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.
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.
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.
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.