Monday, January 12, 2015


I was browsing my game library to figure out what I wanted to play, when I started downloading the most recent version of a roguelike that I've poured about a hundred or so hours into already. This got me thinking: What is it about this game that keeps me coming back to it when I get tired of everything else?

A roguelike, for those of you who only use their internet for Facebook, is a game inspired by an old game called Rogue, a turn based game made before my parents even knew each other. The game focused around delving into an increasingly dangerous dungeon in search of not dying horrendously. You often failed in your quest.

In fact, failure was a routine part of Rogue, and if your character died they were gone for good. I'd argue that Rogue inspired a whole theory of game design for that reason alone. Its brutally unforgiving gameplay forced you to take every step with the utmost caution. You had to ration your special items out as thinly as possible and knowing when to use a potion or a wand was a show of skill. Failure to do anything else was enough to send you right to the start with nothing but your hard won knowledge and bruised ego to show for it.

From a modern perspective the most striking feature of Rogue was its interface. It was built entire from ASCII symbols on a grid.

Rogue is the first game to feature the smiley face as a main character.
Most games in those days relied on either pure text, a la Zork, or vague painting with blobby, blocky strokes for the adventure and puzzle titles. There were some pretty severe limitations on graphics those days, both in the hardware and software, so games had to rely purely on story, puzzles, or gameplay to provide a fun experience. Graphical fidelity just wasn't possible on consumer machines.

Since those days we've progressed in every way. Graphics have improved exponentially, stories can respond to the actions of the character, and gameplay has been dissected down to its raw elements. We've had our good years and bad years, but I'd argue that video games are on the rise.

And yet Rogue left such an impression on the past two generations that it spawned an entire genre of game. There's anything from traditional Rogue inspired difficulty and fun, space ships, zombie apocalypse meets cyberpunk, and even one inspired by Doom. I recommend checking all of those out and exploring all there is out there, they're all great looks at where the roguelike genre has come these days and they're all good fun on their own right.

It's always been interesting to me that in a world where hundreds of people from around the world can hop into a firefight that looks beautiful and realistic in its own way, there's still enough demand for simple, ASCII games with higher difficulty, no graphics to speak of, and an astronomical learning curve in some cases.

This graph doesn't really do Dwarf Fortress justice.
It's MUCH harder to learn than that.
Somewhere between the deliberate pacing, the mind-blowing depth, the investment needed to learn to play, and its reliance on imagination is a key that keeps people coming back to roguelikes and their variants. I'm sure a huge factor is their pure simplicity allows for some developers to implement a huge swath of features that are just too taxing for prettier games, both in development time and CPU cost. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that the majority of roguelikes you can find are free and frequently open source.

Roguelikes hold a special place in my heart. I think I'll always love and appreciate what Rogue brought to the table, even though it's outdated even by roguelike standards. Maybe some day the high fidelity and shiny looking games will catch up to the raw fun that I have in Cataclysm or Dwarf Fortress and I'll add them to my list of fallback games.

Until then it's time for another round of Who Wants to Die Horribly.

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