3: the CJ Interpretation of “Roguelike”
Roguelike is a term that will be used in this blog, and since it´s meaning can be nebulous I feel I should define what it means in the context of this blog so when I say that X or Y mechanic helps the game feels more like a roguelike, readers can understand what I am talking about. I have always seem this definition as more fuzzy, then binary and will probably be tweaked and improved as Lenurian´s development advances. This is not meant to define a hard line on what is or isn´t a roguelike, nor is it meant to supplant any other roguelike definition.
The idea is to focus on general principles rather then specific mechanics as mentioned in the previous article, and according to the below quote:
“We need a different name from ‘permadeath,’” Rogue co-creator Glenn Wichman said. “When people talk about permadeath, they talk about us three being mean. ‘Oh, they wanted to make it extra hard, so they threw in permadeath.’ [But] permadeath is [just] an example of ‘consequence persistence.’”
The principles I currently settled on are: Variable Worlds and Exploration, Rules Consistency,Consequence Persistence, Clear Communication with the player, Wide and Meaningful range of choices
They are detailed below, and after each principle´s description is a list of common roguelike characteristics that help enable it.
Variable Worlds and Exploration:
The maps, items, NPCs, are not fixed, they change from playtrough to playtrough, this increases replay value and enables exploration, since the player cannot remember the map from a previous playtrough. Note that for thsi to actually work well, the maps need to not only be diferent but to FEEL different. Some game use procedural maps to make diferent layouts that still feel same-y and repetitive(e.g.: Hellgate London) As far as I know, the only current feasible way of enabling this is procedural generation, but if some hypothetical studio were able to handcraft a gazillion worlds that are randomly selected on each playtrough without the player ever getting the same one twice unintentionally (maybe with mod support and a random selector), I would consider this condition satisfied. (Update: “The castle Doctrine” seem to have done basically that, it is a home-invasion roguelike where all the maps were hand-crafted by players)
Related Features: Procedural Generation, Discovery mechanics (e.g.:Item identifying), Non-linear Maps, line of sight mechanics.
The player should be able to learn how the rules of the game work, and to use that knowledge to predict the possible results of his action. If a bomb explodes when touched by fire, it should not care if the fire came from an expected or unexpected source, this woudl allow the players to experiment and get creative making their own strategies. The game should not care if a given unit is being controlled by a player or not, the rules of the game should apply based on the characteristics of the character. This principle is heavily related to the fairness in “Harsh but Fair” and “If you die it is your fault” kind of game.
Related Features: “Monsters are players”, Procedural Generation, physics engines, traps that harm both players and enemies, non-modal gameplay.
The player should have to deal with the consequences of his actions. Note that without the previous principle of rules consistency this could be extremely frustrating. This helps make even minor decisions meaningful, and is related to the harshness in “Harsh but Fair” games, but it is important to note that this applies not onyl to BAd outcomes but also to good ones too. This features allow splanning an dtends to be hampered by too heavy influence of RNG, sinc etoo much randomness tends to make decision inconsequential.
Related Features: Permadeath, Resource management, save slot restriction, Game-wide unlocks non-modal gameplay.
Clear Communication with the player:
The player should be able to find the information he needs. Graphics should be unambiguous. The exceptions should be by design. If the player didn´t realize a goblin was there because he didn´t pay attention that is ok. If the player didn´t see the gobbling because the gobbling was purposefully trying to hide/invisible/camouflaged, that is ok. If the player didn´t see the gobbling because the graphics were cluttered, that is bad. Diametrically opposed to this principle are those games that have areas that seem perfectly reachable and yet are kill zones for the player because they were arbitrarily “out of bonds”(my most frustrating deaths in FPSs have been because of this).
Related Features: Character based display, Grid Maps, Character Sheets, Text descriptions, visual representation of equipped items.
Wide and Meaningful range of choices:
At any given moment the player should have a range of available valid options without a single “right option”. If they arrive at a position where they are locked to an outcome, they should have arrived there by their own fault (Consequence Persistence and rules consistency)
Related Features: Turn Based Combat, Grid Maps, Front-loaded Commands, RNG, Permadeath, multiple uses for a single item.
