Indie-cent Exposure #2: In which I detail my undying love for Yu

October 29, 2010

Should the best of our indie developers be considered auteurs? Maybe. I certainly seem to think so, based on my gushing assessment of Derek Yu, the man who thunk Spelunky.

All the gushing happened over at, on my weekly blog that I do for ’em, every week. Gush:-

Hello chums! Do you like people? People with personalities and ideas, people who walk about and eat toast and stuff? People with unique sets of experiences to mould into games?

Gamers don’t like people. That’s why we annually petition all of the major publishers, asking that they make tributes to Medal of Honor: Allied Assault from the ground up, removing all traces of new DNA with a fine tooth-comb. In this way we ensure that a game we once quite liked stays fresh in the memory, unspoiled by bright colours that will only mix with the grey and make the memory-paint go all brown and yucky.

Sadly, every year a large proportion of indie developers never read their petitions, either selling them on as games called things like Paper Aeroplane HD or dipping them in mugs of tea and consuming them out of ignorance and desperation. As a result, more and more games slip through the net with a kind of individual flair that seems downright unhealthy.

I have a feeling that, as games made by tiny teams become both more widespread and better known, some of the sharper sects in game criticism will develop a system of classification similar to the auteurism of French New Wave critics in the 50s*. When this happens, one of the first to be canonised will be Derek Yu.

Derek Yu made a game named Spelunky, in which the player embodies a squat Indiana Jones archetype, jumping, whipping and bombing their way through a series of cave networks. Three things make Spelunky one of the best ways to spend your remaining days. Let’s count them, Amerie style.

One thing: It resurrects that most feared of coin-op tropes, permadeath. Jumped by spiders? Back to the start. Fumbled your explosives trying to blast through a wall? Back to the start. Slipped onto a spike during the second to last level? BACK TO THE START.

Two thing: It counteracts the frustration of the first thing through its reliance on procedural level generation. Every time you play through the first level, it will contain all of the same elements and yet be utterly different. Every leap of faith will be just that, at once enjoyably familiar and scary-new.

Three thing: The whole shebang is as accessible and immediate as pinball, appropriating the lingo of platforming and looking like Super Mario World’s sensible younger brother.

You can download it for the price of a stolen kiss here and should so totally play it, but for more in-depth analysis and chin-stroking you’ll have to go elsewhere; I want to tell you about another Derek Yu game called Aquaria, and how his signature can be seen to run through both projects like a lo-fi stick of rock.

Aquaria is a study on isolation with the ocean as its (soggy) canvas. As fish-person Naija, you are gripped by a sudden and impulsive need to discover, a) where in the deep blue hell you came from, and b) why there aren’t any other yous.

Like Spelunky, Aquaria is unashamedly 2D and side-scrolling**, but there the initial mechanical similarities end. Using an appropriately fluid mouse control system, the game has you uncovering vast underwater vistas, in which sights like this genuinely shit you up:-

SHIT, A MASSIVE SHELLFISH. Although essentially linear – using big rocks, pearl-activated gates and other such contrivances to keep you on track, making sure you find the right keys to the right areas in the right order – Aquaria shares with Spelunky the pure joy of exploration, coupled with its regular playmate, self-discovery. As Naija, the drip-fed plot compels you to find your identity. In Spelunky, you are forced to discover your own limits in the game’s smaller, unspoken choices: do I lurch on empty-handed, or shank the shopkeeper for his potentially life-saving stock? Do I save the princess or sacrifice her to a generous but definitely ill-willed god? Alone and unadvised, your thoughts ultimately turn inward.

Yu and co-developer Alec Holowka found inspiration in Naija’s loneliness, making it the primary driver behind the exploration. Brilliantly, the game’s core mechanic – used for healing, fighting, shifting or otherwise affecting change in the world – revolves around song, that eternal outlet for existential longing and ineffable sadness.

It’s a mechanic that hits upon what makes both Naija and the cute bundle of pixels Spelunky calls a man so easy to empathise with. They are horribly vulnerable – Naija because she’s a skinny waif of a girl, brimming with doomed innocence; Spelunky’s Indiana-alike because oh-shit-a-bat-BACK TO THE START. They are vulnerable, alone and impossibly determined to find something better, and by Jove do we want them to find it.

One version of Spelunky’s text intro – a three-line, randomised microcosm of the game itself – embodies their mindset perfectly:-

With the desert stretching beyond me,

I spotted the cave’s entrance,

And held my hat hard against the wind.

Squint a bit and that could be Yu himself, deciding to go it alone in the cruel make-or-break of the games industry.

Thematic musing aside, Derek Yu deserves his auteur status simply for knowing how to make the most of a shoestring budget, eschewing scripted sequences in favour of simple devices. Your first transition from clear coral to inky black underworld in Aquaria – the product of a little palette-tweaking, nothing more – ushers in a whole chest-full of unease. Less subtle but just as effective is Spelunky’s once-in-a-blue-moon message of ‘THE DEAD ARE RESTLESS!’, pitting you against reanimated skeletons and vampire bats in a charming, sweaty-palmed mix-up of the usual level. The game doesn’t look likely to lose any of its simplistic clout in its upcoming graphical update for Xbox Live Arcade.

Right, that’s it. No, one more thing. Last week I promised you more screenshots of me dying.

BACK TO THE START. Thank you, please drive carefully and make sure you book tickets for next week’s INDIE-CENT EXPOSURE!




* If you ask me, it makes far more sense to analyse games made, paid for and distributed by one or two people as autobiographical works than to look for some semblance of directorial personality in films built by an army of scriptwriters, script doctors, art directors, producers, stars, cameramen and worrisome studio execs.

** Prior to Aquaria’s release, Yu mused about being, “here to keep 2D alive… you know, I think the mainstream guys took off on 3D before 2D was even close to being figured out”.


One Response to “Indie-cent Exposure #2: In which I detail my undying love for Yu”

  1. Since Forge won’t let me leave comments, here goes:

    Auteurs for me, auteurs for you; let’s just call the whole thing off…

    The term’s a tricky one to juggle, but you’re following in the steps of the French New Wavers(?) by finding someone you love and championing them something more than just entertainment hacks. Being an ignoramus I’d obviously not heard of Mr Yu, so I’ll be sniffing him out given a chance.

    Your remit is obviously indie games, but don’t go making the auterist readings exclusive to the small guys. It’s easy to say there are obvious creative forces behind 1-3 man projects of passion (this, Braid, Limbo, you name it) but that doesn’t mean you can’t get unique vision out of the great big clunking machine of the mainstream.

    As you say auteur becomes a bit of a shabby term in reference to some Hollywood types, backed by an army of scriptwriters, editors, producers etc etc. But then you get Hitchcock, or Wes Anderson, or even David Lynch in the mix, folks who INSPITE of all ‘by-committee’ approach to filmmaking STILL manage to get their personal stamp on their films. Is the same true on Triple-A videogames?

    I had the good fortune of harrassing David Cage at Eurogamer Expo last year, and took the chance to insist that people start referring to him as an auteur. He’s French, he knows what the term means, deal with it. He seemed flattered, but obviously reluctant to jump on the term. Which is why it’s up to us scrivenly hacks to go on banging the drum about the creative types we love.

    Still, good banging of said drum my friend!

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