Skip to main content
If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

The Deadly Rooms of Derek Yu

Spelunky's creator discusses a life in games.

Do you like video games? Do you like poetic justice? If so you'll probably like this, too. Derek Yu, the youthful creator of Spelunky and the father, in a sense, to Spelunky's legions of angry shopkeepers, was playing Dark Souls recently. Guess what happened.

"One of the things I love about Dark Souls is that it doesn't really tell you how to do anything," says Yu, still groggy with jetlag from a recent holiday in Japan. "But it also lets you do and try so much that doesn't work. At one point when I was playing, I turned a corner and there was this ghoulish-looking character behind these metal bars. As soon as I saw it, I jumped back and, really without thinking, I threw my spear and stabbed him dead.

"It turned out to be a shopkeeper."

Revenge. Sweet, ludic revenge. After three years of chucking testy, shotgun-wielding merchants our way on PC and - more recently - Xbox 360, Yu's finally beaten at his own game. Beaten, in fact, within someone else's game.

"I mean it looked like a monster behind bars," Yu continues, although he should probably just save it for the judge by this point. "But I guess I really could have given it a chance. After that, you know, you can't buy from that character ever again. It's a crazy punishment that very few games would ever let you go through, let alone in such a permanent way. Things like that make the game feel so immersive."

"The first time you go into a pipe in Super Mario Bros. and it takes you to a whole other world? Man, it was the first game where I felt like the sky was the limit: there was just this unlimited potential in that game."

There's something wonderfully pulpy about Spelunky's original artwork.

Is it surprising that the creator of Spelunky really likes Dark Souls? Or that, when he talks about the things that happen in Dark Souls, he could be describing the things that happen in his own game, too? Demanding, rigorous, thrillingly riddled with barbed complexity, both titles feel like characterful expressions of a very similar approach to design.

Want another example? Check this out: "There are secrets in Dark Souls where - this seems novel now - they don't expect you to find the secret," says Yu, his voice fairly cracking with delighted awe. "In so many games, if there isn't a sign right next to the secret, they wouldn't even put it in the game.

"Then there's tactical stuff. So many times when I'm fighting a boss or a monster and I finish a battle, I'll feel like I've done it in such a strange way. I remember one fight where I slowly led the boss up to the top of these steps. The way the boss is designed, he can't really attack anything below him. I got him above me on the steps, and then I very awkwardly poked him to death. It took forever. On the one hand, it feels kind of broken. On the other hand, it's awesome. Instead of just going through the motions and patterns that the developers put in place for me, I really feel like I came up with something for myself."

Yu's not shy about coming up with things for himself. The designer and illustrator's been thinking about games since his cousin introduced him to Super Mario Bros. when he was a kid. Uh-oh. Here's the old Mario Bros. origin story: what really made the game stand out back then? The physics? The scrolling?

"Honestly, I kind of want to say it was the pipes," laughs Yu, and, whoever you are, wherever you are, if you've played the game, you'll instantly know exactly what he means. Those pipes! The mystery of it all! Chug Chug Chug! "The first time you go into a pipe in Super Mario Bros. and it takes you to a whole other world? Man, it was the first game where I felt like the sky was the limit: there was just this unlimited potential in that game.

"When you're a kid, you really soak this stuff up. For someone like me - I liked drawing, I liked creating my own little worlds on paper - to actually be able to move around in one was just huge. Especially the fact that my parents didn't actually own the Nintendo. I only got to play it when I was at my cousin's. It was like having a nice dream or something like that: every now and then you'd have this great dream that would open up this whole new world for you.

"That Super Mario Bros. feeling of possibility is something that I love about games," he continues. "And part of it, I think, has to do with the nature of all the best video games. Especially back in the day when things were so open: the bugs and glitches in games just added to that effect that there was more to the game than there actually was. Minus World in Super Mario Bros., right? It's a programming error, but it becomes this incredible lore for the game. That is something that I miss somewhat in modern games, where they've become a little more streamlined. It's harder to find a game that piques my imagination the way those old games did. Partly, of course, that's because when you're a kid you don't see any of the smoke and mirrors, but part of it's also the fact that the nature of games has changed a little bit."

