On Roguelikes

Words: 2474 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

Making progress in a video game exists in many different forms. Sometimes that progress can be in its most literal sense of moving forward through a level or questline. Sometimes that progress can be more abstract: things like improving your character or learning how to play more effectively.

One genre that leans much harder into this latter concept of progress is roguelikes. Roguelikes, broadly speaking, are video games that are oriented around short, repeated playthroughs. A player makes an attempt to get through a dungeon, often ends up dying, and has to restart from the beginning.

Coupled with this setup is a focus on randomness. Certain parts of the game change upon each death and new attempt. The exact mechanics can differ from game to game, but the basic premise that when you start over, you don’t get to replay the same game you just got done playing is something of a given.

The name itself comes from a very old game called Rogue. In Rogue, you guided a small character through a dungeon that randomly changed each time. You could come across certain pieces of equipment that you could rely on, but other things such as potions and scrolls would be random in their effects each playthrough, and the only way to know what it would do is to use it. As you can guess, the idea is that there monsters within the dungeon that you need to be careful around, as a bad encounter can lead to death and restarting.

Games built off of this basic premise then take some different approaches. Rogue was very simple in its setup. Later games, though, have added things such as progression across playthroughs, unlocking new items as you play, and improving your character’s stats. Some games have kept much of the basic premise of Rogue, literally requiring that players start from the beginning with nothing other than their own personal improvement to help them out the next time, and others add in these other mechanics so that players can progressively get stronger across attempts.

As a brief aside, some fans of the genre often make a distinction between these two types of games. Those that copy Rogue more directly in the idea that the everything is fully reset and randomized upon death are given the title of “roguelikes,” while those that allow for the player to improve their character across attempts are given the title of “roguelites.” For two reasons, I’m going to ignore this distinction and treat all of these games under the same basic genre of “roguelikes,” which is the more universal term that has been given to these games. The first reason is one of simplicity, so that it’s not necessary to keep track of which games fall into which category throughout this essay. The second is that I think it’s a bad distinction.[1]

So sticking with this basic category of roguelikes as a genre, I have a relatively short and simple objective for this essay: I want to examine what quality helps roguelikes to ultimately do well at capturing a player’s interest.

And for that purpose, I have primarily one key thought: that the primary quality of a roguelike should ultimately depend upon the player’s skill, rather than the randomness of the game itself. I will expand more on this below, but what is important is that while the player is constantly going to be trying and restarting, they should always be feeling like they are making progress, and that they are hindered by themselves in some way, and not by the game – and more specifically, not by the randomness of the game.

Hitting Your Head Against the Wall

There are a few factors that make roguelikes themselves appealing. Of course, at their core, they need to be good games on their own. Basic gameplay needs to feel good, artistic and sound design need to be well done, etc.

But assuming you have those qualities, there are still things to appreciate about the genre itself. One is the length of the game. In one sense, the games are short. Usually making an attempt may last only twenty to thirty minutes, or might go up to an hour. So they help facilitate shorter play: you make an attempt, succeed or fail, and then can shut the game off and return to it later without having to worry about losing any progress. And just as importantly, you don’t lose any information, either: since the game effectively restarts, you know at all times what your objective is and what you need to do.

Couple with the short play of each individual attempt the fact that the game’s variety allows for it to last for a long while. A well-designed roguelike that is engaging to play can eat up hours upon hours of your time without feeling boring – often well over 50 hours of playtime, and sometimes getting near or over 100 hours.

But more than just time, the variety of the game allows the player to continue playing without feeling a sense of boredom. Even when you get an overall sense of what to do, there are all sorts of little variations that help to keep things interesting. In short, the game’s randomness demands that the player adapt to the randomness. Are you facing this particular enemy? Then you need a strategy for how to deal with them. But what if you now have to face this same enemy and worry about some kind of trap or pitfall at the same time? What if you had to face that enemy with one ability or equipment set last time, but now you have a different ability or equipment set? Those little changes can make the same basic gameplay feel fun for a longer period of time, even though at its core it is repetitive.

The major hurdle for a roguelike tends to be its difficulty. Sometimes that difficulty is overcome through mere repetition and learning. The more you understand how enemies attack, how to move effectively, how to escape danger, and so on, the longer you survive and the more likely you are to make it to the finish line. Sometimes that difficulty is overcome through character progression. As you try and fail and grow your character, you get more strength and/or more abilities that help you to deal with opposition, making it more likely that you’ll prevail. And sometimes that difficulty is overcome through luck. Perhaps you’ll get a particular piece of equipment or a certain ability that allows you to get through easily, or sometimes can just make progression feel possible.

Note that these methods for overcoming difficulty are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes learning and progression and luck can be used all at the same time to help you get through.

What is key, however, is how much of a role that last factor plays. How much does the game really rely on luck for a player to be able to get through?

Note that when I talk about a player here, I don’t mean an expert player. An expert may be able to start a run and complete it without any issue, no matter what they are given. Of course, it may well be the case that even sometimes an expert needs to rely on luck, and that poses a problem as well. But for our purposes, we aren’t concerned with whether the expert can get by without luck.

