Roguelike Highlights: Introduction

Roguelikes constitute an interesting sub-genre. Known for extremely minimal graphics but extremely complex gameplay, they are games which ones plays forever, essentially, returning again and again over the course of one’s lifetime. Most players will never win, but the big trick of the roguelike is that they are fun to lose. Many roguelikes are never finished being made, either, with constant and endless updates from what is often a community of developers. Rare is the roguelike that reaches v1.0, unless the developer(s) are starting with v1.0 and subsequently releasing v1.1, and so on. Far more often a roguelike is abandoned well before reaching the developer’s vision.

The most interesting thing about them, to me, is how differently I play them compared to other games. With a typical single-player game, I will start and work methodically through until the end, and then move to another game. But roguelikes are never my “main” game, they are always things that I play on the side, during short breaks in other activities, or for longer stretches when I simply need a change of pace. They do not require a significant time investment for each playing session, nor do they have any long narratives that I will lose track of if I don’t play for a few weeks (or months). They’re also great for traveling as they usually run on anything, are completely turn-based so I am free to get distracted without consequence, and they (usually) have no sound so I don’t have to worry about annoying other people. Also, the vast majority of them are free.

Unfortunately, roguelikes are notoriously difficult to get into, often having dreadful user interfaces and steep learning curves. I’m hoping to convince more players that they’re worth trying out.

With this introductory post I will talk a little about the history of roguelikes, and describe what they are and how they’ve evolved. In later posts I will highlight some of my favorites, from easily accessible games for first-timers to deep, complex ones to try once you’re hooked. Read on!

Roguelikes take their name from Rogue, a game made in 1980. Rogue was inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure, one of the earliest computer games, as well as the tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons. In Rogue, the player takes the role of an adventurer exploring a procedurally generated dungeon, battling monsters and finding items, with the eventual aim of reaching the bottom and retrieving the Amulet of Yendor. While most games at the time were text-based, Rogue featured primitive graphics in the form of symbols, representing a top-down view of the dungeon. Often thought to exclusively use ASCII symbols (that’s American Standard Code for Information Interchange, if you’re curious), Rogue was actually designed to adapt to whatever terminal it was being run on and could therefore use different symbol sets for its graphics. Typically, however, dungeon tiles were represented by dots, walls by hashes or filled cursors, the player by a smiley face or an “@” symbol, enemies by letters (e.g. k for kobold, D for dragon), and items by various punctuation marks.

While the text-based games at the time typically required the player to type in input, like “get lamp” to pick up a lamp or “north” to move north, Rogue instead used keyboard shortcuts for its commands. The hero was moved around with the numpad (or with the hjkl keys used for navigating the UNIX text editor vi), pressing i would let you view your (i)nventory, q would (q)uaff a potion, r would (r)ead a scroll, etc. While still turn-based, this meant that play proceeded much more quickly than in a traditional text-based game.

The key design aspect that made Rogue so compelling was two-fold: the combination of procedural generation and so-called “perma-death”. If your character died in Rogue, it was game over. There were no saves to reload, and no checkpoints to go back to. You had to start the whole game again. But this was OK, because you got a different dungeon each time. While each dungeon level could fit on a single terminal screen, it was generated fresh each time from a set of rooms and corridors, and populated with a randomized set of monsters and items. Even your knowledge of the items was randomized; on one playthrough a green potion might be a potion of healing, but on the next an orange potion might be the potion of healing while the green potion poisoned you instead. Each time you started anew, you had to figure out which items were helpful and which were harmful. Even weapons and armor could be harmful, with a chance of carrying a curse that made them much less effective and prevented you from switching them out for an alternative. At least until you found one of the magical scrolls that removes curses.

The result was a game that was very difficult to win, but offered a fresh adventure on every play, with a risk/reward design that made it quite compelling. Finally making it to level nine of the dungeon only to be felled by a vampire, while technically “losing”, was still great fun, and maybe even cause for bragging rights.

While many games tended towards graphical complexity as computers became more powerful, fans of Rogue started to make games that moved in a different direction. Rather than add fancy graphics, most of these games stuck to the symbolic graphics of the original and instead increased the complexity of the systems and simulations. These games, inspired by Rogue, became known as Roguelikes. The simplistic magic system of Rogue, which relied on finding magical wands, was greatly expanded in some of these games, which featured full-blown spellcasting systems in which spellcasting skill must be practiced and spells memorized from spellbooks. Different character classes were introduced, each of which played very differently from one another. Some games added gods and religion systems, allowing the player to choose a god to worship who would watch the character’s actions and judge them accordingly, hopefully administering rewards for appropriate behavior. The procedural generation of levels was greatly expanded, allowing large sprawling maps, specialized locations like treasure vaults and temples, and themed maps based on swamps, forests, and more. Some games added towns with merchants and quest-givers, while others focused solely on a huge sprawling dungeon. Some changed the setting, incorporating science fiction rather than fantasy, or perhaps a contemporary zombie apocalypse. Some games allowed the player to recruit (or summon, or create) followers to help out, or let the player turn enemies over to their side. Many games featured complex enemy AI, with different creatures reacting differently and using different tactics.

By sticking to symbols (or sometimes simple tilesets) for graphics, roguelike developers are able to operate on their own, with no need of a team of artists or graphics engine programmers. A single person can create an incredibly deep simulation that is simultaneously quick to play and offers huge replayability through its use of procedural generation and different player classes. This often led to games that were continually updated and expanded, and sometimes made open source and turned over to the community for further development or development of variants. Today there is still a strong community of Roguelike developers and players, with supported games spanning the range of old-school dungeon crawlers to more streamlined modern experiences with better graphics.

I have found that most roguelike players will slowly gravitate towards the most complex games. While the simpler games are fun and much easier to learn, it’s easy to feel that one has exhausted their possibilities after spending a good amount of time with them. But the deepest games really are games that can last a lifetime. While they typically have a very steep learning curve at the beginning, this curve never really flattens like it does in other games. You are always learning more about the game, with every play session. And these games have an uncanny ability to generate memorable stories. You’ll remember vividly that time that you were cornered by a tough enemy, but you threw a potion of confusion at it and then teleported to safety with only a few hitpoints left. Or that time that you snuck past that deadly turret by concealing yourself with smoke grenades. Or the time that you finally made it to the deepest level of the dungeon only to step on a paralysis trap and then get mauled by a dragon while you were frozen, helpless. And who could forget the time you shot a fire bolt into a cloud of swamp gas, causing an explosion that threw you into the nearby lake, only to get entangled and eaten by a kraken?

These kinds of user-generated stories are one of the great strengths of the medium, and I hope to encourage more players to experience them. In my next posts I will cover some specific roguelikes that I personally recommend, starting with a great entry point into the genre. Stay tuned!

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