Roguelikes: The Misnamed Genre

2011, April 25th 4:47 PM

Recently, I've been playing a game called Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. You should play it. It's good.

DCSS is a game about searching a dungeon for a magical McGuffin named The Orb of Zot. You choose a species and a background, get starter gear, and delve into the furthest depths of the unmapped, unexplored, randomly generated, extremely dangerous dungeon complex. There are about a dozen major areas in the world, including The Hive, The Shoals, The Abyss, and Hell itself, plus a large number of minor areas like the Ecumenical Temple and Erinya's Garden, many of which may or may not even exist. Along the way you'll find magical armor, scrolls, wands, and potions, none of which are identified. Putting on an unidentified ring could result in the discovery of a +5 Ring of Slaying (really goddamn good), it could result in "well, now you're wearing a ring, and you still don't know what it does", or it could result in discovering you've just donned a Cursed Ring of Hunger and you're about to starve to death if you can't get rid of it immediately.

Death, in DCSS, is a major event. When you die, that's it. You're done. That character is deleted. There are no save points, there is no reloading. Want to run full speed through the Hall of Blades just to find out what happens? What happens is that you get chopped to bits by the magical weapons filling the Hall of Blades and now you have to start over.

DCSS isn't a unique game. It is, however, possibly the most modern example of its genre, known as Roguelikes. The original game Rogue was released way back in 1980, sporting a text-based interface, randomized items, a randomized dungeon, and permadeath. Rogue inspired a similar game called Hack, which, itself, inspired a game called Nethack, a game notable enough that it occasionally displaces Rogue as the name of the genre. A few years later Angband was developed, then Linley's Dungeon Crawl, which was abandoned and eventually resurrected as Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup . . . sporting a text-based interface, randomized items, a randomized dungeon, and permadeath.

Those are the big names, at least. The Roguelike genre is very conducive to small projects. Its text-based "graphics" mean that any game developer can write up a little Roguelike of their very own, and the code behind Roguelikes tend to be simple to start with, albeit complicated to continue. There are easily a dozen major Roguelikes still in production, with dozens or perhaps hundreds that have been abandoned over the years. They all follow approximately the same formula: you choose a species and a background, you enter a randomly-generated dungeon with text-based art, you travel deep into the earth, using random unidentified magical items to survive until you find a magical relic which you cart back up to the surface and you win.

Except . . . they don't all follow that formula. They almost do. But not quite.

DCSS, for example, has a graphical mode. Not the prettiest graphics in the world. But it's graphics. So that kind of breaks the formula. And while it's not mandatory to use, DCSS has a Tower Defense mode known as Zot Defense, and a canned hand-made dungeon mode known as Dungeon Sprint. Which aren't really Roguelikes, because they're not about finding that magical relic in a randomly generated dungeon. But they sort of are, because they use all the same items and monsters and behaviors.

There's also Desktop Dungeons, which breaks the formula further. Most Roguelikes take many hours to beat, even if you know what you're doing. Desktop Dungeons takes about fifteen minutes per run. And it's got graphics – in fact, it has mandatory graphics. And sound. And there's no such thing as a cursed or unidentified item. But it's still a Roguelike. Sort of.

And there's Dwarf Fortress, which . . . well, it's got ASCII art. And randomly generated levels. That's all normal. But instead of controlling an adventurer, you control an entire town of dwarves, mining out a civilization into a cliff side or a convenient hill (or the frozen tundra, if you're looking for a challenge). And you're not trying to find a magical artifact. You're just trying to survive. Or maybe you're trying to make the world's largest elephant combat pit. Or maybe you're trying to build a digital computer out of pipes and gears and dwarves. It's not really a Roguelike. But it's within a stone's throw.

100 Rogues is an iPhone game, graphics and all. ADOM has a world map and multiple dungeons. Spelunky is a sidescroller action game. Toejam and Earl is about a pair of aliens repairing a crash-landed spaceship in order to go back home. There are so many exceptions, so many alternatives, so many branches, so many cases where people can't decide if a game is a roguelike or not, that I can only come to one conclusion:

The term "Roguelike" is not a well-defined term.

We've been trying to define "Roguelikes" based on what the game includes. Deep dungeons, random levels, cursed artifacts. But non-game genres aren't define that way. Imagine trying to divvy up movie genres based on their components. This movie has a car, so it must be a car movie. No, but wait, it has guns also! It must be a guns movie! No, actually, it's "The Godfather", and it's a drama movie. Or maybe it's a crime movie, or a thriller, or even a Mafia movie. But it contains cars and guns, and it's about drama and the Mafia.

