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Groundhog Day: Holes in the Ground


Fitting, I think, that my musing about a game I keep coming back to concerns one I've already brought up once or twice. Not necessarily because of the recurring theme of, well, recurrence, but because I'm something of a hack with no qualms about beating a dead horse further into the ground. And with that warm preface, let's grab our sturdiest pair of boots and go spelunking.

It's probably a safe assumption that you've at least heard of Spelunky before now, but as a quick refresher, Spelunky is a platforming adventure game with randomly generated levels and surfeit of emergent gameplay. It's a tough trek, but the solid mechanics and enjoyable sense of danger-fraught excitement make it a fantastic experience. Mind you, it was made by the nefarious Derek Yu, a nascent super villain who aims to bring about society's collapse with endlessly engrossing games and his sultry tumult of hair, so do approach with caution.

And that's a lovely heap of words, but there's a couple in particular I want to pull out. Sure, there's a bounty of things which make the game a ball to play, not least of which is the essential and oft-overlooked capacity to jump off a frog which subsequently explodes, but today we're going to furrow our collective brows and mull "randomly generated levels." While not exactly the heart of the game (see again: combustible amphibians), it's well worth talking about. So, let's try to do that.

Spelunky uses procedural generation to create its levels. That is, rather than being premade by hand, each stage is churned out by algorithms, making use of some intrinsic randomness to mix things up. Every time a new game beings, electronic abacuses clatter and clank, their binary beads thrown askew by the most wonderous forces, falling together in the math of the digital divine. All so you can get jumped on by one of those gorram spiders. To me, a man whose interest in procedural generation borders on the manic, this a heaping pile of win.

Procedural generation by itself is the most fascinating thing in the world. To not just design the elements of game, but to design the design of a game is to don your best attire and dance away the night at the providence promenade. On it's own, it's a wildly interesting subject and if you have the inclination, I'd encourage you to read up on it. Beyond the novelty, it's a practical means of creating a colossal amount of material for a game and it has the capacity to add far more in the way of challenges and rewards.

Giving the design of a gameís content over to the machinations of the game itself is a gamble. Working out algorithms which might ape human design is hard enough. To then consider that the output must not only suffice, but do so believably is humbling. That is, itís not enough to simply produce a level or a piece of loot. The level should not be full of disconnects, the loot should not be a game-breaking god-tier and neither should be shaped like a boner, unless youíre into that sort of thing.

That established, the pot on the table is worth the wager. Procedurally generated content serves as an able sidekick to the designer, ever willing to slap on the spandex and get down to the dirty stuff. Well done, it offers a means of populating the game with a huge amount of content, a quantity unparalleled by even the most meticulous code monkey. Better still, it has the potential to make each and every game wholly unique to the capricious dance of the virtual dice.

And I have come back to Spelunky time and again because it does this with such surety. It approaches the generation of its levels with a deftness that wholly masks the lack of a careful handís guidance. Each level is, if not a seamless work on par with, say, Megaman, at the very least believable and, moreover, entertaining. The game is so beautiful not because it describes its challenges algorithmically, but because it does so without sacrificing fun on the altar of formulae.

Iíve come back to this game time and again because on every occasion I was met with some grand new adventure, some fantastic tale woven around the same theme, strung along by the same characters, but original in every word. I can tell you about that time I blew up a vampire or crushed a giant spider with an equally huge rock or got killed by a ghost trying to jump my way out of a snake pit.

The point isnít so much that any one of these experiences is phenomenal on its own. Make no mistake, they are. I am a vampire-slaying bring of whip-bound vengeance. However, a much better notion to take away is that of the ever-emerging adventure offered by the game. Every fresh attempt is, without fail, met by something new, something which the player has never encountered before. The magic of the game, and procedurally content in general, is that the game can create, tirelessly, as long as the player is interested.

Iíll offer the caveat that throwing a whackton of content at the player is not enough to make a game enjoyable. Spelunky succeeds because Yu capitalizes on the bounty by backing it with strong, comprehensive core mechanics. The game world is unified in theme and action and the importance of that canít be understated. However, in my mind, Spelunky is a wonder not just because you can jump about and whip to your heartís content, but because going in, youíre never quite sure what it is youíre going to be jumping on or whipping at. I love Spelunky because the game I come back to is never the same as the one I left behind.
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About Beyamorone of us since 1:10 PM on 06.24.2009

Iím a gamer. Take a minute and get over that shock. I can say Iím an Xbox man, though Iíll support anything that advances gaming (I love you Sackboy). Iíve also got a DS Chunky, so I can take this whole nerd thing on the road.

As far as genres, shooters and western RPGs top my list. Halo, Fable, and Morrowind, for instance, rock my socks hard. Of course other things, stuff like Animal Crossing and Kingdom Hearts, do their share of stocking rocking.

In the world outside of buttons and pixels, Iím an engineering student (that nerd thing I mentioned? I do it hardcore) on the west coast of the Great White North. Iím a fan of a harder rock, bands like Breaking Benjamin and Hurt, though Iíll kick it (very much figuratively) to stuff ranging from The Fray through Franz Ferdinand to Five Finger Death Punch. Optimus Prime is my hero, but I do love Starscream. Finally, thumbs up to you for reading this. Youíre never getting that time back.

Kirbey by the talented and generously endowed (probably) Enkido