The roguelike is a genre that has been gaining momentum and popularity, or so it appears to the bystander. The indie scene is being flooded with games that announce themselves as roguelikes, roguelike-likes or the newest word-salad: rogue-lites.
When talking about the roguelike genre I will be thinking of the classical view, the Berlin Interpretation. This is not to say that I am a purist and will try to force the Berlin Interpretation to the single last item on the list, however; roguelikes as a genre have a discoverable design-philosophy behind them, an irreducibly complex core, which makes them what they are for a reason.
When talking about the roguelike the first association to jump to is usually their random nature. Random levels, random enemies/placement and random loot is often seen as an indicator for a roguelike. More often than not, these elements are also held against them as being arbitrary or unfair, especially when coupled with another staple of the genre: Perma-Death (the permanent death of a character). Players often confuse these elements as the test itself when in reality they are just the elements that make up the test.
Historically, the roguelike comes from the game Rogue (1980) and hence as a genre description falls somewhere in line with “Doom Clone”, which we have since abandoned as a descriptor for First-Person Shooters.
The original Rogue was a loose adaptation of the Dungeons And Dragons license in which the player explored a multi-level dungeon with procedurally generated floors. The computing limitations at that time prevented high quality graphical output and so the game was entirely displayed in stylized ASCII format, with the ‘@’ signifying the player position. Other characters denoted either obstacles, rooms, items or enemies, often additionally color-coded with upper and lower case lettering.
For the longest time this method became a staple of roguelikes and the genre was often criticized for its arcane interface, and rightfully so. This overcomplicated display and control method earned the roguelike a reputation of being notoriously inaccessible and punishing towards players. Today’s traditional roguelikes have, more often than not, done little to alleviate this problem of accessibility.
The perception of roguelikes is currently predicated on their random nature, which I consider to be a wrong interpretation of their mechanics. I even consider the usage of the word “random” in this context to be a misunderstanding. Roguelikes are not random. Their design uses random elements to simulate variance in the test-environment; in other words, the randomization is not where the game is at.
As an example, Poker (the card game) also features an element of chance in its design. The dealer (or player) draws from a deck of 52 randomized cards and players try to complete card sequences that have varying values. However, drawing the cards and successful completing a sequence is not the game itself. The game proper is a mixture of tactics and strategy with elements of psychology and mathematics. If summarized, it could be described as “playing the odds” in the sense of consistently making informed decisions that will most likely lead to success.
When looking at one round of Poker, the game can seem entirely arbitrary and random. However, over multiple games, a pattern will crystallize that separates the players with good decisions from the ones with bad decisions.
The typical roguelike behaves similarly in that the irreducibly complex center is a test of consistently making the best decision that lead to success, reinforced with permanent lasting consequences (perma-death). As an example, the decision to use a health-potion that refills 90% of the player’s health when they are at 50% is a strategically bad decision. In this instance, resources were managed badly when there existed the possibility of needing that extra 40% later.
Furthermore, roguelikes are not entirely random in their nature but rather present a limited variance in the mentioned test-environment. Procedurally generated dungeons/levels/floors often have specific limitations on enemies, items and hazards that can spawn, often limited by their level compared to the dungeon/floor level. It is highly unlikely or, depending on game impossible, to be pitted against completely impossible odds and fight creatures that are entirely unbeatable. (f.ex. encountering Elder Dragons on Floor 1)
Traditionally, roguelikes are very challenging because they expect the player to always perform at the peak of their ability and hence they treat newcomers with the same harshness they would a seasoned veteran of the game. This is not a bad thing, as the design of roguelikes relies on the permanent consequences that befall the player as a teaching-tool. The sooner the player realizes that every action and every decision counts towards beating the game in the long term, the sooner they start to learn to try and perform smartly. It is a test for the ability to create a best-case scenario but plan for the worst-case scenario.
In a way, the mechanism is there to discourage the player early on from treating the challenges with indifference or relying on his characters statistics to beat them. Contrary to public perception, roguelikes do not substitute the player’s prowess with stats and levels (as f.ex. RPGs tend to do) of their chosen avatar, but rather treat the doll as a tool to test the player’s strategic and tactical thinking. Roguelikes are far from unfair or arbitrary in this respect; losing is generally predicated by the ability of the player to make the optimal decision at any given time rather than the game presenting a faulty challenge.
