Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Roguelike Why? Why Like Rogue?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 21, 2014

rogueIt’s kind of weird to imagine that roguelikes have become such a popular genre lately. I’ve grown up with them being a niche for the geeks’ geek.

I guess I should have known better. Long before I met her, my wife was a fan of the original Rogue. She’s not much of a gamer. But now her game of choice is a roguelike on her Kindle. Back when I was addicted to Moria back in the early 90s, my big, admittedly naive thought was that it was only a graphics and UI overhaul from being one of the most awesome commercial RPGs ever made (at the time). Diablo and similar games have enjoyed tremendous success borrowing from the roguelike playbook with procedural content.

And now, the field has gotten so broad that we’ve started referring to roguelike-likes (or “Procedural Death Labyrinths,” as my friend Lars Doucet likes to refer to them).

My first “complete” RPG – for the Commodore 64 – could arguably be called a roguelike. I never released it, but it was around the same time as the commercial release of Rogue. It was a simple, procedurally-generated world in a ten-level dungeon of 10×10 rooms. It had a nasty lock-up bug in it that prevented it from being played too long. I never found out what it was, but I thought it had something to do with the C64s garbage collection system in BASIC. I had fun playing it with some friends, though.

Oh, yeah, and it was party-based.  Booyah!

There are as many debates out there as to the meaning of “roguelikes” (and “roguelike-likes”) as there have been for the meaning of “role-playing game.” I agree, it’s a lousy term, but people understand it. But being “like” Rogue isn’t necessarily the big point of appeal for me. And honestly, of some of the roguelikes I’ve played lately, I feel like things have gone backwards a bit. Maybe I’ve just been playing the wrong ones, but they feel… dumbed-down, and overly mechanical.

Sure, roguelikes have always been about numbers and managing risk and resources. After all, their predecessors were based on early role-playing games (mainly Dungeons & Dragons), and that was the core mechanic of the early RPGs. It’s fun and compelling. But the dice-and-paper RPGs they emulated way back when were about so much more. Likewise, later in the evolution of the roguelike “genre,” the games were full of all kinds of fun, weird, and often surprising stuff, with lots of challenging decisions to make as the player.

Now, it seems in the indie rush, we’re back to the nothing more than the nuts and bolts of attrition and risk management in combat, and not much else. I appreciate that some developers are really exploring this mechanic to its limits, seeing how much fun they can take the purity of the gameplay. And yeah, we know that simplicity sells. Sometimes. But sometimes, it feels like developers are just phoning it in, cloning the basics without caring why.

Nethack_VEBut for a guy who has experienced the richness of games like Nethack (not that I’m a hardcore Nethack player), Moria, and many other games… these games can feel a little shallow. Not that I’m expecting commercial titles to match Nethack. But when even Diablo, optimized for fast-action play, feels more deep and interesting, I gotta wonder what’s up.

Now, as for me – I’m an RPG geek. I like roguelikes because of their RPG flavor, not because of their math. I want immersive experiences that challenge my skills, not randomized puzzle games involving monsters. Sure, the more you play a game, the more you become aware of the math and numbers and probabilities behind it, like Neo finally seeing the code behind the Matrix. But by the time I get to that point, I’ve already committed to the context.

For me, for a good roguelike, I’m looking for two things. First, I want interesting procedural content. The word “interesting” could be interpreted a number of different ways, but I generally think of it as having a lot of variety and non-trivial interactions. I want something that would continue to surprise and intrigue me even if I had been the one to create the game.

Secondly, I want a deep rules system that is fun to explore. Yes, I’m talking about exploring a rules system. I would like to play with it, try all kinds of different things, discover all kinds of optimizations, and never really feel like I’ve fully “mastered” it. I think it was Keith Burgun who drew a comparison for roguelikes with the ancient game of Go. It’s a pretty simple set of rules (even simpler than Chess), but the permutations and context make it infinitely challenging by the time you have more than a couple of stones on the board.  The depth has nothing to do with the simplicity or complexity of the rules, but more in how context can quickly make determining the “best” action a very difficult decision, even if you have perfect knowledge of the game state and no randomness.

Permadeath? You know, I’m on the fence about this. I know it’s kind of a requirement for a game to be considered a roguelike. The great thing about permadeath isn’t about the current game coming to a permanent end. It’s about the risk of the current game coming to a permanent end. It makes each decision more meaningful. Again, the origin of this mechanic was a combination of technical limitations of the old days and the emulation of dice-and-paper gaming, where there was no such thing as a saved game (and rarely would a game master allow a “takeback”). But it does inhibit the player’s freedom of exploration a bit, depending on the game.

receiver-gameI’m definitely not a purist (but what else is new?). I’m quite pleased with how much the ‘roguelike’ genre is expanding (and outgrowing its restrictions).  I love seeing games like FTL and Receiver which take some of the core ideas of the genre but run with them in radically different directions. The graphics don’t bug me – though I do note that a lot of the power of some roguelikes to have some fascinating content was that they were able to present them textually or via very abstract graphics. The imagination is still the most powerful rendering hardware.

