Now playing: the Spelunky daily challenge
"I see a bat. I couldn't be more prepared for this bat if I tried. OH GOD A BAT IS HERE WHAT DO I DO?"
That was the approximate commentary for my first ever Spelunky Daily Challenge - a game mode exclusive to the Steam edition of Spelunky. Every day it randomly generates a set of levels and every day you have just one chance at getting as far as you can. After you die (and you will probably die) you can see how far your friends made it and with how much cash.
The point of the Daily Challenge is to bring out the competitive aspect of the game and to make it social. In single player the competition was either with yourself or with the environment, but apparently if you add a leaderboard and the potential for watching friends die brilliantly theatrical or weird or stupid deaths, the game instantly becomes twice as compelling. This newfound potential also explains how I came to join the Spelunky Explorers Club, a collection of dedicated Spelunkers all recording their attempts to complete the Daily Challenge and then posting the videos on the internet to accumulate mockery or praise as deserved.
My first Spelunky Explorers Club video is below. It lasts 24 seconds and has been variously referred to as "pro", "inspiring" and "the alpha and omega of the medium".
The club was set up by Gunpoint developer, former PC Gamer gent and taker of transatlantic flight-length Letterpress turns, Tom Francis, as a way to share the wildly varied experiences of the Daily Challenge. It also offers up different ways to measure the success (or lack thereof) of participants by comparing deaths, items bought and narrow escapes, erm, escaped. According to Tom it's "like an old hunting lodge where we (dead) explorers share our tales of adventure."
The dead part is important here.
The game is basically a chocolate selection box of procedurally generated death traps. Spelunky's randomised environments lead to chains of events which spiral out of control and then explode, sometimes literally, into an entertaining demise. YouTube is now riddled with Daily Challenge videos and they're often brilliant fun to watch for those very reasons.
Mine are no exception to the death trend. In Spelunky I die every single day. There is a scenario where you can survive and actually finish the thing, but I don't watch those videos so I couldn't tell you exactly what happens. The reason I don't watch them is actually one of the problems with the Daily Challenge: that of losing the thrill of discovery.
Speaking with PC Gamer editor, Graham, with my friend Matt, and with basically anyone who has devoted hundreds of hours to playing Spelunky in the pre-Challenge era - one of Spelunky's great joys was walking into a level and finding something new. "I think the thing that pushed me through those early days when I was no good at it was a sense of discovery," said Graham when I had finished telling him how cross I was that I still hadn't seen a tree. "I hadn't even seen screenshots of world two. And then when I first got there I died instantly because there were new rules to learn."
Now what happens is the Daily Challenge actively promotes curiosity about what your friends are doing. You want to know how come they got so much further, whether they picked up the mystery box, how they died and so you ask them or you watch their Let's Play videos. The problem is that every one of these comes with a risk of seeing something far beyond what you've managed to find on your own.
That's how I know there are jungles and ice worlds and all manner of other cool, hidden things. It can spur you on by giving you a target to aim for but I want to keep some of the game's deeper levels a secret because I want to retain some of that joy*. As a result I'm wary of anything long or instructional-looking. Instead I gravitate towards shorter videos so as to more easily enjoy the deaths of others. Perhaps it should be renamed the Spelunky Daily Schadenfreude.
*Sidenote: sometimes there is too much joy. The first time I saw a jungle world I was so excited I smacked my leg into the underside of a desk and bruised my knee, as you'll see nine minutes into this auspicious playthrough.
The sharing aspect also opens up the possibility of cheating. According to Tom's system there is " a gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s agreement among explorers not to watch other people’s runs before attempting your own". The phrasing makes not cheating seem noble and honourable which are good enough reasons for not doing it. However, as someone who has tried cheating as a strategy I also feel I should point out that it isn't actually very helpful. The one time I cheated it did me no bloody good whatsoever and I ended up scampering around a mine in a futile attempt to avoid a ghost.
In making and uploading the videos it's also easy to keep a sense of your own progress or learning. Strangers or friends will also pop by to offer tips ("NEVER EVER BUY A TELEPORTER" from Matt, "Always have something in your hands" from Graham, "Damsels have 3HP" from Tom H) or maybe they'll subscribe to your channel and get invested in how you're doing.
You can also watch your own recordings back to work out chains of events which baffled you the first time around. You can pinpoint the exact moment the damsel died and how long you carried on tlking to her and dragging her round the mines, or you can work out whether it was the ghost, the boulder or the explosion of spiders which struck the fatal blow.
It's comforting to know that friends who can speedrun the whole thing in mere minutes still end up dying from the same arrow I did on the first level of the first world. Although I imagine that's less comforting from their perspective.
The Daily Challenge hasn't tempted me back into regular solo Spelunky at all. Those games still feel aimless and disjointed to me - at best they are practice for my Daily Challenge. It's the only Spelunky run of the day which matters and it's the one which has given me a way into a game I could never seem to love.