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Inside the world of the Spelunky record-chasers

Everyday they're spelunking.

Sometimes the Spelunky world record hunters seem to speak in another language. They enthuse about eggplants and Udjat Eyes, Hell runs and Olmec, a vocabulary incomprehensible to outsiders.

It's all testament to the depth of a game that has inspired a devout community to try and conquer all its wiles. Leading the charge are the world record hunters, unfathomably dedicated players collaborating and competing to become the best spelunker on the planet.

Spelunky is a procedurally generated platformer that delights in killing you at every opportunity. The aim is to explore its levels that are never the same twice and collect as much loot as possible along the way. One wrong move - activate a trap, tumble into piranha-infested water, rile a shotgun-wielding shopkeeper - will bring a premature end to any promising run. It's this unpredictability that attracted players upon the game's release in 2012, and that has kept them coming back for further punishment.

"I played the arcade version on Xbox [360]. I didn't really take it all that seriously," says prolific Spelunky streamer YamaYamaDingDong, otherwise known as Ryan. "I basically just played it whenever I rage-quit Call of Duty."

The game was subsequently released on PC, and the ability to stream his efforts made Ryan take it more seriously. He's now played for around 1200 hours. "It just kind of happened," says Ryan. "I don't play any other games. Only Spelunky."

YamaYamaDingDong's record stood for less than a week.

The bulk of that playtime has been poured into claiming one of the game's world records. These come in two main variants: the high score record charges players with gathering as much loot as possible in a single life. A fruitful run takes hours and requires expert patience and resource management.

"There's always suspense on a score run," says high score chaser Buddy7heElf, commonly known as John. "You need great luck, but it's kind of exciting entering a new level hoping for it to be filled with gems or resources you may be short on."

The other variant is speedrunning, where the player makes it from beginning to end in as short a time as possible, hoping their efforts aren't thwarted by the game's procedural generation.

Pibonacci is one of the Spelunky community's best-known speedrunners. "I always had a competitive personality in sports," he says. "Once I realised I could compete at the very top, I got a huge adrenaline kick out of [speedrunning]."

Although the goal of each discipline is markedly different, success often relies on the same thing: a favourable seed. The random generation needs to have been sympathetic to their cause. For speedrunning, Pibonacci generally hopes for levels where the door is immediately downwards from the starting point. "A straight down level, without getting into details, takes like seven seconds if done well," he says. "A level's natural path can zigzag from left to right, and you can lose 10 seconds just because of that."

He slips back into Spelunky-speak to explain the criteria for different strands of speedrunning. Most compelling is what's called 'Low%', which dictates that the player uses only their starting resources (bombs and ropes) and collect nothing extra along the way. The world record in this class stands at two minutes and 54 seconds, set by Spelunky speedrunning extraordinaire Latedog. Pibonacci's personal best time is only six seconds shy of this mark. The video evidence seems to show a player operating on pure instinct.

Watch on YouTube

"Remember, you saw the one that worked out!" he says. "But there is a natural path to the exit on every single level. Certain patterns reoccur. For example, if you start on the very right side of a Mines level, and to your left is a snake pit, the exit has to be straight down. That's how the levels are generated."

This is the kind of knowledge that only comes with over a thousand hours of playtime. "There are a lot of other little things you just have to process fast," he says.

The time required for a high score run means this level of improvisation is undesirable. Players will restart over and over to get a favourable seed, which can usually be recognised by the (random) contents of the shop on the second level. "I'm looking for a jetpack, mattock, bombs and Udjat Eye [an item that reveals secrets and gems within the level]," says John. "If you don't get what you're looking for on level 1-2, you start over and repeat the process. Sometimes it takes a few minutes where you get really lucky, other times you can go for hours and get no luck at all."

While a skilled score runner still has to roll with the punches, it's caution that leads to success, a lengthy game of brinkmanship that can be frustrating for cavalier speedrunners. "Even if a speedrun ends pretty late, it's only a few minutes in," says Pibonacci. "On score runs it's a few hours. One random event you may not even be able to control and it's over."

It was no small feat, then, when popular Spelunky streamer Bananasaurus_Rex became the first player to score over $3 million, holding his nerve for seven hours to set the bar at $3,105,850. Ryan immediately set his mind on beating it.

"I was going so hard for it for a couple of months. A few hours every day, resetting and trying to get a good seed," he says. "I knew that I could totally do it because I'd come within $25,000 of Rex's record before."

A little less than two months and many failed attempts later, Ryan found himself neck-and-neck with the record as he neared the end of a run. "It was really down to the wire. People in chat were telling me that I needed this much or that much to beat the record," he says. "There was a lot of confusion, a lot of hype. I was just trying not to die."

He beat the record by just $3975 in a time of just over four hours. "Oh my goodness," he says of finally doing it. "It was just so much work paid off."

Yeti another death.

It didn't last. New on the Spelunky scene, John had riled the community at large by making boastful declarations. "Oh, I knew I would do it no problem," he says. "I came to the community and told everybody I'd get the record within a month. They probably scoffed at me. But it only took a week."

John had already gained attention by seemingly questioning the validity of Bananasaurus_Rex's record run, wherein he had beaten enormous odds to get a plasma cannon, a crucial tool for mining gems, on the first level. "There was a misunderstanding where I said his run seems fishy, as a joke," says John. "I didn't know how popular he was. So I became known as the guy that called him a cheater."

It's a rare instance of friction in a community built on collaboration and friendly competition. "A lot of MMOs and FPSs and stuff, there's a really toxic community because they're all playing against each other," says Ryan. "We're all doing our own thing, and it's like, 'Hey, look what I did, this is cool!' It's everyone together versus the game instead of people versus each other."

So John's swaggering introduction was never going to make him too many friends. "It just got off on the wrong foot, I think," says Ryan tactfully. Most of the community has now reconciled with John, with one notable exception. "He and B-Rex are still not on good terms."

John set a new record of $3,140,850 which, at time of writing, still stands. "I got super lucky a few times, especially getting an altar on 5-3, which allowed me to get an extra $80,000 by bringing the ghost into Yama's throne," he says, slipping into Spelunky-speak.

For some, John's reputation tarnishes the achievement. "People didn't like some guy they label as cocky coming in and beating the record," he says. "I've been told that someone called me scum."

That person was not Ryan. He admits his disappointment at his record being so short-lived, but is glad for a reason to keep playing. "I had my moment of fame. Now there's a new mark to hit. This just motivates me to go for it again," he says. "I just need the right seed."

Watch live video from Pibonacci on TwitchTV

The idea of a perfect seed seems to be a prevailing dream. The ranks of expert Spelunky players are only growing. For both the high score and speedrun records, will the procedurally generated stars eventually align and offer up the ideal circumstances for an unbeatable run?

"Yes and no. I mean, it's possible," says Ryan. "The score record can almost always be beaten. Almost. I'm excited to see how far we can push it. I think $3.25 million is not unreasonable at all."

John estimates higher. "B-Rex or Yama are capable of beating my record whenever they want. I'm thinking $3.4 or $3.5 million will be reached. When it gets that high, it'll be hopeless to play for a score like that."

Records or no, these players will keep returning to the death-laden caverns of Spelunky, where the thrill of the challenge trumps the end result. After all, you don't play for this long if your heart isn't in it.

"It's way more satisfying to have to actually play a level amazingly well compared to just getting the gift of easy levels, so I'm fine with that [perfect seed] never going to happen," says Pibonacci. Still, for every new player, every reset, every near-miss, the odds of a perfect seed and untouchable record shorten. Pibonacci takes a moment to reconsider.

"Well, obviously I wouldn't mind if it happened to me."