Roguelikes aren't about dungeons. They're not about text-based graphics, or random artifacts, or permadeath.

Roguelikes are about complexity.

Roguelikes are about handing you a set of pieces. Roguelikes say, hey, these simple parts, when put together in this fashion, will have this obvious effect. And then they hand you more pieces, and you get to figure out the best way to combine those pieces.

Roguelikes are about using an unpredictable toolkit with complex interactions in order to overcome unpredictable challenges.

For example, there's an item in DCSS known as the Scroll of Immolation. When you read it, it blows up in your hands. Sounds kind of crappy, right? Now let's imagine you're wearing a bunch of fire resist gear, and you're in the Ice Dungeon, and you're being swarmed by a bunch of small ice critters. Read scroll, scroll blows up, you're immune, monsters aren't. Of course, this isn't the kind of thing you can plan for. You might not have that scroll. Chances are good you won't have a bunch of fire resist gear in the Ice Cave. And you're more likely to be attacked by a few big monsters than swarmed by small monsters. So what I've just described is not likely to be useful.

But DCSS contains dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of tricks you can use, and in any serious game you'll be close to death many times. If you can't find a good trick to survive, you'll die. The way to beat a Roguelike isn't to memorize all the tricks, it's to learn how to come up with ideas on the fly.

In Dwarf Fortress, your game will depend partially on what natural resources are available, and in what quantities. You can't always determine this early on in the game. You might reach the mid-game and run out of iron. Whoops. Time to find more iron, or learn to do without. In Desktop Dungeons, you never know quite which monsters you'll run into, which deities will be available, which spells and items you can get ahold of. These aren't traditional Roguelike games, but the core mechanic, the critical part that makes them feel Roguelikey, is preserved perfectly.

Once we acknowledge this potential new definition of Roguelikes, we start seeing it crop up in surprising places. Civilization 5 has a military that relies on finding certain important resources in order to build the best units. If you're lucky enough to find a lot of them, you might change your strategy to lean towards military conquest. If you find few of them, you might take a more defensive position, or use units that don't require iron or horses. Dominions 3, an excellent but obscure multiplayer turn-based strategy, is thoroughly laced with this – finding an important magical site, or a powerful recruitable independent mage, can change your entire long-term strategy if you're clever enough to recognize it. And here's the most unlikely comparison you'll hear in a while – Super Smash Bros Brawl multiplayer is like a Roguelike! A lot of the multiplayer strategy is seeing special items quickly and coming up with a good way to use them, or seeing what's being used against you and learning how to counter it. Compare a SSBB Pokeball and an unidentified Nethack potion or scroll. Unpredictable toolkit, unpredictable challenges.

And of course, Nieuwe Aarde, the game I've been putting more work into, is intended to be a Roguelike by this definition. I've been putting a ton of thought into how to make it more Roguelikeish – right now it frankly does a very bad job of being a Roguelike – and I think I have good ideas. Once I have the time, you'll be seeing more on this front.

There's only one problem. The word "Roguelike" is already taken. And the people who make Roguelikes would probably be a bit peeved by my claim that Super Smash Bros Brawl is a Roguelike. And worst of all, Rogue itself only has this property to a limited extent – there aren't many items, there aren't many abilities, there aren't multiple races or multiple character classes. So I think it's time to coin a new term . . . but I've had no luck coming up with a good term. My best option so far is "Highly Emergent Games", which sounds like a phrase you'd hear coming out of Zynga. Not ideal.

________ are about using an unpredictable toolkit with complex interactions in order to overcome unpredictable challenges.

I've defined a new genre of game. What do you think it should be called?

  • Christopher H

    2011, April 26th 10:59 AM

    I'm ambivalent about "emergent", since people seem to be using it for MMOs (emergence from player-player interactions) rather than complex single-player games (emergence from player-environment and environment-environment interactions).

    I might characterize the essence of Zorbatic Roguelike gameplay a bit differently:
    1) Presents a huge body of irregular facts and environments to learn; roguelikes are about all about the quirks and corner cases (whether obscurely and deviously hard-coded, or randomly generated). Down with uniformity!
    2) Punishing enough to deter simplistic approaches; you can't ignore mechanisms or "play it safe" (except perhaps at a great cost in time — the few successful roguelike bots I've seen progress incredibly slowly compared to skilled humans).
    3) Rewards improvisation and creative solutions; circumstantial short-term "exploitation" of rules loopholes by skilled players are a feature, not a bug.

