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Bangkok Dispatch: Spelunking Our Way Through Life

I no longer know how many times I'd gotten within sight of my goal, only to see it slip out of my grasp. Having carried that key—that blasted key!--all the way from the mines to the final stage of the ice caves, my head would fill with visions of the happy moment in which I'd finally hand it over to the Tunnel Man and earn my reward of a shortcut to the temple, when suddenly, misfortune would befall me yet again. I'd be frozen solid by the icy breath of a mammoth, or get trampled by a yeti, or plummet forever into the bottomless abyss.

Misfortune comes in so many wonderful flavors in Spelunky, and you're left with nothing to show for your almost-victories except the knowledge you take with you. You can choose to feel bitter about coming so close and then losing everything you'd worked so hard for. Or you can choose to take encouragement from it, to recognize that if you got this close this time, next time, you might get a little bit closer still. Next time, you might even succeed.

I started the key run many, many times. Last Friday, I finally finished it.

When I finally completed the key run, it was the night of Friday, January 10th here in Bangkok, and I was less than 12 hours away from doing one of the scariest, most personally momentous things I've ever done. I thought about the lessons that video games have taught me that I've taken with me on my journey through life. The games I grew up with were hard as hell. They were cold and unforgiving, and overcoming their challenges demanded grit and determination. It's often said that games today don't demand as much of us, and by and large, I'd say that's true, but there are still those rare, exceptional games like Spelunky and Dark Souls that teach us that nothing worth having comes easily. They push us to earn each and every little victory, and in doing so, they make each little victory meaningful. As it should be.

Part of the reason I love these games so much is because of the way they mirror our lives. Our lives are full of struggles large and small. Victories and setbacks and failures. And although, if we're lucky, we can take comfort and support from family and friends, in the end, there are some things we just need to face on our own.

We all have our battles and challenges in this life. In my life, many of those challenges have been rooted in the fact that I'm transgender, and my ongoing quest to deal with this is what brought me to Thailand. I'm here to have what's referred to as facial feminization surgery. This was something I decided was an important part of my transition as a transgender woman. One of the biggest triggers of my own feelings of gender dysphoria (the deeply unpleasant sense of disconnection between my internal identity and the gender I was assigned at birth) is my face, specifically those particular aspects of my face that lead people to read it as male. Facial feminization surgery aims to reduce or eliminate those aspects.

Link's adventures have been making me feel like a hero since the 80s.

In Spelunky, where the world is made anew each time you play, every game is an adventure into the unknown. Life itself is often a journey into the unknown, too, and so it is with me and FFS. Of course, there are before-and-after photos of other women who have undergone these procedures, so I have some idea of what the results might be like. But at the same time, every face is different, and there are limitations. How significant will the changes be for me? When this is over, will strangers consistently see me correctly as a woman, or will my jawline still lead people to put me in the boy box? Only time will tell. I spent the first two days of my time here in Thailand sightseeing, visiting sacred places, meditating, looking for a tranquil place inside myself that could accept whatever the next steps of my journey bring or don't bring.

Right now, I'm recovering from the surgery in my hotel room, my face swollen up like a puffer fish. I'm passing the time with books, and movies, and, of course, games. Heroic quests, mainly: Spelunky, and Final Fantasy VI (Thank you, Vita!), and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. All games that speak to us on some level because, like these games, our own lives are quests. Sometimes we know where those quests will take us and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we know what we're looking for, and sometimes we don't. But we have to keep looking anyway.

On Friday night, when I'd finally completed the key run, I texted a friend to share the news of my long-awaited, hard-earned triumph with him. “What's next? Hell?” he asked, referring to Spelunky's true final stage, a tremendous challenge merely to reach, let alone conquer.

“Next is Olmec!” I replied, referring to the boss of the temple. “Then, eventually, maybe hell. One step at a time, in Spelunky as in life.”


What sort of facial feminization surgery did you do?


Glad to hear that you're recovering well after the surgery! Also your colleagues did a same screen co-op yama run in your absence. Good times.

chicknfeet moderator

Congrats Caro. I know this is a big step in an exciting direction. And hopefully you are able to get through Spelunky by the time you're fully recovered. Don't want to mess up your surgery with any frown lines you get from getting killed by another yeti ;-p


Great read! Hope you have a good recovery, and carry on writing kick ass stuff! Also congrats on the key run, I completed the same recently and I the feeling was incredible! Working on my hell run atm, though I should probably be focusing on getting to Olmec with less resources first :P

zyxe moderator moderator

Another excellent read. I can't wait until the blog feed is active (assuming it will be implemented) so that I can be sure not to miss future updates on both your gaming, and FFS! Best of luck!!!

Allicrombie moderator moderator

Everyone seems to be so obsessed with Spelunky lately.  I'm starting to feel left out by not having played it.  =P


Very nice and very true article. I wish you all the best with the recovery. And i hope the result is everything you wish for it to be. You are a brave woman and I am very excited for you :-) 


An excellent article and I enjoyed reading it. I hope this makes you as happy as you feel it should.

c_rakestraw moderator moderator

Good to hear the procedure went well. Hope the recovery goes just as splendidly.

I've been really getting into Spelunky recently thanks to all recent Spelunky streams going on between GameSpot and Giant Bomb. It's fantastic. I don't think I've ever felt such a strong sense of loss and victory out of a game before, especially over such small, incremental progress. It's incredibly well done.

Zorine moderator staffmoderator

YES CARO! Smash through both those real-life and in-game quests! FIGHTING!

Sidburn19 moderator

All the best Caro, I hope everything turns out the way you wanted it to and you feel happy with your new look. No matter the changes you will always be Caro to me.

I've been watching Tom, Chris and Shaun playing Spelunky recently and have been itching to start playing it. I'm hoping it will be one of the games that is added to Playstation Plus so I can play it.

carolynmichelle moderator staff

@Sidburn19 Thank you so much, Sid! I really appreciate that. I'm looking forward to getting back to the office, not least so that I can join in on the Spelunky shenanigans!