“We need a different name from ‘permadeath, When people talk about permadeath, they talk about us three being mean. ‘Oh, they wanted to make it extra hard, so they threw in permadeath.’ [But] permadeath is [just] an example of ‘consequence persistence’.”
Rogue co-creator Glenn Wichman
While looking for references for these posts I found the above phrase, and it exemplifies a core concept of my interpretation of roguelikes: To focus on the higher principles and on the experiences the mechanics enable rather than focusing on the mechanics themselves.
I consider my current project “Lenurian”, to be a realtime roguelike. I understand that not everyone will agree, because to many people the turn based nature is integral to the experience. I realized that what I liked most in turn based games(including roguelikes) was the way it enabled Tactical complexity: combat/exploration focused on Positioning, situational awareness, carefull thinking, etc…, so to me those things are what gives the roguelike feel, and turn base gameplay is just one possible way to enable those things. To other people the important thing is the turn based gameplay and the things I like are secondary. However, It is perfectly possible to create a roguelike that perfectly complies with the Temple of the roguelike´s Classic Roguelike Definition but make it so simple and straightforward, that the player will never have many options to consider and there will be no tactical complexity.
What If we have a roguelike with a timer for your actions (like a chess clock)? it is mechanically very close to a traditional roguelike(And indeed would be considered a roguelike by many definitions ), but that feeling of time-control that enables a rogueliker to carefully weight every possible decision vanishes. In comparison, a real time game that allows one to creep around, observe the environment and it´s denizens, plan according to what was observed and only then act(Maybe something like hitman or Deus Ex on a dungeon) Would feel closer to that feeling, despite being real time(Anyway, that is my thesis will see If I can make it work when/if Lenurian is ready).
Many people(including all of those that use the berlin interpretation) consider the fact the player and non-player characters follow the same rules, to be a relatively unimportant aspect of a roguelike, but to me it is absolutely essential(moreso than permadeath), this sort of consistence is something that stands at the core of my appreciation of roguelikes, and roguelikes that don´t have that don´t really interest me.
So my approach is to focus less on the mechanics, and more on the principles behind them and what they enable.
Let´s use ASCII graphics as an example: To some people they are integral to the experience, similar to how some people prefer books without illustrations in order to have their imaginations do all the work, to others, gameplay is more important and aesthetics is barely relevant. In my case, graphics that show extra information, like equipment/weapons/class of the characters/monster enhances the roguelike feel, because the graphics remain clear and unambiguous but gives me more information to consider tactically ,helping me engage with the aforementioned tactical complexity aspect of the game, and to engage with other subsystems ( e.g.: the inventory systems).Conversely is perfectly easily to make a game that uses ASCII graphics badly(e.g.: The creator might prioritize aesthetics and choose a font that makes the Upper Case “I” and lower case “l” look the same so that it is hard for the player to know if they are against an “Iron Golen” or a “leprechaun”), and most Roguelike definitions would be more inclusive of the latter example then of tile graphics.
But what if instead of focusing on “ASCII Graphics” we focused on “Unambiguous Graphics prioritizing clarity and gameplay over aesthetics”? We would have a much more inclusive definition that nonetheless readily accept clear tile graphics over unclear ASCII. That is the aproach I try to follow.
Here I talk about different ways some people tried to define what is a roguelike, and why I decided to try my hand at it rather than using someone else´s approach ( If you are looking for story focused on the very fist definitions of the roguelike term, Slashie did a great one).
I will analise the Berlin Interpretation, TTemple of the roguelike´s Classic Roguelike Definition, and Roguebasin’s non-definition. (If you are looking for a discussion on the eraliest origins of the term, Here is a good one)
At the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008 some people decided to try and define what the roguelike community was all about by creating a definition of “Roguelike”. As a starting point they chose Temple of the roguelike´s Roguelikenes Factors. Since then the Temple has abandoned that definition.
