Monday, 25 July 2016

Spelunky and Roleplaying, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Always Get The Jetpack

Last week, after a year and a half and many thousands of games, I finally beat Spelunky.

Just in case you've never played it, Spelunky is a video game that combines old-school, brutally unforgiving platforming with modern procedurally-generated design. If you grew up in the 1980s, just imagine one of those old timey games where you jump on monsters and try not to fall in pits, except that this game never has the same exact level layout.

Yes. You are right to shudder.

It must be said, I am not a good video game player. My reflexes are just as crap today as they were when I was a teenager. I have the sad and frustrating capability of making the same damned mistake again and again. I swear loudly when I am playing games as difficult as this. My neighbours somehow never called the police on the swearing, bellowing Viking next door over the last eighteen or so months, which seems a minor miracle.

I am not a good video game player, but I am tenacious. If I'm playing a game that I like, I have the capability of grinding it out, game after game after game, until I get to the finish line. Despite all the yelling and swearing and stress and all the time invested that could have been put into other, more productive things, I dragged myself to the end of Spelunky's 16 levels and sent the golden-headed Olmec to his doom at the bottom of a lava pit.

It was astonishing, after so long, so much effort, so much heartache. I felt amazed. Stunned. Fortunately, my wife was sitting across the room from me reading a book (which is, it must be said, a pretty impressive feat of concentration while a large hairy man grunts and shouts) at the time, which is lucky -- she might not have believed it either.

So what does Spelunky have to do with roleplaying?

I'll be honest -- my main purpose here is to repeat the amazing news of my victory. I have to keep reminding myself I've actually done it. But while we're here, let's indulge in one of my patented Laboured Metaphors.

Roleplaying games, like Spelunky, are an act of faith. You're setting off into a vast and shifting landscape that is beyond your control. You know what your goal is, you know what tools you can bring to the party. You are willing to put in the time, and you have friends to help.

You never know whether you're going to reach the ending that you imagined, or if the whole thing is going to blow up in your face at any moment. Some trivial obstacle could derail you entirely. You might not have the resources you need at a critical moment. Or a stroke of good luck could take you farther than you imagined, changing your experience completely.

You will flirt with victory, with achieving your long-sought goals, only to have them turn to dust that slips through your fingers. Your tools will let you down, breaking at the worst possible moment.

Still you keep playing. You keep playing because the essentials of the game are good, even if your experiences have been frustrating at times. You keep dreaming of your goal.

Sometimes, you think you've hit your limit. It's too hard, it's never going to be that perfect experience you imagine. You threaten to quit. Your spouse looks relieved. Your neighbours tentatively reach for their earplugs.

And then...
The mighty OLMEC. Rest in peace, you giant gold asshat.
That magic moment when it all comes together. All the frustration slips away. You may not have the tools you thought you needed, but what you have is enough. You see the end in sight. You keep working. You are patient. You are practiced. You do not fear defeat, because you have tasted it so many times it has become your liquor. You are drunk with defeat, it only intoxicates you and makes you begin again.

And the golden god rises, his implacable face staring at you with dead eyes for a moment, before dropping into the lava and disappearing.

Roleplaying games are a struggle. They're a mess. Often, they leave GMs feeling frustrated and bitter because they demand so much work and emotion, and sometimes they just don't work the way we want them to. Moments that feel like they should be powerful fall flat as Olmec's victims, and moments that are entirely unexpected are filled with grace and emotion.

A series will stubbornly resist achieving moments of greatness, then shine like the gem on Olmec's forehead dropping into your hands at last. Players struggling to connect with a character will stun you when they finally go deeper than you were expecting, moving you, making you catch your breath for a moment. A troublesome plot thread will just drop into place out of the blue. A perfect line of dialogue will escape your mouth seemingly without even requiring an active thought.

In Spelunky, like in roleplaying games, you have to let go of the idea of perfection and embrace the work, the struggle, the exploration that takes you forward. Deeper.

Toward the golden promise...

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