning, interlude, end.
    Death is really impossible, because it is not part of the story.
    It is only an artificial mean to regulate difficulty.

    At the opposite, death is very real in Captain Forever. Death is the only way that you can compete your space-run. The proper ending of the game.

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