To me, the core of the Berlin Interpretation is made of 3 things:
1 it´s disclaimer : “The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.” So the idea of this definition is not really to decide what a roguelike is, but to codify what the word “roguelike” was already being used as.
2 it´s idea that “Roguelike” refers to a genre, not merely “like-Rogue”>The genre is represented by its canon>The canon for Roguelikes is ADOM, Angband, Crawl, Nethack, and Rogue.” So it gives equal wait to Rogue, ADOM, Angband, Crawl, and Nethack.
3 The idea that what is or isn´t a roguelike is fuzzy. It took as it´s starting point the Roguelikenes Factors, and decided on 9 high-value, and 6 low-value factors. IT does not say that a given game is or not a roguelike, It merely says that a given game has x of 9 high values, and y of 6 low values.
I won´t go into details on each factor (I may make a full analysis if anyone expresses interest, but I doubt anyone wants to read that). But I want to pick on one factor as an example on why I won´t use this interpretation:
“ASCII display: The traditional display for roguelikes is to represent the tiled world by ASCII characters.”
I don´t think ASCII Characters are in any way important to whether a game is or not a roguelike, however, when someone mentioned roguelike, most people did think of games played in an ASCII display, so there was no way for them to possibly leave this out since it was an important component of what people thought of as roguelikes.
The berlin interpretation doesn´t really think too much on what the experience of playing a roguelike is like, it merely tries to formalize the mechanics/characteristics of what people already used the word for at the time, but time passes and this kind of informal definition can vary widely with time. Proof of this, is the many people who use roguelike for games that fans of traditional roguelikes call rogueLITE.
Temple of the roguelike´s Classic Roguelike Definition:
Eventually, the temple of the roguelike abandoned it´s aforementioned roguelikenes factors and substituted them with 7 characteristics they consider essential for a “classic roguelike”. It both narrowed and broadened the definition:
It abandoned the fuzziness of the previous definition in favour of a hard line making it narrower, on the other hand it stopped caring about roguelikes in general to focus on a subset considered “classic”. This means it implicitly admits the existence of games that are not CLASSIC roguelikes, but are still full-fledged Roguelikes.
I am not trying to do a clasisc roguelike so I don´t really care about this definition too much, though the idea that a game may not be a CLASSIC roguelike, bit still be a roguelike (not a roguelite, roguelike-like or PDL) is an important one, that I heartily concur. (Edit, the temple has now switched to using a definition for “Traditional roguelikes” which preserve steh basic idea that a game can be a full-fldged roguelike btu untraditional.)
Roguebasin actually does not try to define what a roguelike is , it freely admits that “it is hard to conceive a roguelike definition with which everybody will agree as this is a gaming genre that has evolved over time” instead, it catalog a few features that are common to many roguelikes, and contrary to the berlin interpretation it does not try to arbitrary define which of this characteristics is more or less important, rather it classifies this characteristics according to which of 3 aspects it relates to: User-interface, Game World and Gameplay. This makes it not a controversial definition but a useful reference page on roguelikes, and contents itself with using the nebulous informal definition of roguelike.
I think this was a smart thing to do, since It is easy for me to argue why ASCII display is irrelevant to whether a game is or not a roguelike (As indeed I intend to do), but it would be impossible for me to argue that ASCII display is not an element commonly found in many roguelikes.
Adendum – not-roguelikes :
Roguelikes have recently become more influential, with many games combining common roguelike mechanics with different gameplay types. Since, as I mentioned in part 1 of this series, terminology is important for accurate conversation, new terms naturally appeared to talk about these games, notably roguelike-like, and Roguelite.
Roguelike-like comes from the idea that if a rogue-LIKE is a game similar to rogue with some differences, a game similar to roguelikes with some differences would naturally be a rogue-like-like, where the number of “-likes” defines how far from the original rogue the game is (following this logic, a game inspired by Spelunky could become rogue-like-like-like).
