Eirik Phlogiston Suhrke and Derek Yu

At this year's Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Spelunky is sharing a large booth with Steph Thirion's independently developed iOS game Faraway.

For those following Mossmouth's ambitious enhanced remake, bound for Xbox Live Arcade later this year, this weekend's PAX Prime expo marks an important milestone in the game's development. For the first time, designer Derek Yu and music composer Eirik "Phlogiston" Suhrke are meeting in real life.

We had the chance to catch up with the game creators at the Washington State Convention Center to hear about their collaboration on the new Spelunky.

At your GDC presentation you spoke about how Spelunky for Xbox Live Arcade is more than just a straight port, closer to a reimagining of the game. How do you see the console edition building on the PC release?

Derek Yu: For me it felt like we were condensing twenty years of videogame history into a few years of development. The original Spelunky could have come out in the '80s. Now we're doing the 2011 remake of that old game, except it all happened in the span of four years.

What would you describe as some of the more modern design elements of the XBLA release?

DY: The graphics and the music getting upgraded and redone, really opened up the game, in a way. I feel like the original game was pretty complete. Seeing the new graphics and hearing the new music made it feel like the world was bigger, so we could add more to it.

Eirik Phlogiston Suhrke: In terms of the music, I use FM synthesizers from '86 and software from the early '90s. It's very old school, in a sense. But I also recorded live drums, guitar, saxophone and hand claps, which could not have been done twenty years ago. This was to make the music fit with both the old school gameplay and new hand-drawn artwork.

Is this a developer that you were familiar with previously, for instance with Derek's contributions to Aquaria, and have you noticed a sense of a personal signature in his design?

ES: It was probably through Eternal Daughter, before Aquaria. That's where I discovered the guy. (laughs) I think there's a lot of focus on the game worlds that includes both the gameplay and the context. Because the atmosphere of the world is so rich, you feel that you can put yourself there and live in it. It's more than gameplay that you can play, but the feeling of a universe you can be a part of.

Alec Holowka has used the term "holistic game design" to refer to building each element of a game--like the art, gameplay and sound--not simply to serve its own interests but to fit a unified, well integrated whole. When you participate in a collaborative multimedia project, do you look for your music to function this way?

ES: I am always interested in how one kind of media affects another kind of media. That's why whenever I release a music album, I try to think very carefully about the art that goes with it.

For all the media that you connect to each other, like connecting a piece of music to a lyric or an image, it grows exponentially in how enriching that experience can be for you. That's what makes me think of games as the ultimate form of art, because there you have everything.


You've flown all the way from Norway to be here for your first Penny Arcade Expo?

ES: Yeah, this is the first time I'm meeting Derek and coder Andy Hull. It's really exciting, after having worked together for close to two years.

Was there something in particular that you were looking for in this collaboration?

DY: The important thing for me before we started working together was that I like Eirik and I like his music. That way I could entrust a lot of the design to him, in fitting the music to the game. It's the kind of thing that I really do not like micromanaging at all. I'm not a musician, so I want to work with someone who doesn't require too much instruction from me.

As a musician, what do you seek to gain from working with other people?

ES: The thing for me about collaboration in general, I have this philosophy that everything you do is going to be derivative of all your influences, no matter how much you want it to be original. As soon as you begin collaborating, the amount of sources that you're "ripping off" grows exponentially, making the product less derivative as soon as you start passing ideas back and forth.

It's kind of a paradox, isn't it? The concept that the more people you're ripping off, the less derivative the work becomes.

ES: Yeah. You can make something completely original, but it's going to pass under the radar because it needs to be familiar to some extent in order to be likeable. On the one hand, the formula is necessary. On the other hand, it's the anomalies from the formula that make it stand out and make it interesting.

Neither of you are hermetically sealed off and toiling away in isolation. You're in touch with a lot of other creative types through TIGSource and Pause Music. The Mossmouth forums have also served as a platform for introducing the Spelunky music, through extended posts with samples from the soundtrack. How do these forums add to your personal creative endeavors?

DY: TIGSource is a way for me to get out of the very insular headspace of working on a game, especially a long project, while still staying in the sphere of gaming. Ever since I got on the internet I've been starting forums and websites. I really like the interaction--meeting people who are like-minded and discussing the craft.

ES: Rich [Vreeland] and I started working on Pause in 2006. We had been on a bunch of netlabels that had come and gone, so we were just looking for a stable place to release our music. Friends of ours wanted that, too. And it didn't take long before people started sending us demos. But we hadn't thought of it as a "netlabel" as much as an input/output.

Do you see the catalog as an appropriate venue for an eventual Spelunky soundtrack album?

ES: We do have a sub-section on Pause specifically dedicated to releasing soundtracks. It would be very natural to put it out there.


In advance of the game's release, you have created a line of miniature figures. Does making toys in the physical space based on these purely digital characters help spark your imagination while working on the game?

DY: I really just wanted to make them for fun, but making something physical does also add to the creation of the game.

Everything that we're doing is digital. There's not even a box that the game comes in. To have a physical representation of the game, something that people can put on their desks or play with in three dimensions, makes this world feel more alive. I think it makes a difference in how people perceive the game.

To find out more about developer Mossmouth and Pause Music, visit the official websites. Images courtesy of Derek Yu. Photo by Jeriaska. For more images from PAX Prime 2011, see our flickr photo set.