Meaningless Toil and the Joy of Roguelikes

Spelunky is my favorite game. I have played Spelunky more than any other video game. I have been playing Spelunky for seven years. After I finish writing, I may go do a run. But I have to confess something.

I have never beaten Spelunky.

Not once have I dueled with Spelunky’s final boss. I’ve certainly never seen the secret fifth world hidden in the 2013 remake. Small mistakes accumulate or a big mistake invariably ruins a good run. At the end of the day, I’m just not very good at it.

If I wanted to beat Spelunky, I could. It would take a concentrated effort, but I could do it. It would be as simple as dedicating a measly 30 minutes a day to getting better. I know what better play looks like and I know the mistakes I make. I could do it. I guess I’ve just never been that interested in the prospect.

I rarely think about winning while I play. I don’t know that I could tell you what I do think about in fact. To some extent, the goal is to go blank. I move, I react, and ultimately I die and reset.

In the last two weeks, I’ve really latched onto Slay The Spire, another roguelike by which I empty my mind. I climb each floor step-by-step, and in the end I tumble back down. I was saying in a discord chat tonight that I wish I could get past the roadblock I’m stuck on right now, but if I never do that won’t actually bother me too much. I’m not even sure what beating this game looks like.

I think my favorite part is the second boss I can’t seem to get past. I think my favorite part is when I forget to look before I leap and land in spikes. I think my favorite part is when I miss a beat, and walk right into a skeleton with his arms up and lose that last half of a heart when I idiotically had an apple I could have healed with. For me, roguelikes are not about winning. They’re about work.

Most games have us work to make progress. They sell us the myth that progress is inevitable and linear. Look at my least favorite roguelike for an example, Rogue Legacy. With every run of Rogue Legacy you make progress. After every run the numbers go up: you run faster, jump higher, and hit harder. It takes the permadeath and randomization that define the genre, but add an upgrade tree, which turn the game into a constant grind toward victory. I have beaten Rogue Legacy not because I am good at it, but because I needed a podcast game, and Rogue Legacy dutifully obliged that for 30 hours. I don’t want to say that Rogue Legacy is bad because it doesn’t demand much mechanical skill from the player. Rather that I dislike it because its progression is at odds with what I could have liked about it.

Spelunky and similarly structured roguelikes, lacking such progression mechanics, are games where work and progress are not so tightly correlated. You will never start the game with another heart, but maybe you’ll end the game knowing not to approach that yeti in that particular manner. It creates a strange effect where moment-to-moment the work you’re putting in is maybe pointless. Maybe you will play very well and then a roll of the dice will kill you instantly in the final level and you will learn nothing. For me, that’s comforting. It lowers the stakes and helps me focus on just having fun rather than trying to win or progress. It runs counter to that assertion that progress is constant and linear. Instead progress comes in bursts and the work is the joy.

Each run is sort of like doing laundry; you work toward a goal, but soon there will be more clothes to wash and you’re back where you started. Your favorite shirt will get dirty again. The only way to enjoy doing laundry is to enjoy the act itself rather than the end product.

Maybe I’ll beat Spelunky someday. Maybe the next run of Slay the Spire is where I finally get past this third boss. If not, that’s fine. I’m not playing these games to win, I’m playing these games because each moment of play is interesting to me. Each needless arrow trap death is an opportunity to begin again and enjoy the level that the dice have rolled up for me this time.