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As I mentioned last week, I wanted to look at Returnal to re-examine the topic of roguelikes. Returnal’s setup presents the player with roguelike progression, by starting the player over with a basic set of items upon death, but giving the player access to new areas as long as they beat bosses.
The basic gameplay loop is certainly not all that different from other roguelikes. But it comes with a serious problem. And it is by exploring that problem that I intend to explain a core component of what makes roguelikes work.
Having already given a working definition of a roguelike in a previous essay, I will not rehash the underlying categorization problem, and instead just use the following: a roguelike is a game set up around short, repeated playthroughs that throw the player into a dungeon whose layout, enemies, and rewards are randomly (or procedurally) generated.
Roguelikes have all sorts of different setups, and it’s best to place them on a kind of continuum.
At one end, we have something like Rogue and other old-school roguelikes, where there is no progression whatsoever between playthroughs.
Moving up, we have games where the player can unlock new items or upgrades, but which can only be found in successive playthroughs. Each run, however, begins fresh. Binding of Isaac is perhaps the best example here.
Adding in yet more progression, you start to throw in elements of permanent upgrades for the player. Let’s begin with upgrades for exploration. These might be ways to open up new paths to explore in the world. Dead Cells is a good example of this kind of upgrade, with runes that can be found and used to unlock alternate areas.
Then moving up another ladder, we can throw in permanent upgrades for stats or some other mechanic. Again, Dead Cells offers players the ability to use cells to upgrade their healing flask or retain more gold upon death. Hades may be another example here, where a handful of special upgrades (such as extra lives per run and better luck) can be purchased. Key to this rung is that the upgrades be fairly limited in their scope, and not simply that they exist.
Because the final movement is to add in even more elements that can be upgraded across runs. For this probably the best example is Rogue Legacy, which allows players to upgrade health, damage, magic, and plenty of other stuff.
With this continuum sketched out, we can see that there are lots of different ways to do progression. But with each method of incorporating progression, a lot of things change about the game itself.
And that’s where Returnal runs into a problem. It’s trying to build out its progression in a way that is thoroughly unclear. By which I mean it’s not quite clear to the player what they should do when they begin a new run. And that kind of uncertainty is rather bad, because as a game built around difficulty and punishing players, doing the wrong thing can set you back a lot.
So in this essay I’ll use Returnal’s systems to help explain the different ways in which progression can be incorporated into roguelikes, and particularly how it can go wrong.
“No, Not That Way!”
Progression is generally about a couple major things. Firstly, it’s about direction. The premise is that you arrive at a point, and know where to go next. Both attaining and using that knowledge is a sign of progression in a game. Secondly, it’s about power. Power can come in many forms, ranging from stats to gear to skill. All of these things allow you as the player to reach the next part of the game, whatever it may be.
Key to progression, though, is communicating it to the player. Usually, these systems are pretty basic. You kill enemies, you gain experience, the experience helps you to level up, and by leveling up you become stronger. That’s progression. You have a marker on your map, you head to the marker, and encounter a character who tells you where to go next. That’s also progression.
These two components of progression can be integrated or separate. Many games keep them relatively separate: progressing the story and progressing your character are mostly distinct tasks.
Roguelikes, though, tend to rely on integration of these two components. Making progress in a run involves simultaneously growing your character to take on upcoming challenges and also knowing what you need to do to take on or complete those challenges. The integration isn’t perfect (and it doesn’t have to be). But if a player is strong but doesn’t know what to do next, or knows where to go but isn’t strong enough to get there, then the run just kind of ends, and the player needs to start over.
So it’s important to make sure that the player knows what to do and when. Most games are fairly straightforward in their approach. Many roguelikes have successive rooms or floors that the player fights through, which contain enemies and treasures. Sometimes the player makes choices that result in tradeoffs – running risks in return for greater rewards. Any given run relies primarily on the player’s knowledge of the game and their skill, and what risks they are willing to undertake.
Occasionally you might run into roguelikes that have a larger recurring framework at play. Rogue Legacy is probably the most useful example. In Rogue Legacy, you are placed into a large dungeon that is split into four areas. Your goal is to defeat the boss of each area so that you can unlock a big door to face the final boss. Defeating each boss is a permanent achievement – you don’t need to go back to kill a boss if you wind up dead.
As a consequence both of this fact and how the character progresses, your goal is to make your way through an area, defeat its boss, and then head to the next area and repeat the process. You’ll die along the way, though, and so that leads to an important question: if I am “in” Area 2 and restart, should I just head straight back to Area 2, or explore Area 1 first?
Rogue Legacy ultimately leaves this question up to the player, but at least gives the player fairly clear indications about the tradeoffs at play. Exploring older areas can provide gear and money for later runs, but runs the risk of using up health and mana. However, since the character is generally stronger than the enemies in the area, the risk is much lower as time goes on. After a certain point, the amount of gold and other stuff earned in older areas is trivial, and it’s mostly worth it to just progress as quickly as possible into the next area.
