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By William Shelton

While I didn’t always know the words for it, I’ve always been something of an existentialist; believing there was no purpose to life other than what we make of it. Recently, I’ve felt like I’ve actually been able to start creating that kind of meaning. I’m happier as a person, my writing has improved immeasurably, and my grades are improving. Over the past year, the idea that my hopes and dreams are within my reach has been a near constant thought.

Then I made the mistake of picking up Spelunky again.

For those who don’t know, 2012’s Spelunky is a roguelike platformer by develuper Mossmouth. The game tasks you with spelunking into randomly generated, themed caves in order to find a lost city of gold. You get gold, resuce damsles, find ancient artifacts and, if you’re like me, you die. A lot.

It’s a grat game, don’t get me wrong. But as I played, the game’s roguelike elements began to prod at the existentialist in me. By pure happenstance, the game’s mechanics had begun to resemble my life and brought new life into old fears.

While I didn’t make the connection right away, the similarities started as soon as I booted up the game again. It had been awhile since I last played, and I had forgotten the controls. I should have taken a moment to get reacquainted but instead I took a leap of faith and….instantly landed on a bed of spikes. I wasn’t too bothered by this. I had done little and lost nothing. There was simply nothing to get attached to. Looking back over my life it’s depressing how often that same sentiment applies.


I didn’t start college until I was twenty-one, three years after graduating high school. I was rudderless, without any plans for the future, and I ended up flunking out after my first year. Just like with my return to Spelunky, I had been away too long, didn’t take enough time to get readjusted, and I failed fast. Like that first run, had I died soon after this, I can’t say I would have cared. I had done little and accomplished less. While some may have lamented the loss of potential, when I look back, all I see is that first character: a failure too insignificant to care about.

Luckily, I didn’t die then. I was even able to get something of a “restart,” a couple of years later. A relative gave me the money to go back to school long enough to get back on financial aid. It wasn’t as simple as hitting “z,” sure, but I had gotten a second chance. But it’s here that my life’s similarities to Spelunky truly begin to horrify me.

I have one more quarter to go before I transfer to a university, and until now, each quarter I’ve done better than the last. The same can be said for my continued runs in Spelunky. But on one particularly good run, I was hit with the full understanding of one of the games core mechanics: permadeath. I had gotten farther than I had ever gotten before and was feeling rather proud of myself. Needless to say, I ended up dying. This time, I was kind of pissed. In a single instant, everything I had done became meaningless. Even though I could start again, all of my previous accomplishments were for naught. I had one chance to get all the way through the game and I botched it.

Then it hit me; this is just like life. One day, we are all going to die. I knew this long before playing Spelunky, but on this run, that fact hit me with a force I wasn’t expecting. Maybe it was just the timing. Having begun to do so well in real life at the same time, but it occurred to me right then that nothing I’ve done will matter once I’m dead. After thinking on this for a while I was reminded of Rogue Legacy, another roguelike, but one with some persistence between runs. In that game, money made in one run can only be used in the next. You might think this recollection eased my mind a bit, but in truth, the thought only exacerbated my worries.

I hope, at least to the people I care about, that I’m remembered when I’m gone. But, these games have taught me that I’ll easily be forgotten. In order to keep each run feeling fresh, games in the roguelike genre have randomized levels. While this works well in the moment, the lack of strong level design stops each run from being memorable in its own right. With the exception of a few exciting moments and a couple of great stories, upon death, my memories of the last run are banished to the recesses of my mind. It’s hard not to think the same wont happen to me as well. Just like each adventurer I played as, my life story is the same as hundreds of thousand of people. With a little luck I hope my life will yield a few great stories of its own.

But, I’ve played a lot of Spelunky, and little of it has made an impact. But even if some piece of my writing survives me, if I pass on some wisdom to the next generation, if there is some persistence after my death, the world will have changed just as it has for every character I’ve played as. And just like these characters, what I’ve done with my life will soon become less important that what the next generation manages to make with what’s left to them.

It’s hard for these questions not to weigh on me, but one thing gives me some semblance of hope. The fun I’ve had along the way. I may not remember much of the countless attempts I’ve made in Spelunky, but I do remember the fun and the smiles it’s brought. So maybe I am destined to be forgotten. Maybe those I love will move on as fast as I did each time my adventurer died a painful death. Maybe what matters is the here and now: the joy I brought to them, the laughter and the tears; the triumphs we celebrated and the tribulations we fought through together.

Spelunky has taught me to fear death. It reminded me that the better you do in life, the more you have to lose. But it also taught me that you can’t make anything worthwhile of your life without risking something. For the first time in my life I’m afraid to die, because I finally have something to lose.