My love-hate relationship with roguelikes

2011-04-04

powder screenshot

I liked roguelikes ever since I discovered the genre, possibly in 2002 or 2003 -- around the same time I stumbled into the modern IF community. But while my involvement with the latter was significant, the former remained a marginal interest at best, despite attempts to change that.

Wait, what are roguelikes? For younger gamers, they are the ancestors of Diablo, although that might seem hard to believe when you see the latter next to, say, Nethack. Connoisseurs will tell you it's one of the oldest computer game genres, along with text adventures, and with the same timeless appeal due to the use of text as a medium.

They can also be some of the most frustrating computer games out there.

The first roguelike I remember playing was Tyrant, a Java game with graphical tiles and some balancing issues. Specifically, most of it was too easy, right until the endgame when it became essentially impossible. It did have a simple command set and a good tutorial, as well as a vast (if fixed) surface world that nicely tied together the various dungeons.

Tyrant is still maintained, I believe by a fan who took over at some point, but progress is slow. After seeing the source code, I know why, too. Hint: when creating a complex game such as this, make sure to use a real scripting language, instead of an improvised configuration format that doesn't even sit in its own file.

Wait, did I say graphical tiles? Why, yes. Call me spoiled, but I have a hard time picturing the terrain when I stare at the ASCII display of a traditional roguelike. Not that it's the main issue; I find Nethack's absurd number of commands much more daunting.

Anyway, my next favorite was Lost Labyrinth, a highly polished game designed to be played in 20-minute sessions (hence the term "coffeebreak roguelike". It also came with original skill-based rules and hugely flexible gameplay. Too bad that when I returned to it after a few years, it seemed punishingly difficult. Either it was rebalanced in the mean time, or else I forgot how to play and didn't have the patience to re-learn.

Not that the other extreme is any better. My experience with trying out Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup -- an otherwise polished and much-praised game -- was that I waltzed through the first level, finding it too large and mostly empty, only to run into a way out of depth monster on level two, at which point neither running nor the various scrolls did me any good. Needless to say, I stopped there.

And this is my gripe with the genre as a whole: it's all too arbitrary. That's especially noticeable in POWDER (pictured), the only roguelike I return to again and again. Randomness is one thing, but when a monster below your level can get lucky and kill you like you weren't there, cutting short a playthrough that was just getting good, it's anything but fun. And yes, you can do that in turn to a more powerful monster... except when you can't. "Arbitrary" may be too mild a word.

Look, life may not be fair, but this is a game. Different expectations, people.

Making my own

And now, for the point of this rant. Much like with text adventures, any roguelike fan will want to make their own at some point. And much like with text adventures, they probably can, too!

Of course, the big difference is that the replayability of a good text adventure tends towards zero, while the replayability of a good roguelike tends towards infinity. That may explain why I've played dozens of the former over the years, but only a handful of the latter.

Anyway, I already tried twice. First time I wasted all my energy with finding a set of tiles (there are some free-as-in-freedom tile packs out there) and trying to set up a mouse-controlled DOM-based engine. Yes, in a browser. Good idea in general, bad approach. The second time it was with a clever vector-based tile system and an overengineered graphics engine in Java. Notice a pattern here? Much as I would prefer to make a game with graphical tiles, the simple truth is that going back to the basics is the right approach.

But the most important thing for me is to make a game where success depends on skill for a change, as opposed to getting magic resistance by pure luck before running into the first basilisk or Medusa. Exactly how I plan to do that is another story, which I will tell in due time.

P.S. You can find out more about roguelikes at Rogue Basin. Everything you wanted to know, actually, and then some. Have fun!

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