Roguelite, on the other hand, comes from the idea that the games borrows roguelike mechanics but, substitute select aspects of roguelikes with aspects from other types of games. This frequently(though not necessarily always) means they are not as complex and tend to be bit less punishing, though they might be just as hard (or even more), the dificulty often comes from a difrent gameplay aspect then the one found in most roguelikes (e.g. A rogulite action-platformer might have it´s main obstacle come from the platforming or the need for quick reflexes, both things not usually found in roguelikes).
Procedural Death Labyrinth: I mentioned before that when one says roguelikes are games that are “like rogue” it begs the question “in which way?” Lars Doucet coined the term Procedural Death Labyrinth (PDL for short) to simplify the answer to this question to:
Makes strong use of procedural/randomized generation, especially (but not necessarily) for level design.
Makes use of character permadeath, and/or has a strong death penalty.
Takes place in some sort of semi-contained environment, usually (but not always) procedurally generated.
So a game can be like rogue in many different ways, but a PDL is a very good definition for what many people think of when they are informed a game has “roguelike elements”
It is interesting to note that a game can be a “classic roguelike” according to the roguelike temple and not be a PDL, as is the case with Dwarf Fortress Adventure mode, since the environment is an open world.
Whenever one wants to talk in detail about something, terminology is important.
One of the terms I will use a lot when discussing my game Lenurian is “Roguelike”, which is a term that means different things to different people making it imprecise. Many have tried to remedy that by defining what is or is not a roguelike.
In this series I intend to talk about why roguelike can be difficult to define, analyse a few common definitions of Roguelike, Roguelite, Roguelike-Like, and Procedural Death Labyrinth, before Presenting my own interpretation of what a roguelike means to me, so when I say that X or Y mechanic makes the game more “roguelikey” everyone will know what I am talking about.
If you find terminology talk boring you should skip these posts.
Why can roguelikes be hard to define?
In short, because “Roguelike” in it´s simplest and oldest meaning, means a game that is “like rogue”. However, this begs the question: like rogue in which way? Games have multiple aspects, and players are varied, which means that different players latch to different aspects of the game depending on how they experience it.
(Mark Brown has an excellent video about the problems on defining genres based on a specific game, and Tania Fox has an article that touches on the same points, but I will give it a go, for the sake of helping me structure my thoughts on what makes a roguelike. Probably won´t add much to what they said though.)
One of the most influential computer games was “Colossal Cave Adventure ” which had a text interface through which the player interacted with rooms, gathered items and used them to solve puzzles(This is fom where the genre name “adventure game” comes from). It inspired many other text based games, of which the most famous are probably the Zork series, which were for years, the undisputed champions of text parser games. However the same game also inspired the Atari game “Adventure” , which despite having very different presentation and gameplay, came about from it´s creator desire to recreate, the feeling of exploring a virtual space experienced when he first played “Colossal Cave Adventure ”.
Likewise, one very interesting game, revolutionary at the time, was “Ultima Underworld” which brought an unprecedented sense of place and coherency to it´s virtual world and inspired Bethesda to make the “The Elder Scrolls: Arena” John Carmack, to create a better first person engine, creating Catacomb 3-D which evolved into Wolfenstein 3D, and eventually DOOM.
Doom inspired many other shooters, called “Doom Clones”, which began experimenting with the formula until eventually the modern FPS genre was born.
Doom´s maps are very well designed, but they are extremely “gamey” the rooms have no discernible purpose other than gameplay.
Duke Nukem 3D, differentiated itself from other doom clones, by making the maps look like real places: The spaces have purposes:cinemas, bathrooms, pools, a bar It with a Playable pool table, etc… This level design paradigm made easy for the player to imagine people living and using those spaces in a time before the game started. This means that despite being farther from Underworld then Doom lineage-wise, Duke Nukem Is actually closer to underworld and later games by it´s creator in terms of having a more believable world.
So, would doom be a Underworld-like? Would Arena? Would Duke Nukem?
Is any game inspired by rogue a roguelike? If no, why not? Where do we draw the line? Is there a line?
Different people answered these questions in different ways. We will see some of those answers in the next part.