A Diversity of Roguelikes

This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Once upon a time, the "Roguelike" genre was a semi-hidden cache of secrets in gaming. Games like Rogue and NetHack were passed around from floppy to floppy, not sold in stores, not discussed in magazines, and certainly not treated as part of the same tradition as an Ultima or even a Gold Box game. Maybe it's because the genre name is just so stupid. We don't call first-person shooters "Doomlikes" or puzzle games "Tetrislikes."

Unfortunately, I don't have a better term for it. Perhaps over the course of describing them in a column we can think of something. Here are the consistent attributes of the genres: it involves a series of randomly generated levels, starting hard and getting progressively more difficult. They're usually stripped-down role-playing games, where you roll a quick character, pick a class, buy a couple items, and then get killed permanently by a slime and have do it again. They're also designed for short play sessions.

If any game changed the sub-genre's reputation, it was Diablo, a game which used much of the form of a Roguelike while also applying top-notch production values. It wasn't the first – SSI released a Dungeons & Dragons-based Roguelike called Dungeon Hack – but it was the most popular (Dungeon Hack III ain't triggering news stories about its Best Buy billboards, after all). Since then, alongside the rise of more consistent digital distribution, we've seen major changes. The design model isn't necessarily used for RPGs anymore either – Spelunky applies it to platformers, while Dwarf Fortress uses it for a strategy game.

There are three Roguelikes, two released last year, and one in public development, which illustrate the potential of the subgenre in very different fashions: The Binding Of Isaac, Dungeons Of Dredmor, and Desktop Dungeons. Each is well worth examining.

The Binding Of Isaac is the best-known of these, even popping up on a few Game Of The Year lists. This is largely deserved; the game is a stunning artistic achievement. It shares a developer with the equally impressive platformer Super Meat Boy, and it shares with that game a taboo style, built around the kinds of things that go squish and aren't discussed in proper society. Isaac takes that further, building childhood anxiety about scatology and rejection into its entire presentation. It is a nightmare universe, filled with blood and shit. The deranged fantasies of a neurotic young boy are not usually the focus of video games, which makes it all the more surprising that the medium is so effective at telling those stories.

The randomness and difficulty of the Roguelike genre support Isaac's overall narrative. Each new game plays like a new nightmare, with random bosses, rooms, and upgrades waiting for Isaac. And the high difficulty only seems appropriate for a game about a child fleeing his deranged mother.

Though The Binding Of Isaac is definitely a great Roguelike, I'm not so certain it's actually a role-playing game. It controls like a pre-3D Legend Of Zelda, where movement and pattern recognition are the keys to victory. There's virtually no statistical development or choice. What progression does occur comes from random items in the game, which might increase health, speed, or attack power. And while I may love RPGs more than other genres, I'm not an RPG supremacist - sometimes there are better ways to do a game. The Binding Of Isaac's simplicity helps it focus directly on what it wants to be.

If a Roguelike filled with stats and choices and leveling is what you want, there's a strong alternative, released just a few months before Isaac was: Dungeons Of Dredmor. From the start of Dredmor, you're presented with choices. First difficulty, but then a pile of different skills – 33 to be precise, of which each character can learn seven. This includes various weapon, magic, and crafting skills, but also odder traits, like Vampirism. Any one of these can significantly alter the way you play the game. There's also a wide variety of different items and base statistics, not to mention turn-based combat, making it sound like an ideal game for the old-fashioned RPG fanatic. It is for many – it could be for you! - but it doesn't quite work for me.

There's just too much going on in Dungeons Of Dredmor. The chief offender may be the half a dozen different crafting skills, in a game where it's difficult to survive long enough to get the items to craft. The statistics are broken into six different main categories, each with their own subcategory. The game is a little too clever with its stats, renaming each something different from the norm: instead of Strength, Burliness; instead of Charisma, it uses Savvy. Burliness is then divided into Melee Power, Armor Absorption, and Trap Sight Radius. Any item you pick up has the chance to improve either the stats or the sub-stats. It's complicated enough that the game even recommends simply picking items based on how well they make the numbers go up. It can get overwhelming.

Perhaps my favorite recent Roguelike offers a far simpler take on the genre. Desktop Dungeons takes the core concept of the genre – the difficulty, the randomness, the fantasy setting – and distills it down to its essence. Designed as a response to the length of games in the genre, each dungeon in the game takes around five minutes to play. It also makes everything clear. The game shows the outcomes of each attack on an enemy, with no randomness of combat.

With the results made clear, Desktop Dungeons becomes a game of constantly making hard choices. Use your healing potion now to gain a quick level, or regenerate via exploration? Continue developing a balanced character, or worship a magic-hating god? The engine is remarkably simple, but the apparently slight tweaks of character race and class in the game reveal the power of the system. It's one of the most mesmerizing games I've played in the past few years, and it's almost impossible to not start a new game and tweak that one thing that'll unlock a new class.

The Binding Of Isaac and Dungeons Of Dredmor are both available on Steam, while Desktop Dungeons can be found at its website for free download, while a snazzier version can be pre-ordered and played in beta. And of course, the king of all Roguelikes, Diablo, is scheduled to be back very soon. The sub-genre may have a terrible name, but it's one of the more interesting arenas of game design right now.

Coming Soon: The importance of Ultima, questing rhythm in New Vegas, the question of morality, and my first foray into The Witcher.


Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.