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The Year In Review: Roguelikes

Yes, I know what a roguelike is, so allow me to absolve myself of future pains right now: not everything I’ll be talking about here are definitive roguelikes. Much like the Wu Tang Clan, roguelikers ain’t nothing to fuck with. However, it’s undeniable that this year has seen a rise in certain elements of roguelikes permeating the rest of the gaming industry. Bits and pieces crop up here and there, sometimes so subtly that you won’t even notice the influences.

But first, let’s break down what a roguelike actually is, since the term may be foreign to some of you. A roguelike is any game that operates mechanically similar to the 1980 game Rogue, an ASCII, turn-based, randomly generated dungeon crawler with an emphasis on permanent death (permadeath) and resource management. There is something called the “Berlin Interpretation” of what a roguelike actually is which necessitates grid-based maps, single gameplay mode, and heavy exploration, but you get the gist. If you’ve played NetHack, you know what I’m talking about.

And if you’ve played any number of new titles from this year, you’ll also know what I’m talking about. In fact, Diablo III, one of the biggest, highest-profile releases of the year, is the third entry in a franchise traditionally associated with roguelike elements. Dungeons, for instance, are randomly generated and play into its exploration-heavy design. All the while, you’ll hack ‘n slash (another roguelike attribute) your way through enemies in search of loot and RPG numbers (and another!) popping off of everything.

You probably already knew that, though. In fact, I’m sure you’ve already poured a hundred or so hours into Diablo III. It was, after all, pretty much anything anyone talked about from May through to July. It turns out indie games are really where it’s at for roguelikes this year. Most of them just have little callbacks, though, to the mini-genre, like Legend of Grimrock. It doesn’t have permadeath and it isn’t randomly generated, but it is a dungeon crawler RPG that operates on a grid. Grimrock, however, builds upon the formula by being real-time, so combat suddenly involves tactics like circle strafing and reactionary positioning.

But let’s look outside of RPGs. Check out The Binding of Isaac, a quick hit from Edmund McMillen, the coiffed half of Super Meat Boy‘s Team Meat development duo. It may be a fast and action-heavy game, but it’s still a procedurally generated dungeon crawler with permadeath. The emphasis on action like shooting and dodging those parts of roguelikes makes Binding a strange game and an odd combination to be found outside of the realm of RPGs.

Odd, but not rare this year. We also have Spelunky, a side-scrolling platformer that also features randomly generated dungeons and permadeath. And judging by my Twitter feed and just about every video game podcast, it was all people wanted to talk about for weeks after its release. Its permadeath forced players into an old school frame of mind where you had to build upon trial and error to reach proficiency, build upon proficiency to reach mastery, and mount mastery to find effortless success. However, you would have to go through this cycle an insane number of times as you try to reach the next level and the next world.

All of this—from Grimrock to Binding to Spelunky—might point to a shift the zeitgeist mentality of gamers; they desire the moment-to-moment intrigue of real-time action but desire the methodical thoughtfulness of strategy games, a mindset that can be injected in like a can of NOS with the help of roguelike elements. Permadeath and randomness flow into a mindfulness, a constant vigilance that lends weight to every single decision. How to set up a trap in Grimrock, whether to go for that far-flung damsel in Spelunky or leave her to the monsters, and if you’re properly equipped for the next, unknown boss in Binding all bring gravitas to otherwise flavorless exploration.

Those familiar trappings go on, though. Just look at FTL: Faster Than Light, Don’t Starve, DayZ, Miasmata, etc., all of which feature permadeath with the first two also utilizing randomly generated maps. But that’s indie stuff. Roguelike influences have also hit the big time.

ZombiU, probably the most critically lauded title of the Wii U launch lineup, is all about permadeath and resource management. In it, you are a survivor. Just any ol’ survivor because when you die, you start over again as a new person with your old self quickly decaying into a fresh zombie. You also start over, though, with a barebones inventory, so if you want all your old stuff, you’ll have to do a corpse run. I hope you died somewhere accessible because you’re going to want to go back for all the goodies you had accrued over your past life. All those bullets and flares and whatnot are going to become vital to you making any sort of progress. It really makes the game super tense knowing that death is forever but can also be a forward-thinking maneuver.

And then there was XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If I had to describe XCOM in a single word, it would be brutal. If I had to describe in a single word that would have to be censored on broadcast television, it would be fucked. However, it is also fair, which is important. The other important thing is that all of your soldiers are subject to permadeath. And if you want to extrapolate it out, international relations are subject to the same fate. The entire game is an unstoppable train of forward progress, whether you’re ready for it or not.

It’s evil of Firaxis to allow you to name your squadmates. You can name them and customize their appearance just so that when they die, it hurts all the more. You got them their first kill and got them new gear and waited out all those recoveries just to watch them die from some mysterious floating disk that seems to be as good at killing as you are at dying. It also lends two giant scoops of drama to the whole ordeal. Caring about your progress in your game is natural, but the permanence of the game is what makes it all hit home.

Games traditionally are an endless endeavor; if you fail, you try again. No harm done. Just dust yourself off and pick up where you left off, using the lessons you learned from before. But roguelikes tend to buck that trend. Death has a finality to it and the only learning that is beneficial is of the fundamental understanding sort. Memorization of a level layout will get you nowhere if it changes every time. Taking calculated risks is just as bad as diving in without looking when everything and everyone wants to see you dead. The only safe risk is no risk.

The inclusion of these parts of roguelikes lend a dark, morose filter to the game, a filter that is familiar to most people when they find themselves in dire situations. It’s a part of life that we tend to escape from through games, so when we find the unknown and the unavoidable resolution of daily living in our leisure, it’s striking. And for some reason in the year 2012, we liked it.

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