Spelunky's probably Yu's most famous game, and since 2009 when it was released for free on PC, it's been kindling exactly these kind of emotions in the players who venture into its caverns and grottoes. It's a roguelike that looks like a platformer, and each time you load it up, the game performs a few quick-fingered tricks with randomisation. Certain things - the level layouts, the arrangements of enemies, the locations of numerous treasures - get shuffled around in the dealing, but other things remain fixed and consistent. Bats always swoop at you and frogs always hop, the arc of the adventure always takes you from mine to jungle to ice field to temple, and the same arcane combinations of items will always open up the routes to - well, perhaps you should find that bit out for yourself. It's a great game, but it's not Yu's debut. Not by a long shot.

"That Super Mario Bros. feeling of possibility is something that I love about games. And part of it, I think, has to do with the nature of all the best video games."

Eternal Daughter has aged really well, and remains a clever and generous adventure.

"I definitely started drawing seriously first," says Yu when asked about the beginnings of his creative ambitions. "Game-making started as an extension of that. I'd just draw game ideas on paper. I have a good friend called Jon Perry who I've known since second grade: we'd just draw together all the time, creating games in our school books. It wasn't until Klik & Play came out that we actually started making games. It wasn't until then that we could."

Klik & Play was a streamlined game development tool released for PCs in the mid 1990s, and it may yet turn out to have been one of the secret engines driving the current crop of inventive, personable, low-budget games. Other veterans of Klik & Play college include Zach Gage, for example, who's probably best known for the fiendishly claustrophobic word puzzler Spelltower, or for Lose/Lose: a spin on Space Invaders in which each enemy you kill deletes a random file from your computer. Proceed with caution when it comes to that one. Actually, maybe don't proceed at all?

"I think Klik & Play really did spawn a whole generation of game developers - especially independent game developers," says Yu. "I think that's just down to the nature of the tool. It had a really simple scripting editor, it had built-in sprite editors and it had everything you needed to make a game. I think the generation that grew up with it, they got very good at handling all aspects of game creation. It's kind of unique to this generation to have people who are interested in the programming and the artwork and the music and whatever else."

Yu's first Klik & Play project was a two-player deathmatch title called Trigger Happy. "I did all the sprites myself," says Yu, with an unmistakable hint of playground pride still in place, "and I put it up on AOL, which was the place to be at the time. I got a fantastic response from people, from strangers. I was already hooked, but that was definitely a very exciting moment to get an email from a stranger like that."

More games followed, Yu often working alongside Perry, with whom he formed a label called Blackeye Software. The culmination of all this was Eternal Daughter, a complex blend of platforming and RPG progression that leaned heavily on the Metroidvania template. The duo started working on the project towards the end of high school in 2000, and assumed they'd finish it in the summer holidays before college. The game continued to grow in scope, however, and it would eventually take two years to complete.

"It was tough. I don't remember ever feeling that this is never going to end, though," laughs Yu. "You just get a feeling for the day-to-day thing. You know you have to keep working and I actually enjoy that kind of development. A game actually feels like this nice steady constant in your life. No matter what else is going on, you feel like there's this thing that you can always make a bit of progress on. Then, once you get past it, you survived, and that feels great. It's been like that with every big project I've been on."

Coming from Spelunky, the sense of calm in Aquaria's early levels is a real surprise.

Eternal Daughter's protracted development at least prepared Yu for Aquaria, another Metroidvania-style PC game he released in 2007 in collaboration with Alec Holowka. Yu and Holowka met while working on I'm Okay - A Murder Simulator, a project that was designed around a brief laid out by infamous anti-gaming zealot Jack Thompson. "We were the most dedicated people on I'm Okay, and we had plenty of time to chat while we were waiting around for other people to do their stuff," says Yu. "In the end, he showed me a prototype for this game called Aquaria where you controlled a mermaid using a mouse. It was very short, but I thought it was cool, and I started working on it with him and we kept working on it after I'm Okay was finished. Pretty organically, we just decided to make it a full game together. It's kind of scary, actually, how easily we decided to just devote two years of our lives to it."

Aquaria was another step up, not just in scope but in polish. Beautiful and otherworldly, the game's intricate levels are tied together by a neat system that sees you learning different songs in order to use different powers. With smart puzzles and dreamy mouse-based traversal, it's a game with a strong sense of place and character. Play through Yu's games in reverse order, though, and you'll be in for a shock: Aquaria is a clockwork universe that has little in common with Spelunky's brand of freeform chaos. If anything, it actually feels like the inverse of Yu's hectic roguelike.

