The TV’s already gone, and, regardless, the consoles are packed away. They were one of the first things to go, a fount of distraction that would keep me from the tedious work. Of course, I just end up on my PC, which will be the last thing to go. I can play Spelunky and fool myself into thinking that I’m not procrastinating
If I dug out my NES from the plastic bin it’s in, and then managed to find the copy of Super Mario Brothers (that I packed in a separate box) I’d be able to play the same game I played almost 18 years ago. The first stage, with all its secrets and shortcuts, is clear even now in my mind. I don’t need to dig through the boxes of stuff: it’s burned into my muscle memory.
Spelunky randomly generates levels. That’s to say, I can’t look back in 18 years and play its first level from memory. Its first level changes. Every level changes. There are some constants. The type of enemies don’t change, for example. Neither does your skill set; you always have the ability to jump, unfurl your whip, throw a bomb, or launch a rope. But extra abilities and items are never in the same place, nor are the enemies, because the geography is never static. You can’t beat Spelunky with memory. You have to understand the game and how it works.
I was right to pack my personal stuff first. I went through my desk drawers, garbage bag beside me, ready to discard everything that was meaningless. I ended up filling two bags with old receipts, bills, business cards, stray buttons, manuals to long dead electronics, etc.
My personal things take up much less space. There’s a healthy smattering of movie tickets and concert stubs, but it’s mostly letters. My first batch, letters from a long distance ex, are old wounds and I’ve poured over them enough times that the individual letters have lost their power. There’s just a collective numb sadness about the whole thing, that old ache that only exists when it rains.
Spelunky’s masterstroke is in the way it sits comfortably in the land of the familiar and the new. The randomly generated terrain gives me something fresh, something to hook me in. But the retro pixel art along with the gameplay and mechanics – some of the oldest in gaming – evoke those lazy Saturday afternoons playing Ghosts ‘n Goblins. So each play feels simultaneously comfortable and fresh.
The familiar cushions the fact that, while there are new pleasures to discover, the world of Spelunky is a harsh place. When you die, you start the whole ordeal again from the beginning, and it’s incredibly easy to die. Cavemen, man-eating plants, yetis, snakes, all manner of traps: everything conspires against you. Even your own tools can turn on you. The levels, while random, come in themes, and every forth level leads to a different theme, whether it be jungle caves or sub-zero ice caverns. Each of these hides new perils, new ways to get hurt, new ways to die. The game is embedded with a terror of the unknown. If it wasn’t for that bedrock of familiarity, it might be too daunting to play.
It’s hard not to notice the parallels when I get to more recent letters and more recent exes. Patterns emerge and the repeating beats are unsettling. A narrative of desire and regret plays out several times. And here I am at regret again. Moving out of my home because it isn’t much of a home anymore, and having nobody to really blame but myself. Realizing you’re in a cycle is the first step to breaking it, but it’s also a sobering reminder of your limitations.
I’ve played Spelunky dozens and dozens of times these last three weeks. It’s a distraction, but it’s a necessary one. I can deal with things a lot better without constant reminders of what I’m losing.
So I load up the game and try going straight through without using shortcuts, but I never get very far.
Somewhere between playthrough 50 and 60 an unsettling thought emerges: Maybe I’m not doing so well in Spelunky because I’m just not learning anything. Maybe the problem isn’t the game. Maybe the problem is me.