Aug 18 2011

An Genre Outlook: Roguelikes.

We return to the player character. But this time, we explain his existence and what makes him awesome...and prone to mortality

A Genre Outlook is going to be a new article type among the ones I already write; this will feature and describe the genre as best as possible, and attempt to explain what makes them engaging and interesting as videogames. Finally, I will provide some examples as to modern or less-modern games which define the genre well in order to allow others to get started.

The first in the series starts very strong for me; this is a genre I have played for many years, but also one I never believed would get such a following as strong as it has over the past few months. Roguelikes were very much a medium for those big on heavy-gameplay and exploration elements without much need for strong graphics, stirring soundtracks or any control of over the story-based content. With all the resources focused in that manner the loosely-based ideas are combined into a setting of a dungeon-crawl where the player collects items, battles monsters tactically and progresses through carefully; it is in that you have a Roguelike. The name of the genre comes from the first of it’s like; Rogue was released in 1980 by Michael Toy and Glenn Watchman-the men who were involved in originally designing Netscape and Quicken-and the public domain community worked on it from there. While Rogue certainly started the genre, it would not become popularized within the culture of the Internet and gamers alike until the harsh and unforgiving Nethack came to the scene seven years later. This game defined the most well-known aspect of its gameplay design; description and difficulty. Since the gameplay is a Roguelike’s biggest drawing factor, the amount of description is necessary that You have to learn to move and fight and explore tactically or you will see your health go down quickly…and if you died, you were done.

Yes, Roguelikes also used the concept of “permadeath”; If you died, that character was deleted from the system and could never be used again, making each character you make not only unique, but also more valuable in an attempt to encourage the player to make correct decisions to keep them alive. Of course, this also led to a very structured form of gameplay-as people learned the mechanics and exactly which items and equipment are needed without exception or change. Everyone likes certain classes or skills but some are more useful than others, and the rabid community that follows tends to limit gameplay to the only “right way to play.” Luckily, this design has changed considerably as balanced gameplay is becoming more and more the norm alongside graphical design.

Modern roguelikes handle the basic balance problem, but there are a number of older Roguelikes I would still recommend playing if you have a chance. Many of these are the exact inspiration for the new ideas. Let’s take a look at three games; two old and one new. I will provide ways to get these games in their titles.

Angband (And Many…Many Variants.)

The game screen with tiles activated; Usually, you'd see the alphabet and gray blocks. Quaint, huh?

The quintessential game which inspired Diablo. Set in Middle-Earth, Angband is a roguelike which took the dungeon-crawl and turned it up to eleven; one-hundred floors filled with monsters and the very threats of Mordor, it was released in 1990 as a precedent to the original game Moria. Instead of the iconic “B” which stood for Balrog, Morgoth was instead the opponent as his forces within the dungeon all come after you. The biggest threats are molds and self-breeding enemies, which can easily overwhelm the player. Rare artifacts compliment a very large number of many races and classes that cause the player to keep moving downward to defeat the greatest enemy known to Middle-Earth…or Naraku or the Emperor of the Galactic Empire….or Cohen the Barbarian.

Confused? Don’t be; Angband variants have existed since 1993, where the easily-modded source code changes and shifts the game in many possible ways. Add a quest room, add a wilderness and more dungeons, or even add whole new powersets which are unique and interesting all of these games exist. The most well-known basic change is Zangband, which adds a quest room at the main town and many different items but when you make a whole new game altogether, that’s when people raise their eyebrows. Tales of Middle Earth, also known by the community simply as T.O.M.E, has separated from his earlier foundations as an Angband clone and into its known game with a world map, quests, three major dungeons and at least ten minor ones. And if you’re interested, there is a multiplayer version of Angband known as Mangband…it just takes some time to set up.

Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM)

How lovely....and deadly...and eldritch horrory. Run fast, stalker.

Combining the inherent freakishness of H.P Lovecraft and the dungeon-crawling aspects of Angband, A.D.O.M adds a skill system which allows for item creation, better weapon skills, and general improvements to the characters which are reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons and their feats in Third Edition. Defeating Eldritch Horrors is even harder when you realize that prevention is just as important; learn to destroy every circle of cultists you see and be on the lookout in town for suspicious characters who will alert their friends to your presence and prep themselves for your coming. Food is a must as is drink, but another importance is to maintain sanity; go too mad, and you’ll start to hallucinate about new enemies and items that aren’t there, take combat penalties and even die from fright. When I mention that Roguelikes are unforgiving, this one is up there as one of the iconic meat grinders of the series.

Dungeons of Dredmor

This is a Monster Zoo. If you're not ready, you're dead. Plain and simple. Tread Lightly

The balanced and awesome game of Dungeons of Dredmor has already been given one hell of a review by my fellow colleague HalfBeard, but I will mention this game anyway because its interesting as all hell. Mainly because it takes every convention of Roguelikes, does them with complete respect and accuracy…and then decides to play humor with every single one of them. With a design aspect inspired by what appears to be one of the geekiest card-games known to man, Dungeons of Dredmor has you go and kill a lich with powers and their zany names, using thermite and other advanced technology to rip enemies to shreds, and all the while being completely and utterly insane as well as a entertaining experience.

The first way it does this is, and I’m sure this is a shock to everyone, that it actually looks presentable. Most Roguelikes were developed in the ASCII language, which are presented in numbers, letters, and symbols which is fine for an independent community of players, but not exactly presentable to a wider audience who likes to see a Prinny with a drill on his face die horribly. Secondly, most of the skills are balanced so they are all useful to some degree. Nethack and Angband have the ongoing problem of consistency in their builds; no matter what class and race you take, these are the items and powers you need to survive and there is little change from that mindset. As long as the player has some sense of proper build mechanics they can make an interesting and effective character to process through the large ten levels. Thirdly they built in a non-permadeath feature.

What better way to make the game more approachable than to make a Wizard Mode cheat into a actual option? People don’t generally like to lose all they have worked for, and forcing the issue is not fair to many. This was a lovely design decision and made Rogue Temple-the premier site for the independent Roguelike community-go into a huge uproar. For all those who support this change, all the power to you and keep on playing and making the dungeon-crawls viable for modern markets. I wanna keep dungeon-delving for a long time, let me tell you.

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