Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
In the last 12 years, there have been better games than Grand Theft Auto III. But I don’t think there’s any game that has been more influential, both in terms of changing its own medium and — just as importantly — changing the whole popular conception of what the medium is supposed to be. When Grand Theft Auto III came out in 2001, it pointed the way toward a new era of videogames: An era when games would be worlds without boundaries, with characters who looked and acted like real human beings speaking non-translated dialogue, with novelistic stories that would be about something beyond rescuing princesses or defeating final bosses.
At this moment in time — with just a few months to go before Sony and Microsoft unleash their two new consoles — it’s fair to say that we are living in that future. Practically every major new videogame shown off at this year’s E3 videogame super-conference was an “open-world” game — the hugely popular genre that typically involves running around a cool digital landscape dodging boring plot points while you run cool side-missions and disobey traffic laws. Almost every major videogame feels a little bit like Grand Theft Auto; the hugely successful Assassin’s Creed franchise is basically Grand Theft Auto as a history lesson with ninjas, and it is endlessly addictive.
Rockstar Games is releasing its own GTA iteration in stores next week. Grand Theft Auto V promises to be bigger than any other big game has ever been. It’s so big that it requires you to play as three different characters, each of them with their own particular quirks and all of them with a Y chromosome. It is entirely possible that I will spend 70 hours of the next month of my life inside of Grand Theft Auto V. I played 50 hours of Red Dead Redemption, and that game didn’t even have missile launchers.
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if we’re approaching the end of the Grand Theft Auto era. Not the end of the franchise, or the end of the open-world era. No, I wonder if we’re reaching the moment when the Platonic Ideal of Grand Theft Auto — expansive, cinematic, novelistic, adult — stops looking like the future and starts looking like the past. Because lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Spelunky.
Let me explain. Spelunky is a platform game where you explore a series of underground tunnels. It was created by a developer named Derek Yu and originally appeared on Windows back in 2009; I first discovered it when it arrived on the Xbox Live Arcade last summer. (It’s also on PS3 and Vita and OSX — I’m telling you this so you can download it immediately.) You pick up gold and rescue damsels in distress. You fight weird monsters and die all the time.
There is a level set in The Mines and a level set in The Jungle and a level set in The Ice Caves and a level set in The Temple; this could be almost any game from the part of the ’80s where everyone loved Indiana Jones, and indeed, the game is sort of an homage to a videogame called Spelunker, which means nothing to me and I assume even less to you. Visually, Spelunky suggests Super Mario Bros. 2 remixed with Fantasia; it feels like one of those games that never made it out of Japan because Nintendo decided it was too difficult for idiot American kids, and I mean that as a huge compliment. Because the game is difficult. There are no save points. You only start off with four hit points. After the third level, there is someone or something trying to kill you basically every five steps. And the worst thing is that you can’t even anticipate where those potential death spots are: Spelunky randomly generates new levels every time you play it.
Spelunky doesn’t feel anything like the kind of games that get released by major studios today. There are no starry voice-overs and no cinematic 3-D environments. There isn’t really a story. There is a certain type of videogame fanatic that has spent the last 10 years arguing that videogames are “art” — the same person who tends to look for “the Citizen Kane of videogames” — and I’m not sure that Spelunky is a game that even factors into that argument. Spelunky doesn’t even have the highbrow affectations of the recent wave of arty-weird indie games like Braid or Limbo or Journey. It is a very weird, very silly, shockingly in-depth, and occasionally quite terrifying game. I spent about five hours in a single night attempting to beat the game; when I finally made it to the last boss for the 10th or 11th time and defeated him, it felt in that moment like one of the utmost achievements of my life; a couple of weeks later, my friend informed me that the Giant Attacking Golden Head that I thought was the Final Boss was actually just a sub-boss, and that there was a secret passage to a whole different level with the Real Final Boss.
The game is filled with secrets like that, and the fact that no two playthroughs are ever the same means that even the secrets you know retain an element of mystery. Sometimes there are vampires and sometimes there aren’t; sometimes you find a jetpack, which makes everything easier, and sometimes you find a jetpack and immediately jetpack your way into a lava pool.
What I’m getting at is that Spelunky is small in terms of gameplay but huge in terms of the possible applications of that gameplay; little breadth, but incredible (hell, maybe infinite) depth. And I wonder if, in that sense, Spelunky looks like the future in the same way that Grand Theft Auto III looked like the future 12 years ago. Because at this point, the weird secret about open-world games is that their openness is finite; that they have incredible breadth, but weirdly limited depth. (Who is buying Grand Theft Auto V for the tennis?) Vice City is one of my 10 favorite videogames ever, but one of my most vivid memories of playing the game is the moment — probably some 60 hours into my playthrough — when I decided to fly my helicopter out into the ocean. And, at a certain point, the game glitched; the ocean became the sky, the sky went black, and I had to hit the reset button. Perversely, the larger that Grand Theft Auto and its ilk get, the more their boundaries become obvious.
The next wave of open-world games is attempting to fix this problem by connecting their worlds to the Internet and allowing for weird new forms of network connectivity. That could work — but that also makes videogames feel less like “games” and more like social networks. Spelunky shows another path; it is decidedly a Game, with its own rules and lessons you have to learn. You can get better at Spelunky, but you can never be “perfect” at it, the way you could get “perfect” at an old-school game like Super Mario.
Here is what it looks like when you play the single greatest runthrough of Spelunky in history so far:
That video was uploaded by a user named Bananasaurus_Rex last week. Speaking as someone who has played Spelunky almost every night for the last two months — and speaking as someone who has never even gotten the freaking Sceptre from freaking Anubis one freaking time — I’m not lying when I tell you that that is one of the most impressive achievements I have ever seen, on par with that guy who walked across the Grand Canyon and that guy who climbed the New York Times Building.
And here’s the thing: I can’t really imagine feeling that way for a video of any other game. When you watch a multiplayer game, you’re watching humans fight each other. When you watch a typical single-player game, you’re watching the same thing, really; the human player fights the human game designer. But watching Spelunky, with its randomly generated levels, feels simultaneously more primal and more futuristic: You’re watching a human fight against a machine, but you’re also watching a human fight against the infinite-seeming vagaries of randomly generated probability. Which is another way of saying that playing Spelunky feels like a battle against the whole mythological/spiritual/psychological notion of Destiny itself.