As an example, in the game FTL: Faster Than Light there are multiple ships at your disposal. Some might think that running the Federation Cruiser is easier than running the Stealth Cruiser. After all, the Stealth Cruiser has no shields and a lower crew count in comparison to the Federation Cruiser. In practice however, the Stealth Cruiser is the superior ship; it simply requires different decisions than running the Federation Cruiser.
If I may elaborate, The Federation Cruiser can soak up a good amount of damage by way of shields, but the Stealth Cruiser can entirely negate the attack with timing. Additionally, the Stealth Cruiser has one slot less to upgrade (shields) which mean other systems will be stronger for it, as the player has the same amount of resources available but less slots to upgrade. Furthermore, there are situations where shields are disabled and a ship that relies on its shields is at a strong disadvantage, while the Stealth Cruiser is no worse off than before. There is a consistent way to win with both ships; they just require different decisions to be made. It all depends on the mastery of the mechanics a player should have ideally acquired during his failed attempts.
This is not to say that all roguelikes are perfect representations of this design philosophy of course. Some games are designed to be unfair tests in a zeal to make them challenging, and those are just bad games.
Given that the roguelike is a test of informed decision-making, there are certain design elements that do not necessarily mesh well with it. For example, the turn-based nature of traditional roguelikes is a calculated decision as to not present the “wrong test” to the player. Even more modern iterations like FTL are not real-time; they feature an action-pause system purposely to not test the player’s reaction time and Actions-Per-Minute limits.
The roguelikes design-philosophy sometimes simply stands in direct opposition to other genres philosophies.
Platformers for example, at their core, test the players input precision, mastery, reaction time and their memorization. These stand in direct opposition to the roguelike elements as variance in either of them would make the tests arbitrary, denying the player mastery over them. If Mario jumped slightly differently every time the game resets the test would become unfair and mastering the core mechanics impossible. Alternatively, if the levels were procedurally generated, the player would be denied the chance to learn from his failures and the difficulty of the challenge would be entirely random, leading to a bad test environment.
This is true for other genres like RPGs; persistent characters which delegate challenge to the avatar rather than the player invalidate the test of letting the player creating a best-case scenario in a limited environment. A player can simply negate the test by making his avatar more powerful by continuous grinding and brute-forcing his way through the game.
The Present And Future
Recently many games started mixing and matching roguelike elements without taking these limitations into consideration, creating hybrid games that more often than not just don’t work very well. A recently released “rogue-lite” called Rogue Legacy introduced metroidvania, platforming, bullet-hell and RPG-like persistent character upgrades into the Rogue formula, essentially invalidating the philosophy altogether. An upgradeable persistent character by itself removes permanent consequence from the roguelike philosophy, as death becomes a thinly veiled tolerance test (e.g. grinding) instead of the tool it is intended to be.
Another example is the game Routine, which is being described as a First Person Sci-Fi Horror Roguelike on the grounds of having randomized hazards and levels. If that’s the case, I guess we can add Diablo 2, Torchlight and a slew of other games to the list of roguelikes.
I don’t want to start another genre definition discussion (for now), but just slapping elements that are vaguely reminiscent of a roguelike on a game and calling it that isn’t what we should be expecting from designers. Don’t get me wrong, I think all these concepts, like inheriting traits in Rogue Legacy or random room-layouts in Routine, are fantastic ideas. Just not for their respective games and in the context of their designs, considering what the core challenges of these games are.
Meanwhile, the traditional roguelike lives on but only in partially obscure indie titles; while FTL was a great Kickstarter success, its popularity was rather limited. Its future is uncertain, as challenging games, especially ones with failure as a teaching tool, are wholly unpopular in the industry.
The roguelike is significantly different in its test-philosophy and players might easily be put off by their initial experience with the game. However, there is a deep satisfaction associated with learning and mastering these types of games that transcends other, similar, statistics-based combat simulations.
Maybe a fresh coat of paint and improved accessibility could popularize this traditional genre again. Who knows?