Biased Notes Vol. 4: Spelunky

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the HD version of Spelunky unless specified otherwise.

1. Spelunky is known as a game where you will die a lot. One of the main reasons for this reputation is that it takes time to get used to the game’s dynamic and brilliant use of physics. For example, in the mine stages, a trap will automatically shoot a single arrow at anything that moves in front of it. Many times this trap faces a gap that the player can drop through to get closer to a level’s exit (in Spelunky, the goal is to move downward). So if you run off a ledge without carefully surveying the area, you might get hit with an arrow in midair. Since this hit dizzies you, enemies can take off even more health after you fall to the ground. In some cases, you can be far enough from the trap to narrowly avoid the arrow after activating it, but many times you don’t have the luxury of distance, so you have to get creative with the physics. For safety, you can throw a rock in front of the trap to draw out the single arrow. If you don’t have a rock, some stunned enemies can be thrown, and in a crude twist, you can throw a damsel you’re supposed to save. I often find myself with nothing to throw, so I might drop a bomb in front of the trap. Here’s the kicker, though: if you jump down too quickly after the arrow has been successfully triggered, the arrow can still hit you (for less damage) as it falls down after making impact with something else. Such chain reactions place Spelunky in the same lineage as Boulder Dash (a 1984 classic developed by Peter Liepa and Chris Gray), despite the fact that the latter is a maze game, not a platformer like Spelunky.

2. The HD version of Spelunky has a fascinating soundtrack, but it also demonstrates how a good track might not be a good choice for a particular setting. To focus on the mine levels again, the HD tunes in the mine don’t fit the precarious atmosphere. Instead of evoking claustrophobia, danger, or ominous mystery, the primary tracks for the mine (listen to 1:52 through 5:01 here) bring to mind a developer who is in love with the synth-driven sounds of the 1980s. The single mine song for the original Spelunky doesn’t fare much better (start at 2:46 here), as its sustained notes merely recall nostalgia for 8-bit games like Mega Man. Going back to the HD soundtrack, it’s criminal that the main-menu music (listen to 0:37 through 1:08 here) wasn’t used in the actual game. At the very least, this track’s oppressive spookiness mirrors the devastation that players tend to experience when they start playing Spelunky.

3. One thing I prefer about the HD version of Spelunky is its more up-close camera, which makes the game more challenging and suspenseful. In the original Spelunky, you can see much more of the level layout on a single screen, including the floors below you, meaning that you can zip through the level knowing where you will land. The HD version requires more caution, as you frequently can’t see the floors below unless you hold the down button to shift the camera perspective lower. The HD version’s limited view often leads me to hang off ledges before dropping to another floor, which results in a greater sense of respect for the environment (and for the mechanics of the game).

Grow Home: From Birth to Puberty

by Jim Bevan

Grow Home from Ubisoft Reflections is deceptively simple. You control a Botanic Utility Droid (B.U.D.) that must cultivate an alien flower, known as a Star Plant, so that its seeds can be brought to a spaceship for further analysis. The story echoes Jack and the Beanstalk along with Wall-E (see the robot’s janky motions and ability to “speak” through electronic sound effects). But I interpreted B.U.D.’s journey as more than a massive gardening mission. Grow Home is a compelling depiction of the growth from childhood to adolescence.

B.U.D. is very much like a child at the start of the game. Aside from the double meaning of his floral acronym, consider how his adventure begins. Like a newborn baby, he’s launched out of the ship that carried him for more than three years. After landing on the surface, his first movements are unstable and awkward, making it difficult for you to maneuver him. It’s incredibly easy to fall, and the robot often must hold onto surfaces to stay balanced. Aside from providing some challenge, B.U.D.’s loose control hints at damage caused from the massive fall and parallels the struggle of learning to walk.

Grow Home

B.U.D.’s mission is dangerous as he learns about the perils of the world for the first time. Various things seem innocuous until you engage with them. Giant flytraps lay buried under the ground, ready to snap B.U.D. up if he walks over their leaves. Several climbable surfaces have loose rocks that will fall if grabbed, sending the robot hurtling back to the earth. Even spending a small amount of time in the water will short B.U.D. out and cause him to collapse. In a clever stroke that suggests childhood learning, some energy crystals needed to improve B.U.D.’s performance are located near these traps, leaving you to evaluate whether or not the reward is worth the risk, or if there’s another way to obtain the crystal that is safer than the first obvious solution.

The most compelling evidence of Grow Home’s metaphor for personal growth comes from the only dialogue in the game, provided by a computer intelligence referred to as MOM. MOM supervises B.U.D. on his mission, offering advice on how to proceed, providing insight on the parts of the world he discovers, and urging him to “play nice” with the creatures he encounters. It’s a not-so-subtle mother/child relationship, but initially I did have trouble understanding why MOM would say B.U.D. is “doing very good” after he’d been destroyed by falling or drowning. These comments can come off like a sarcastic jab, but they also reflect the parental urge to encourage children when they fail or suffer setbacks.

Grow Home

Some critics, such as Jim Sterling, have suggested that Grow Home contains sexual undertones, particularly in regard to the phallic imagery of the Star Plant’s growths. At first I dismissed these claims as easy jokes, but I can’t deny the connotations. After seeing B.U.D. guide a giant vine straddled between his legs, like Major Kong in the climax of Dr. Strangelove, as well as the pulsations of the growths when they make contact with an energy rock, it’s difficult to say there isn’t some suggestive imagery. But these visuals are an illustration of growth and maturing of the body rather than an immature innuendo.

The growths that B.U.D. activates aren’t the easiest to control. It’s fairly common for the camera angle to become inverted and throw you off as the growths desperately try to find the location of an energy rock and get back on track as quickly as possible. There’s always a risk of crashing the vine into another part of the landscape or of the vine’s growth to stop before reaching the glowing stones. If the growths are genitalia, their unpredictability represents the struggles of puberty, the recklessness associated with raging hormones.

The finale of the game cements the significance of B.U.D.’s journey, both mechanically and metaphorically. Standing atop the now blooming Star Plant, players can look down from their mile-high perch and observe how far they’ve come. Every mistake, every pile of remains from a previous robot that was destroyed, every alteration made to the landscape, all preserved in a persistent state to offer a tangible sense of progress. Yet the task isn’t over. Transporting a seed to the ship is more difficult than it might appear; it’s easy to misjudge the jumping angle or the necessary thrust of a jet pack before you successfully make the leap. The final transition in Grow Home suggests maturation is stressful and satisfying.