Instead, we are concerned with the degree to which the average player requires good luck to get through. That is, even if an average player, after playing through multiple times, starts to develop some level of skill at the game, to what degree does that player still need to rely on luck and getting good equipment in order to succeed? That is the key question.

I should note here that some level of reliance on luck is not bad. I mean this in two sense.

Firstly, the fact that a game might rely on luck at all does not make it a bad game. There are plenty of roguelikes that rely on luck to some degree that are still quite good. We are instead focused on what essentially separates a good from a great roguelike. The less you need luck, the better the game is. The only way luck could make a roguelike bad is if said luck were fully determinative of success. That is, it did not matter how skilled you were – even if you were an expert – but whether you could ultimately succeed or not depends on whether the game was willing to let you win or not.

Secondly, we’re dealing with the idea of luck being a requirement – or to some extent, feeling like it’s a requirement – rather than a given player relying on it. Certain players may start to develop certain strategies that depend on getting certain abilities or equipment, or a combination of those things. Since part of the point of roguelikes and the randomness behind them is to force players to adjust their strategies, having only a single strategy that works is in a sense a way of improperly playing the game. The result is that while such a player might rely on luck, that reliance does not constitute the sort of reliance for the game that I refer to here.

So we need to be able to look at a game and its systems and ask ourselves “if I learned how to play this, to what extent would I still find myself starting a run and hoping to get the right abilities or equipment?”

Why does this matter? Because a core component of what makes video games feel fun is the player’s control over the game. The premise of the vast majority of games (there are some exceptions to this rule, but those exceptions are built into the game’s very design and aesthetic) is that the player is in control of the game itself in some sense. That control isn’t absolute: you don’t necessarily get to manipulate enemies and the world to a significant degree. But the idea is that by understanding how the world works, you as the player can essentially figure out the various levers you can pull and buttons you can push to get the results you want.

This control is even possible in roguelikes. That control depends on building knowledge or building your character, as well as developing strategies to deal with new situations. But at some point the player can reach a point where they have control over the game itself, knowing what to do in order to win.

But an excessive amount of randomness can lead to the player losing this control. And roguelikes are a genre that strongly depend on this control.

The primary issue is that because a given run in a roguelike game is so short, the potential for both joy and disappointment becomes particularly pointed. The joy results from managing to successfully complete the run, while the disappointment comes from death and the consequent failure.

But the disappointment that results from dying and having to start over is going to depend heavily on how the player fails. Insofar as failure depends largely on the player’s own missteps, the player will likely end up frustrated, but will have no outlet for that frustration, beyond self-blame. That is, the player may be annoyed, but the result is “well, I guess I need to be more careful next time.” But key to that frustration is that the player is left with the feeling that there will be a “next time” to play.

However, if the disappointment is the consequence of poor luck, the player is going to have that outlet for the frustration, and that outlet is going to be the game itself. The player will likely be annoyed, and the blame will fall on the game’s own systems, and the result may well end up being “why should I bother playing again if the game won’t let me win?” Note here that the player may decide to try again, but it isn’t going to be guaranteed.

Important to managing this is being able to effectively communicate to the player what the failure was. Did I die because I made a mistake in one of my choices? Which choice was it? What should I have done differently?

Roguelikes can be prone to “noise,” information that isn’t actually informative. And when a roguelike doesn’t effectively help a player know what the problem is, that transforms the player’s relationship to the game, switching it over from a game of skill to a game of luck. In other words, because you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing, you have to guess and hope that you made the right decision (or combination of decisions) to allow you to win.

So a roguelike needs to be wary in how it incorporates its randomness. Unfortunately, a roguelike cannot remove the randomness entirely, since that is essentially the driving force behind the roguelike’s appeal.

But while randomness is essential for the genre, it cannot be allowed to get out of hand. The core needs to rely on the player’s skill, and any good luck simply augments that skill, rather than creating it.

Concluding Remarks

There are a lot of wonderful roguelike games to play, and since the genre is fairly broad, there are a lot of different mechanics and styles that have been explored and will likely be explored.

But as those roguelikes get made, and as we turn to those roguelikes that exist, it is important to keep in mind the role that randomness plays in the genre as a whole and each individual game in particular. And we should think about how that randomness mingles with the player’s own ability.

Because a roguelike is built around the idea of gradual progression, but a very particular kind of progression. The progression of slowly getting toward victory, and becoming more skilled so that victory becomes more easily attainable. When luck plays too big a role in the player’s ability to succeed, then that progression is hindered or even halted.

[1] In short, it’s a distinction that doesn’t work well linguistically. Firstly, the two terms are far too similar, meaning that it’s easy to get them confused. And given that there’s not a lot of information in the names to really help identify which term goes with which genre, this confusion would only be more likely. It would be far easier to call all of these games “roguelikes” and then more clearly define the different types within the genre: something along the lines of “fully randomized roguelikes” versus “progression roguelikes.” These terms definitely don’t need to be adopted, but the point is that making a clearer distinction within the genre is more useful than the current “like/lite” distinction.

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