So what about you? Do you play and enjoy roguelikes? If so, what do you like about them. If not, why not?

Filed Under: Roguelikes - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Felix said,

    I love the idea of a roguelike, but only found a few of them to my liking. The original Rogue — an excellent and still very playable game. Tyrant, up to a point. Lost Layrinth, for a while. POWDER, on and off, though it annoyed the heck out of me. Also pretty much any of the experimental games by Ondřej Žára, which I gushed about on my blog. Most roguelikes, however, just fall flat on their faces for me.

    To be honest, that’s because making a good roguelike is hard. I made several attempts, and only succeeded (twice) when I cut down my scope to what little fits into a ZX Spectrum’s RAM. And I still have much to learn about the art of making these games.

    But no, I don’t in fact think permadeath is all that important. Fun is important. If players are having fun, they won’t even mind dying. And fun is an elusive quality in games.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m all for permadeath and likely wouldn’t play a rogue-like without it. That said, upgrades that carry over between plays are fair game.

    For me, it’s all about the replay. I like to a short experience that plays very differently each time. I need different characters who PLAY differently, different item builds, fundamentally different levels, etc.

  • Silemess said,

    I’m another fan of Rogue-likes. They’re not the only thing I play, but they are a genre I care for greatly. You hit on the two points I like about the, procedurally generated and perma death. Would your friend mind if I starting quoting him? “Procedural Death Labyrinths” is just too perfect a phrase for them.

    Rogue-likes get my like because of that different start and overall world each time. You can’t optimize for a specific location or item because you don’t know when you’ll get them. You have to weigh the benefits, without having all the risks be known givens.

    That’s also why rogue-likes are only one of the types of games I play. Sometimes, there’s something to be said for not continually being taken by surprise but having a decent idea of the right way to go. If I had to choose though, I’d go with a rogue-like over a 4X. Just because I’d be less likely to get bored, even though I’m more likely to get frustrated.

  • Noumenon72 said,

    I don’t like roguelikes at all. They make that feeling of progress that games give you into a lie. That said, I spend a good 25 hours on Pixel Dungeon for Android and would recommend it even though I refuse to play it any more.

  • Nachtfischer said,

    Thankfully we are slowly but surely rediscovering what strategy games actually are about: Decisions and consequences. And to support that we simply need a way to lose (“permadeath”). Also, we need to make sure that the system doesn’t degrade into a puzzle that you just learn the solution to. The latter is the reason why we need some form of randomization to make sure that the player will always actually make decisions instead of just inputting the solution.

    By far most video games of the last decades were (extremely elaborate) puzzles with little to no dynamic gameplay, most of them trying to be like movies on top of that (thereby completely disrespecting the uniqueness of the artform of creating interactive systems). Today we’re finally getting away from that idea again.

    The only reason we associate these “features” (actually they’re really just necessities) with Rogue is that roguelikes have been this bastion of actual meaningful decision-making in the gaming world for a long time. Most of today’s “roguelikes” are not at all like Rogue, except for these two fundamental necessities of strategy games. I know, people have thus invented terms like “roguelike-like” or “rogue-lite”, but in any case it really doesn’t have all that much to do with Rogue anymore.

    Anyways, because we’re rediscovering these things, it’s an amazing time to be a gamer! 😉

  • ShadowTiger said,

    I have only played angband. I really enjoyed that game and i think the D&D inspired mechanics were a big part of that. Newer games like TOME are just not as fun for me.

    I agree that drawing inspiration from rogue and its variants can help make some fun new games, but they are usually too simple or shallow. I dont want to feel like luck is a bigger factor than skill when i play, and the inability to save and load prevents one from mastering the systems in an efficient way. I for one dont have time to restart from scratch more than a few times.

    I look forward to when I find one i like more than the old classics.

  • AtkinsSJ said,

    I’d like to suggest Dungeonmans as a roguelike I’ve been having fun with. The key feature is that you’re playing in a fairly-persistent world, so even though your characters will die, there’s a sense you’re still making progress. It’s the sort of thing I’d like to see more of in roguelikes.

  • Paul said,

    I still play a lot of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. For what it’s worth, I like the permadeath (even though I’m not not particularly good at avoiding stupid and careless deaths). I think it makes my achievements feel meaningful, because I am facing real challenges. That said, I like the idea of games that take roguelikes in different directions. I think the term “roguelike-likes” or something like it is a good way to distinguish classic/old-school roguelikes from “games that are sort of roguelikes, but doing other things too”, so that people who only want to play the former and people who are really more interested in the latter can be clear what they are talking about.