Book Review Essay: 'Spelunky' and the Art of Storytelling Within Video Games

Spelunky by Derek Yu

In recent years, something funny has happened: In my 30s, I have fallen in love with video games all over again, and yet I've barely picked up a game controller.

My regular intake of video game journalism shares part of the blame, as do my occasional binges watching gamer streams on Twitch and YouTube. However, I attribute most of this renewed passion for video games to a spate of recent books that have wormed their way into my e-reading devices.

There was the book about Nintendo’s cult classic RPG Earthbound, by Ken Baumann, and a quirky book detailing the history of an old NES platformer featuring characters from the Bible. I also read the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, which is being adapted for the big screen by director Steven Spielberg, as well as Console Wars, a book about Nintendo's rivalry with Sega in the 1990s.

Most recently, I finished a book by Derek Yu, the creator of Spelunky, a roguelike platformer developed first for PC and then picked up by Microsoft and Sony for their consoles. In this book, perhaps my favorite of the bunch, we get 400 well-paced pages detailing the story behind the game — by the man who created it, no less.

Every aspect of the game's development is covered, from Yu's first epiphany about making a randomized platformer, to developing the first pilot levels, to the game's emergence as an indie sensation that would go on to sell over a million copies.

Game on, and on / Illustration by Charlie Shifflett

Game on, and on / Illustration by Charlie Shifflett

Yu manages to relate the challenges of coding the game without going over the head of non-technical readers like myself. He explains how early players on a gamer forum helped him flesh-out the concept into a fully-developed game.

He also opens up about his experiences working with Microsoft to license the game for Xbox Live. And he discusses — at length — the design considerations he weighed when developing the game, from color choices and world-building to character depiction and story development.

This was perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of the book for me, as it helped me to understand better how storytelling matters even when creating a 2D platformer.

storytelling cliches

When discussing early criticism about a damsel-in-distress character, for example, Yu was both honest and thoughtful, explaining how such feedback can help creators overcome clichés and well-worn storytelling devices.

“In most cases, clichés can be easily replaced by taking a single step toward a more innovative idea,” he writes. “Does a platform game have to have another princess to rescue? Does a gritty game have to begin with another rape or murder?

"I can’t speak for developers other than myself, but I imagine that in many studios, these questions aren’t always being asked. I want to ask these questions about my own games, as well, although familiarity makes it challenging — over time, we become fond of even a game’s flaws.”

In the video games of my youth, and even in the games I am drawn to today via gaming websites and video feeds, I am now more equipped to see them from a storyteller's perspective, thanks to Yu’s book.

My favorite games have often delivered surprises in their stories — for example, turning something cute, like a puppy, into a villain, or enriching a game's soundtrack by paying homage to the music of classic films.

A recent example of this comes from Nintendo’s underrated title Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. In world 1-3, "Waterfalls Galore," the soundtrack appears to give a nod to the chorus of the theme song from Hayao Miyazaki’s classic animated film My Neighbor Totoro. I credit Yu and his book with helping to open my eyes to such design decisions.

And now when I do pick up a game controller, or watch someone else weild one,  I have a deeper appreciation of all that goes on behind the pixels on the screen.