The result is that while the choice is left up to the player, all of the information the player needs is readily available. Just as importantly, there’s an expectation about what the player “ought” to do. You ought to head back to Area 2, because exploration there is going to be more valuable and will also lead to progress.
Returnal’s Confusing Directions
But here’s where Returnal runs into a problem. In a sense, it’s best to think of Returnal as being built on a similar premise as Rogue Legacy, without the permanent upgrades of the latter. You carry a small handful of things across playthroughs, and that’s it. But that gives us a useful point of comparison between the two.
In Returnal, there are separate areas, and each area has a boss. Defeating the boss will unlock a piece of equipment that will allow the player to get into the next area. But upon death, the character gets to keep that piece of equipment, and the player can find a shortcut to get to later areas.
In Rogue Legacy, the player would have to explore the dungeon upon restarting to find the next area (there was a way to bypass this, but it involved it’s own costs and was ultimately the player’s choice). In Returnal, the player runs through Area 1, but will occasionally come across doors that will contain shortcuts to later areas.
This raises the same big question, though: should I head straight to Area 2, or explore Area 1 first?
The same basic problems apply. You get useful stuff by exploring, but there’s a lot of risk since the game is designed to be incredibly tough. However, since you’re starting from scratch with each run, moving straight to later areas can be dangerous, because your equipment is going to be sparse and your character will be at her weakest. The only piece of useful information the game gives you is that it will upgrade your “Weapon Proficiency” to a pre-determined level, meaning that weapons you find will be stronger without needing to grind out progress. But that upgrade – while useful – doesn’t help as much compared to all of the other upgrades that the player is necessarily skipping. By comparison, the earlier areas also have upgrades that can only be reached with the equipment you unlock from later areas, suggesting that you are supposed to be exploring with each new run. So the player has conflicting information.
And so the problem becomes one of direction. Am I expected to explore these older areas for upgrades, or just head straight through? It feels like I’m supposed to head straight through, but the game is significantly harder in those areas without a really equivalent strength boost to my character. Add on to that problem that there are pieces of story content and other things that are to be gained in these older areas (or at least the first area), which suggests that actually I ought to make sure I explore those older areas first each run.
One way to explain this discrepancy is that the game is built for two types of players. Perhaps most players are expected to explore older areas to gain strength and unlock story content, and then use that strength to move into newer areas. Although that does mean that runs will get longer and longer, and so I’m skeptical that this is the intent. However, for other players, they’ll have developed so much skill (perhaps by continual playing of the game and having finally seen all the bits of story in the older areas) that they will only need that upgrade to Weapon Proficiency. And so the shortcuts are made for them.
That explanation would give a perfectly good reason for this problem to exist. But even if that explanation were true, it would still be a problem of design because that explanation isn’t actually being given to the player. The game does not say “if you’re struggling, go explore these older areas.” It doesn’t warn you about using the shortcuts. It just leaves you on your own. Which in turn leaves the player directionless.
Now normally being directionless isn’t a major problem. Some players will drop off, but others will be able to figure things out with some exploration or experimentation. But roguelikes don’t really have “exploration” in the sense that other games do. You already know where to go, you just aren’t sure how to get there. And experimentation is a problem because roguelikes are procedurally generated: did an experiment fail because I messed up my movements and attacks, or because I messed up how I approached the game as a whole? am I succeeding because I’m playing better after hitting my head against the wall so many times, or because I’m approaching the game like I’m “supposed” to, or maybe just because I got some really good drops?
Since experimentation requires have very little variation, roguelikes are always going to have problems with large-scale experimentation, unless the player is willing to pour in hundreds or even thousands of hours (depending on the size of the game).
Ultimately the core difference between Rogue Legacy and Returnal is the sticking point for the problem. Rogue Legacy works because of the interaction between its open exploration and the character progression. Players have a choice between exploring and moving on that has a “correct” answer, but where the player can still reject that answer without feeling like they’re messing up. And eventually, their own choices will lead them to changing their preferences: exploring more means you can buy more upgrades, which means you need more money, which is much easier to get in later areas. Eventually you’ll just be so strong that it isn’t worth exploring older areas, and so you’ll decide on your own to move on.
In contrast, the lack of that character progression in Returnal means that even if it had the same “correct” solution to the problem, the solution is harder to discern and players aren’t nudged in the right direction. If you find success by exploring older areas to get stronger first, then the only drawback is time: each run will take longer and longer as you have more and more to explore. But you’ve still built up a belief that you need to do this exploration to succeed. And the game isn’t really telling you otherwise.
Just as important as individual systems in a video game is thinking about how those systems interact with one another. Sometimes these interactions are intentional. Designers set up progression or dialogue or the interface or all sorts of other things to supplement or aid other parts of the game.
But sometimes these interactions are going to be unintentional. Not all unintentional interactions are bad, but it’s still important for us to keep a careful eye out for them. Because not only are they going to be harder to spot, but they can also create massive problems for a game.
In this case, Returnal had a lot of interesting ideas. And any particular part of its design is ultimately fine on its own. Roguelikes are good. Tough games are fine. Minimal character progression poses no problem. But the way all of these systems interact together makes for a game that loses its sense of direction.