"I think that's exactly right," says Yu. "In fact, the original Spelunky came about as a way to get some relief after Aquaria, which was a very exacting game to work on. I remember working on Aquaria, using the level editor Alec had built, spending all this time just placing rocks and plants in these very specific ways, and moving something literally a quarter of an inch at a time. Spelunky was a pet project and it was definitely my means of getting away from that: giving up some of my control, and actually relaxing a little bit."

"A game actually feels like this nice steady constant in your life. No matter what else is going on, you feel like there's this thing that you can always make a bit of progress on."

You could almost certainly have avoided this sort of problem.

Ah, Spelunky: with its emergent clusters of Yetis, UFOs, and Jackal-headed freaks. Spelunky with its dead ends and its Tiki trap tennis. Spelunky with its endless array of fatal surprises. Of all the games you'll ever play, this one seems like the most fun to actually make. You can almost picture Yu getting the basic level randomisation down and then just, you know, adding stuff, like an amoral but fiercely imaginative zoo keeper who's decided to see what really happens when the lions share a food bowl with the lambs.

"Spelunky was definitely a lot of fun to work on," laughs Yu. "With the randomised elements, it's the kind of game where you get to experience the game as a player over and over again for the entire length of development - definitely a lot more than with Aquaria. It's definitely a lot more fun to make and test something like that.

"After I finished Aquaria, I picked up GameMaker, and to learn it, I just made a bunch of very small games," he explains. "Once I realised what Spelunky was going to be, it was just a case of taking all of those ideas and turning them into something coherent. I think game development works like that a lot of the time - it feels like you're taking the good pieces out of all these ideas that are just floating around, and you're trying to make the right connections with them. Is this a game that I'm going to enjoy working on? Is this a game that I'm going to want? Is it intellectually challenging enough to work on? Is it going to add something new to video games? These are all these little requirements that I think game developers have when they decide to invest a good portion of their lives to working on a new game.

"For me, whether I'm drawing or working on a game, I feel I'm creating fragments of ideas in my head: creating a chaos, and then pulling pieces of that chaos into something coherent. So the level-generating algorithm fundamentally came from this very simple Roguelike game I made that was just a series of square rooms next to each other, for example. There were no hallways like most games: it was just a grid where some rooms connected and some wouldn't. Those rooms became the fragments of each level that gets pieced together randomly, and into that I threw a load of those different platform games I'd been messing with."

Was there a single point where Yu realised how entertaining his new game was going to be? "You know, I never had that," he says. "I was definitely having a lot of fun, but I never thought, 'Oh, man, other people are going to love this.' I think that was a really good thing, actually. With Aquaria, we had a lot of expectations about the game, and that can add a lot of stress to the development. With Spelunky, I was always planning on releasing it at some point, but I didn't spend a lot of time thinking, 'Are people going to get this?' It really freed me up. Spelunky was all about freedom, really. After working on two large projects with other people - both great guys - the fact of working with other people so intensely on something means you want your alone time as a developer, too. Spelunky just represented my break from all of that. I could just focus on what I wanted entirely."

Yu's still playing Spelunky today, even after working with Andy Hull for another couple of years on the brilliant Xbox 360 version. "I like the fact that it feels very much like me and all the things that I enjoy about games," he says. "Not just the gameplay but also the artwork. I feel like everything fits together. I like the detail in the game: the tiny details in how things work, and how that's reflected in the artwork. The style has a lot of heavy details in each tile, and then there's the way that those tiles come together. I've always loved that about video games, how all these little pieces come together to make a game, and how this looks on the screen. It feels like everything has its place."

What's next? Yu admits that after Spelunky, "I'm really itching to make actual levels again."

"I'm already playing around with a couple of ideas on GameMaker again," he says. "Without getting too much into specifics, I'm going back to well-trodden arcadey type designs. After Aquaria, I think this is a little bit of a reaction to Spelunky now, so I'm into tightly designed, everything's-thought-out sort of games. Part of it is just to prove to myself that I can still do it, but also, I think, I really want to be able to do those classic game designs. I feel that, as a game designer, there are these fundamental ideas, and I want to be able to feel like I've mastered them. If I was a chef, I'd want to be able to make sure I could make basic dishes really nicely, and see if there was anything else I could glean from them. These genres that people are very familiar with? I want to make sure I can do them well. I want to make sure my understanding of the fundamentals of game design is good."

Read this next