Spelunky and the Art of Damsel Foo

About 3 hours into playing Spelunky, a 2D platformer that puts you in the shoes of an adventurer on the hunt for the Ultimate Treasure through constantly randomized mines, I still haven't made it to the check point after the fourth stage of the first level. This is a game where you're going to die. Often. Normally with a game like this I'd put the controller down and move on to something else. Demon Souls, for instance, waxed me in under and hour - I don't think I've ever returned a GameFly envelope so fast. But here I sit, insisting on collecting just one more hunk of gold on my quest for buried riches.

Spelunky's random level creation keeps it feeling fresh and there's something addictive about the brutality. You feel like your little pith-helmated avatar is actually in danger. And he is. Giant spiders, walking skeletons, even tiny purple bats have a taste for your blood and your only constant companion is a flimsy leather whip, that only effective if time it's strike perfectly. Which I often do not.

As far as gameplay, I can't find anything to complain about. The controls are perfect and if you miss a jump or fall off a ledge, it's your fault, not the game's. But there's one thing that bothers me and it follows a common thread that's been saturating the entirety of digital entertainment media lately. It's the damsel in distress. 

If you play enough video games you start to notice certain tropes that rear their head again and again across ever genre. Many of them are hard to avoid given the mechanics the drive game narratives forward. Fetch quests, puzzles, character stat progression, boss fights, most of these are as old as the genre itself. Take for example, Super Mario Bros. It's one of the best selling and most recognizable gaming franchises of all time, and what's the basic story? You're a guy fighting through levels of baddies to save a princess who should have installed a more effective castle security system decades ago.

The point of Spelunky isn't to save a hapless woman though. It's an option. In each level she spawns randomly and it's you're choice to save her on not, and whichever you choose as no effect on the outcome aside from marking a check in the "damsels" column at the end of the level. On it's own this would be fine, I suppose. In the world of Spelunky, you just accept that a series of mute blondes have wandered aimlessly into ever deeper sections of this incredibly hostile system of mines. Just as you accept that a shop keeper would set up his wares 100s of meters below the surface of the Earth on the off chance that someone would occasionally happen upon it.

What bothered me was how you deal with her once you decide to "save" her. By pressing down and X you grab her and she's instantly knocked out cold. As she lays limp in your arms a pair of bright yellow lemons swirl around her head, as a sort of glasgow coma scale. Two lemons equals a 1/1/1 for anyone who's counting.  She remains this way unless you drop her, at which time she comes to and starts frantically running around with a distressed look on her face. I bet it's because she's glad someone as gentle and caring as you finally came to her rescue.

This isn't the best part though. Not only do you carry her around like a sack of rape potatoes, you can actually use her as a throwable weapon to kill enemies and set off traps. My hero (cried no woman in this game ever)!  Luckily for you though, as soon as you find the level exit she pops back to her feet and scurries though the door. In the following screen she's waiting for you happily to give you a big smooch before run past to the entrance to the next stage where the circle of violence continues.

Make of it what you will. Overall the came is incredibly fun, but if you're the type of person that looks for underlying messages in your entertainment, I doubt you'll find this a positive one. 

Stephen Score: 4/5

As a platformer, Spelunky is flawless. I just couldn't get past the creeper mechanic of how the damsel is utilized.