    Maybe you could avoid confusion by distinguishing Roguelike gameplay (the general idea you are trying to define) from Roguelike situations (old-school RPG-inspired exploration of a multi-level randomly-generated dungeon looking for a McGuffin or McMorgoth).

    I don't think Nieuwe Aarde is likely to become fully roguelike because it doesn't satisfy essence (1): Aarde is more like a tightly optimized board game, in that complexity emerges from simple rules, not from a plethora of trivia and in-jokes. That said, essences (2) and (3) by themselves can make for awesome (but not "roguelike") games. Maybe we need another term?

    Back to your original question: what's a pithy name for "roguelike gameplay, but not necessarily roguelike situations"… here are some thought, currently lacking in brevity:
    "deep improvisational survival"
    "ad hoc survival and exploration"
    "quirky sandbox crawls"
    "capricious capers"
    "inventively hostile"
    "gratuitously complex games"
    "hacker's hostile heaven"

  • Kniht

    2011, April 26th 11:40 AM

    Simply "emergent games"? Many games incorporate emergent gameplay, but emergent games *rely* on it. Compare to a game including a puzzle while it is not a "puzzle game".

  • Zorba

    2011, April 26th 3:31 PM

    @Christopher, I'm not sure (1) is actually true. DCSS makes it a point of pride to be beatable without a spoilers file. I've never felt surprised by an unexpected cutesy corner case in the game, or a bit of trivia or an injoke that turns out to be critical to the gameplay. Same goes for almost all the games I listed. I think a lot of games have relied on that complexity, yes, but I don't think that complexity is really an important part of the game – just like you can have a first-person shooter without a shotgun, you can also have a roguelike without the hardcoded special cases.

    The brevity has turned out to be the hardest part :)

    @Kniht, I still worry about the "marketing buzzword" feel of it, plus what Christopher said – emergent is being used for pvp.

  • Jo

    2011, April 27th 3:19 AM

    Fractal games! Simple at first glance but they get more and more complicated the closer you look :)

  • Beatbug

    2011, April 27th 3:41 AM

    Perhaps a better term for "roguelikes" should be "dungeon survival games"; that still doesn't free up the term "roguelike" for you, however, since you're trying to encapsulate the more generalized challenge presented by roguelikes and not its randomized environment, interface, and so on.

  • Zorba

    2011, April 27th 6:29 AM

    @Jo, I actually really like that term :)

  • Peter Amstutz

    2011, April 27th 7:53 AM

    I think that arguing Super Smash Brothers is a roguelike or even a "Highly Emergent Game" is stretching the concept so far as to become nearly meaningless, since most video games demonstrate some degree of emergent complexity.

    I one of the key elements of roguelike games that goes back to the original "Rogue" are randomly generated environments or scenarios. So Minecraft is a roguelike, but SSB (which has set levels) is not. Roguelike games are characterized by the notion that you can have complete, encyclopedic knowledge of the game mechanics and input data, but you still not know what monsters are going pop out around the next corner. That is what keeps people coming back.

  • SQLGuru

    2011, April 27th 12:20 PM

    I'm surprised Diablo wasn't listed as a counter example in terms of graphics. Even from the outset, it was basically a highly-successful attempt to make a Rogue/NetHack/etc. type game that was graphics based.

  • Nate

    2011, April 27th 12:53 PM

    One game, unsuccessful (to my taste, at least) as it's gameplay was, that seemed to try for this very explicitly was Spore, and the term they used for it was something like "Procedural generation" for the creatures and environments.

  • Kniht

    2011, April 27th 12:59 PM

    Diablo, Diablo 2, and Lord of Destruction aren't in this genre. They were successful games that randomized some maps (and items to a lesser extent), but had very little emergent gameplay. Practically all storyline elements (monsters, maps, items) were set in stone. The majority of players gravitated toward preferred gear which allowed repeatable, formulaic progress.

  • Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup | Sphaerula

    2011, April 27th 4:11 PM

    […] is a post at Mandible Games called “Roguelikes: The Misnamed Genre” and an accompanying discussion at Slashdot that might be of interest to Dungeon Crawl Stone […]

  • Zorba

    2011, April 27th 5:28 PM

    @Peter, I'm not really claiming that SSB is a roguelike, I'm just saying that that one element has strong hints of the same game mechanics that are fundamental to roguelikes.

