The Game Archaeologist: A brief history of roguelikes

As with adventure games, it appears as though the mobile market has triggered a resurgence in the popularity of roguelikes with both developers and players. I've been stumbling over them left and right for a while now (I'm quite fond of FTL, which takes the roguelike into space), and every time I can't help but think of how this genre is almost the antithesis of an MMO.

Instead of persistent worlds rich in lore, roguelikes favor randomized dungeon crawls with little or no story. Instead of immortal characters that grow with a player over months and years, roguelikes feature permadeath around every corner. Yet there's love for both in many gamers' hearts and perhaps even a few similarities that help to transcend differences.

I find roguelikes fascinating because they are so hardcore, they yank me out of my comfy little leveling bubble, and they force me to use my brains for something more than figuring out whether it's time to use the "2" key once more. So what the heck, let's take a quick trip through roguelikes this week and see where -- if at all -- they connect with MMOs.

The founding father: Rogue

While dungeon-crawling RPGs arose almost as soon as computers started to become capable of supporting such games, it was a 1980 game that cemented a very specific subgenre within these RPGs. The game was Rogue, developed by Michael Toy, Ken Arnold, and Glenn Wichman at U.C. Santa Cruz for Unix systems. Rogue proved to be so popular that it quickly spread over the entire campus -- and from there, the world.

The creator of the C programming language and co-creator of the Unix system, Dennis Ritchie, claimed that Rogue "wasted more CPU time than anything in history."

Rogue was graphically simple (it used mere ASCII characters) but mechanically fiendish, sending players through a multi-level dungeon that could be explored turn by turn until they inevitably died. Before the assured demise happened, these hardy adventurers would attempt to level up, collect items, defeat monsters in any way possible, and interact with the dungeon in a surprising number of ways. The procedurally generated levels, wide array of encounters, infinite replay value, and the race against the Grim Reaper generated a strong following over the years. Instead of being turned off by the steep learning curve, fans seemed to thrive on the challenge and hardcore atmosphere that was presented.

Rogue was ported to different systems and then was copied, imitated, and improved upon, seeing all of its children bearing the label of "roguelike" in its honor as they attempted to entrap players in "yet another stupid death."

The roguelikes that emerged following 1980 are almost too numerous to catalogue let alone to grant a moment in the spotlight. One significant successor to the roguelike crown was 1987's NetHack, which came from 1982's Hack. NetHack took the exploration aspect of Rogue and made it far richer with an encyclopedia of objects, a larger vocabulary, a wealth of pop culture mentions, and a puzzler's attitude. Figuring out all of the uses for these objects in one's quest to survive pitted crafty players against nearly omniscient developers, turning NetHack into a metagame-within-a-game.

Programmers continued to expand NetHack through 2003, creating a true monster of a game in which just about anything could and probably would happen. Water fountain exploded into snakes? Loyal pet seduced you? Kingly throne electrocuted you? NetHack did all of that.

Another roguelike offshoot that certainly deserves a mention is Angband, a 100-level dungeon based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Angband has its roots in older games like Moria but differentiated itself from those and the roguelike rat pack through its IP and sheer immense size. Think that 45-minute dungeon run you did the other night tested your patience? Try a dungeon dive that lasts weeks, if not months! Another recent roguelike that's received much acclaim is Tales of Maj'Eyal (ToME), which is itself a descendant of Angband.

Early MMO developers were obviously influenced by roguelikes, culminating in such titles as Island of Kesmai and The Shadow of Yserbius. One might make the argument that the recent Wizardry Online is a roguelike of a sort, with a strong emphasis on dungeon crawling, puzzle solving, and permadeath. One of the great legacies of Rogue -- its focus on procedurally generated content -- is starting to make a comeback in MMO circles. Trove and EverQuest Next Landmark, for example, will both use technology to procedurally generate worlds instead of hand-crafting them.

I feel that Diablo II (and the series as a whole) deserves a special mention here not just because it is a clear descendant of roguelikes (with an action-RPG spin) but because it made a serious effort to bring the game online. Players had several options to engage with others, from local area networks to the platform, and Diablo II provided them with a proto-MMO once they got there. PvE grouping was common, as was the dreaded PvP player killing, and an enthusiastic (if out of whack) trading economy flourished. Of course, this was made even more interesting for those who chose to roll a hardcore character who had precisely one life and no more -- a definite throwback to Rogue and its peers.

Another roguelike/MMO crossover that's interested me is Realm of the Mad God. While the emphasis here is far less on careful dungeon crawling and more on frantic clicking and movement, the way it incorporates permadeath as a natural part of your journey through the game is fascinating. Each death is not wasted but contributes toward your growth as a player.

Dwarf Fortress (2006) is another roguelike phenomenon; it jacked up the complexity as it challenged players to create and sustain the titular fortress before it all came crashing down (somehow). Once again, the ruthless and unapologetic hardcore attitude proved to be quite attractive to gamers tired of hand-holding and easymode saved games.

And while I started this column by pointing out a few ways that roguelikes and typical MMOs are diametrically opposed, there is one passion that both of them share: a love of a very diverse loot table. Roguelikes have always been big about loot and lots of it, most of the times coming from a random number generator that functioned much like a slot machine. Sound familiar? Players of both roguelikes and MMOs have found themselves addicted to the potential random payout of that next monster, that next chest, or that next boss. This is why, incidentally, the Diablo III devs are making such a big deal out of their Loot 2.0 system for this year.

If I've managed to pique your interest in roguelikes, here are a few that you can play for free right now: Rogue, NetHack, and Angband. Happy exploring!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.