Saturday, September 20, 2014


I wanted to take a break from talking about the technical and design bits of Lone Spelunker and talk about the impetus of the game.

If you've never been to Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico, you owe it to yourself to plan a trip, like, today.  Particularly if you've never had an opportunity to go into one of the world's major caves before.  You'll never experience anything like it.

The first time I went, I was a little kid, barely more than a tot, and yet I have some really vivid memories of the trek down into that deep, black hole, where strange, alien formations glistened in the darkness.  I remember not entirely understanding why we were walking down that steep, switchbacking trail out in the middle of the desert, into that rocky opening where birds twittered among the cacti and shrubs.  I remember not entirely understanding why we kept going as we continued down into the cool shadows of the twilight area of the cave, wondering what this big hole in the ground was about.  But soon, the big, angular rocks gave way to a compelling sight - there, in the sloping shadows as we walked, lit dramatically, were a series of totem-pole like stalagmites, as tall as a man, rising up out of the sloping darkness.  They were alien, fascinating, regal, and unlike anything I'd ever seen.  That's when I understood why we were there.

Since then, I've been back a few more times, and it's been deeply compelling every time I've gone, for different reasons as I've grown into adulthood.  As a child, it's all just scenery.  "Look at that!  Wow!"  As a teenager, you begin to appreciate the interesting geological action that is taking place, and the rarity and drama of the formations you see.  And as an adult, there's the added layer of the sheer smallness of humanity, as you stand before monolithic sentinels that were there centuries before you were born and will still be standing guard over the caverns centuries after you have passed.

But compelling as it is, Carlsbad Caverns still fails to capture the true excitement of spelunking.  Out of necessity to allow tots and grandma to enjoy it, it's sanitized.  The caverns are criss-crossed with gently-sloping paths and handrails, dutifully walking you by every interesting thing in the caves, and then back to the elevators and snack bar.

To get to the next level of adventure, you need to go spelunking, not just touring.  You need to climb, to crawl, to shimmy, to rappel, and to explore.  Even if it's only your flashlight lighting up that impressive flowstone column instead of nicely-placed lights with colored gels on them, if you had to crawl on your hands and knees to get there, it's all the sweeter.

It's into this world that you step when you go spelunking.  You're immersing yourself in history, in geology, and in sheer age.  You're crawling around in the accidental mineral debris left behind by desert rains and dissolving limestone, in channels carved by water one drip at a time.  The formations left behind are interesting, ancient, unpredictable, and beautiful, and they are hidden away in dark pockets of earth that require an adventurous spirit to get to.

There's no way a video game is going to capture all that.  There's just no way.  But it's a worthy goal anyway.  We get caught up in fighting enemies or adding artificial challenges along the way when we design games, but it seems to me that there is room for games that just let you explore.  Spelunking is all about exploration, about going deep to find beauty.  That's a good basis for a game, I felt.  So I'm making that game.  If it imparts even a fraction of the awe, wonder, and fun you'd feel if you were exploring those caves in real life, it's still time well spent.

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