    I'd argue that what you've described, "complete, encyclopedic knowledge of the game mechanics and input data, but . . . still not know what monsters are going pop out around the next corner" is also a hallmark of multiplayer games, however. You might know the game inside and out, but you won't know what your opponent will do. In Roguelikes, it's just that your opponent is a random number generator. :)

  • Zorba

    2011, April 27th 5:30 PM

    @SQLGuru, I actually argued this one back and forth with myself. Diablo 2 has a *little* bit of it, but not all that much – the monsters are "random" but largely interchangable, the levels are "random" but largely irrelevant, the gear is "random" but mostly filled with stat boosts. Everything else is pre-set. I don't think it actually matches up well, despite having many of the classic roguelike elements. The user just never has to deal with a significant amount of chaos on either side of things.

  • Zorba

    2011, April 27th 5:31 PM

    @Nate, damn, that's a really good example, and I wish I'd thought of it. The problem with Spore was that it was all randomly generated but totally irrelevant. You don't care if your potion is named a "Potion of Healing", "Potion of Mending", or "Potion of Recovery" if it always does the same thing. And in Spore, it always does the same thing. It's like someone saw a screenshot of a roguelike and decided to make a game based on it, but didn't really understand what made it tick.

  • Tilla

    2011, April 27th 9:15 PM

    I'm personally a big fan of the Berlin Interpretation of what makes something 'Roguelike'. It is flexible enough to accept many many games while also not being TOO vague to let just anything in. This splits things into high value and low value factors.

  • Eryx

    2011, April 28th 4:45 AM

    If you really want a definition of "roguelike" that many people agree with, then use the Berlin Interpretation, which has been created for this purpose. But roguelike is not about a single game feature, but about a huge set of features which happen to work extremely well together. For example:

    Randomness vs permadeath: Permadeath without randomness makes no sense, as it would be boring to do the same thing again and again. Randomly placed traps, monsters, and unidentified items are features which make no sense without permadeath.

    Permadeath vs tactical challenge: There is no challenge if you could reload. Consider non-roguelike tactical games, like X-COM or Battle for Wesnoth. Most players would probably reload if they lost one of their best units, believing that they will probably have no chance later if they continue. Despite my experience with roguelikes, I also often do that (I believe that the game balance is designed to take that into account). But this takes most the challenge away, the only reward for using better tactics is that you cheat less often. By making it obvious that cheating death is cheating, roguelikes make tactical challenge really meaningful.

    Tactical challenge vs ASCII graphics: I think people who want tactical challenge are less likely to care about graphics, especially if the game forces you to watch the same boring animation too many times, or if it makes it harder to see what's actually going on. (Another reason for using ASCII graphics is that it triggers your imagination, which provides better images than any graphics. Maybe people who like challenge also have better imagination, I don't know.)

    A game which has only a part of these features most likely won't be a good game, and that's why roguelikes form a separate genre even if they cannot be defined in a single sentence. It's wrong to pick one of these features and call a game roguelike.

  • o0o

    2011, April 28th 7:31 AM

    another feature i feel is crucial to roguelike-ness is management of limited resources. the hunger dynamic (or whatever resource the game uses, spelunky has time, desktop dungeons requires exploration of new squares for health) prevents the player from just trying all possible options, making choice meaningful.

  • Zorba

    2011, April 28th 7:40 AM

    @Tilla, good read. I think it's interesting how it covers the same ground I did, then adds a bunch of implementation details and a few things that it admits popular games violate (or that it doesn't mention are violated – "numbers", for example, is blatantly violated by almost every roguelike I've played. A few stats are shown, but nowhere near all of them.)

  • Zorba

    2011, April 28th 7:40 AM

    @Eryx, I'm coming at this from another perspective. I think the core of the game is what I outlined above, and all the decisions you've made there are what makes the game fun. Nobody would claim that an FPS where you were completely invincible and undefeatable would be fun, and similarly, the requirements of a roguelike imply things like randomness and permadeath. (For the exact reasons you've listed.) They're not part of the absolute central requirements, they're just natural consequences of those requirements.

    As for graphics, I think that comes down to production budgets – trying to come up with graphics for every character interaction would be ruinous, and so developers generally don't do that. However, look at Spelunky or Toejam And Earl. There we go, graphics.

    Imagine you're trying to define what a "cargo-carrying truck" is. You go and look at a bunch of trucks. Eventually you declare that a cargo-carrying truck must include wheels and a cabin for a driver, and must include, at most, two trailers which are always 48 feet long. But all of this is thanks to current technology or convention. If we had hovertrucks, they wouldn't need wheels. If we had robot drivers, we wouldn't need a cabin. And if you go to Australia, you'll find road trains far longer than two trailers. What I'm saying is that the current roguelike design is all thanks to current conveniences and convention, and is not intrinsically part of what makes the game fun.

