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Roguelikes, Part 1: Into the Maw


First, A Joke

A Thief, a Tourist, and a Barbarian walk into a bar. The bartender randomizes the drinks, two of them are booby-trapped. The Barbarian asks the Thief to check for traps. The Thief points to one of the drinks, indicating that it is not trapped. The Barbarian lifts the drink to his lips and promptly explodes. The Tourist asks the Thief to check for traps on the two remaining drinks. The Thief points to one of the drinks, indicating that it is not trapped. The Tourist, after seeing the Barbarian duped by the Thief, lifts the opposite drink to his lips and promptly melts. The Thief smiles at the bartender and lifts the last remaining cup. “Cheers!”, says the Thief and takes a hearty draught. The Thief metamophoses into a frog. The ex-Thief looks up hard at the bartender, who notes, “S’pose you should’a ident’fied it first, yea?”

Maybe I should explain. I’ve been playing quite a lot of what are known as roguelikes in recent weeks. “Roguelike” is a term you’ve probably heard before to describe certain games. FTL, Dungeons of Dredmor, and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon are all examples of modern roguelikes. These games seem wildly different on the surface, which may cause some confusion about what the term actually means. Is it a setting? A group of game mechanics? A level of difficulty? Or is “roguelike” just another meaningless marketing buzzword? Stay with me and I can answer a lot of questions you might have.

Roguelikes: Defined

The term is mainly used to imply a genre of adventure/role-playing video games, but the definition is often soft and variously interpreted.

Game critics and journalists can generally be found defining the genre as one featuring:

  • Permanent character death. No saves, no extra lives, just the unblinking stare of the black abyss await those who foolishly fight archers in tunnels.
  • Predominantly randomized elements. Level design, enemy placement, even character class and starting equipment can be procedurally generated. The more randomization, the better a game suits the definition of roguelike.
  • Steep difficulty curve. From the get-go, these games tend to be very hard. A character might find herself bleeding out and poisoned on the first level of a dungeon if things don’t go her way.
  • Replayability. Because of the above points, roguelikes appeal to both a gamer’s sadism at sending adventurers into the dark maw of a dungeon, as well as his masochism at being beaten by a randomized set of procedural algorithms over and over again. Since roguelike fans tend to have a strong sense of cruelty*, it is nearly human exploitation to charge money for this kind of game.

* This is a joke. I don’t actually think that the poor sods who play roguelikes are cruel, vicious, and objectively evil… That’s the developers.

The original game which popularized the genre was a Unix title named Rogue (Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman, 1980), hence the term “roguelike”. You begin the game as a happy face in what seems like a box. Only a little break in the side of the box shows any clue about what to do. Using the numpad, you nagivate your little character to the side of the box and into.. a tunnel? There are more of these little boxy rooms to explore, as well as nefarious K’s and semi-colons with which you need to do battle against. Use your wits, your inventory, and know when to run away if you want to survive to find the stairs and descend to level 2 of the dungeon. That’s the game in a nutshell. Rogue was very well received at the time (being included in a popular Unix distribution helped with that) and in the following years generated quite a large cult fanbase. The game made it to legendary status, being ranked among the most influential/best games of all time by several sources.

Splitting the Genre

Then came the Rogue clones, droves of them. Tons and tons of games were later released which shared most of the same mechanics, direction, and theme as Rogue proper. Chief among these, and somewhat splitting the fanbase of the genre, were Hack (1984, now Nethack) and Moria (1983). Hack featured persistent dungeon levels, which means that once the player triggers the generation of a new level, that level can be returned to as long as the character which generated it is alive. Moria introduced endlessly randomized level generation and overworld mechanics, as well as delving into a bit of Tolkien mythos on the way. You begin Moria on the overworld, which we can call level 0 or “town” for the sake of brevity, and can enter the first level of the dungeon at your leisure. Once the level is generated, you can return to town to buy equipment and heal up, but when you do the level is “forgotten” by the game and will need to generate a whole new and different first level once you delve back inside. These are the two main branches of the roguelike tree from which all other flowers bloom… And bloom they do, in huge bouquets.

Return next week when we discuss what Berlin has to say about the subject, also a counterpoint to the hard definition that was created there in 2008.

What do you think about roguelikes; are they archaic and outdated; are they still any fun? Let us know in the comments!

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