  • Some guy

    2011, April 28th 8:43 AM

    It would be cool if you could CAPTION the pictures so I know what games to google for to look into. Or perhaps even link them. The way the article is now, it actually puts roadblocks in the way of people trying to find out more on the games you talk about.

  • Zorba

    2011, April 28th 9:50 AM

    @Some guy, I actually mention them all in the article, but I suppose I don't ever say which is which. Fair point. In order: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Spelunky, Toejam and Earl, Desktop Dungeons, Dwarf Fortress.

  • Some guy

    2011, April 28th 6:25 PM

    Not only do you not say which is which but you don't bother to link any of them except DCSS.

    Here's links on the unlinked pictured ones (all but one of them are free):
    Toejam and Earl
    Desktop Dungeons
    Dwarf Fortress

  • Zorba

    2011, April 28th 9:21 PM

    Yeah, that's true. Honestly, the images are there mostly to break up the wall of text. I figure Google exists, and I talk about a *lot* of games in that post – it's a matter of seconds to find more information on any of them.

    Unfortunately, links kind of break up people's concentration. Just look at how annoyed people get by the autolinking advertisements that some news sites have used.

  • Some guy

    2011, April 28th 9:32 PM

    Well, you could link the pictures to the sites then if you don't want to insert links into the text :)

  • Kniht

    2011, April 28th 9:33 PM

    I'm mostly ambivalent but often annoyed by overlinking. If the link is only in the first three results from selecting the text, right-clicking, and "Search Google for…" (Google simply being my default search engine), then I'm increasingly feeling it's not worthwhile.

    Though, having not played most of those games, captions would help.

  • Zorba

    2011, April 28th 9:45 PM

    @Some Guy, I was actually considering doing that, but it looks really bad with my current CSS and I haven't had the time to go fix it :)

    In fact I'd go and edit in descriptions to the mouseovers for images, but I currently can't edit posts either – gotta fix that too, but no time. I'll do that later.

  • NAme

    2011, May 2nd 11:18 AM had an interesting conversation on dungeon-crawls that was along these lines.

  • Detocroix

    2011, May 10th 4:37 AM

    I must say I disagree.

    Roguelike as term doesn't mean its "Rogue with new features" but rather "Rogue inspired game", much like some people say something is Diablolike, or Halolike (when using positive way of saying instead of calling it clone). I've heard Doomlike and Quakelike too. Spelling often changes, but the meaning hardly ever.

    While I do understand it sounds odd because its not Rogue with new stuff and its called like its Rogue.

    Of course, everyone has their own way to thinking, defining or naming things :)

    Thanks for the article none the less! Cheers!

  • RFHolloway

    2011, May 18th 6:24 AM

    as to a name – Sandbox, non narative adventure, resource management puzzle? Does spacechem fit your definition? what about the old text based adventures?

  • Noble Kale

    2011, June 6th 1:37 AM

    I think Fractal game is a nice title for the complex game genre.

    Overall, the article's pretty well written. Nice points.

  • plaintextman

    2011, August 4th 10:14 AM

    Nice read!

    As for the new term: Let's call them game games. Or complex games. Or erm, chaotic games? No… lets stick with game games. You know? Any good game should include these elements of complexity to some extent, and some rely on them entirely. Well, Detocroix makes a good point.

    Wait, we can combine 'game' and 'chaos' and 'complexity' somehow! Gachaco (adj). Yes! "Some games are more gachaco than others!" Zangband is more gachaco than Rogue. Chess is more gachaco than Tetris. Dwarf Fortress is the most ambitious in terms of gachaco of all games! … :-/ … well at least it beats saying 'some games are gamer than others', as in my original suggestion.

    After dealing with the naming problem myself, I'm inclined to think the fact that you left that space blank with '______' is the most intelligent part of the article! :-P

  • Zorba

    2011, August 4th 10:26 AM

    Thanks :)

    I actually don't agree that any good games should include those elements. Puzzle games, for example. Atmospheric games. Exploration games. Super Metroid wouldn't have been improved by these elements, and neither would Braid. I think there's a certain path you can go down, that starts with high levels of chaos and inevitably leads to things like permadeath, and I think that road really doesn't work for the vast majority of games.

  • jeheimwaff

    2011, November 8th 9:47 AM

    you could add "weird worlds: return to infinite space" to that "Highly Emergent Games" collection. highly recommended.

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