Some games have far outlasted their peers, from classics like Tetris and Pac-Man, to games that have spawned entire genres like Rogue. These games are much more “game like” than others, but makes these different from their competitors? These games each embrace the unique elements of games as a narrative mode. They all focus on the player as the biggest element of the narrative, and they use this to their advantage in driving home their themes. Despite the obvious differences between games like Binding of Isaac and Tetris, the games have very similar themes, and achieve their effectiveness in conveying these themes very similarly. The most important, and most worthy of analysis, is the focus on the player and the micro narratives of player choice, rather than an overarching story the player has no direct control over.
Before exploring roguelikes, it is important to understand what exactly a roguelike is. Most often cited is the Berlin Interpretation, although it is important to give care to the preceding warning,
“The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.”
Despite being rather outdated by now, it still hits a lot of the things that are essential to what makes roguelikes unique. Random generation is the single most important mechanic to the genre, when people say “roguelike elements” they almost always mean an amount of random generation. While randomization is the biggest defining mechanic, more important to thematic impact are the harsh death penalties, usually through permadeath. These penalties give importance to the players decisions, there are no checkpoints, a death means losing everything gained from the run.
One of the most interesting aspects of Roguelikes, and to a lesser extent other games like Tetris, is the randomization. This is a key element of what makes up a Roguelike and it also gives the games in the genre much of what makes them so interesting and long lasting. Through the way the randomization(or procedural generation for a more technical term) interacts with the focalization of the game, the game tightly controls, and limits, what the player knows about the game each time they play. This not only makes each run more interesting and unique, but also ties into the themes of this genre very well. What the player knows is an asset that they gain each time they play and as such, it is something they can lose when they die. This adds an importance and consequence to decisions that is absent in other games, in Skyrim if you die you may lose a bit of progress but the information you learned is still relevent, your knowledge is preserved. This is not inherently a bad design choice, but the choice is deliberate in Roguelikes to enforce their themes. This aspect not only adds weight to player decisions, but also by limiting the player knowledge, what information the player does gain is then much more important. Each time a player dies they are only left with the decisions that led them to a loss, and this information enables them to get closer to winning the next time, avoiding their mistakes from previous runs. The difference in the focalization of each run or playthrough is vastly different when compared to other genres.
The exploration that is seen across almost all roguelikes is a great example of the way this mechanic affects focalization. The player only has access to information on the places they have been already. Each game they must rediscover the world and it’s dangers, weighing the risks of venturing into undiscovered areas. What the player knows about the map is essential, and making careless exploration may lead the player into reward or a loss.
In games there will almost always be a disconnect in the story and the narrative discourse, the story usually doesn’t include the hero dying ten times before saving the world. Although some explain it as cloning or reincarnation,roguelikes simply adopt this disconnect between story and narrative discourse. Similar to how movies like Memento use this disconnect as a narrative element, roguelikes accept player loss as part of the way the story is meant to be experienced.
Traditional roguelikes embraced a disconnect between runs, the only thing gained after a loss is player experience. There are modern interpretations of the Roguelike genre that are gaining popularity in western markets that have been termed Roguelike-likes(rather arbitrary). These games play with the traditional aspects of Roguelikes and specifically the limitation of the effects that one run has on the next. Instead of disconnecting each run like in traditional Roguelikes, the game melds the overall narrative discourse by allowing the player to earn assets to be used in later runs. One of the best examples of this would be Rogue Legacy, even the game’s story pulls together each run by making each character the descendant of the players deceased characters.The coins the player earns each run can be used to upgrade later characters. The game embraces the narrative discourse of roguelikes, getting better each run until finally beating the game, and uses it as a game mechanic. It also ties in these decisions in with themes of the genre, the upgrades the player buys are permanent and change the game dramatically, sometimes not getting an upgrade is as important as getting one. Although Rogue legacy may be the best example of this, there are many other cases of this embracement of roguelikes unique narrative discourse, like Darkest Dungeon, Risk of Rain or Faster Than Light. These modern roguelikes meld the harshness of traditional roguelikes with the progression of modern games, preserving the original intent with a modern twist.
The biggest difference between most video games and alternative forms of media, from movies to books, is the completely alternative view on the importance of supplementary events. In traditional narrative modes, there is an obvious focus on the constituent events of the story, these events make up the most important aspects of the narrative discourse. Even in many traditional and successful games like Metal Gear Solid, or The Last of Us the story is rather separated from the gameplay, told through traditional constituent events like cut scenes. A great example of a game the wholly embraces this game design is Minecraft, while it may not fall into the traditional roguelike genre,they were undoubtedly a heavy influence. Minecraft flies in the face of traditional storytelling, embracing instead a focus on the micro narratives of player interaction. The game’s record breaking success speaks for itself, players loved a world so centered around them. Admittedly the game’s success can be attributed equally to many other parts what itches it scratches, but what made it most unique and worth exploring as a narrative platform. Minecraft is a sandbox, much like traditional pen and paper RPGs which inspired the original roguelikes, allowing the player to create their own stories. This open ended and complex world is essential to roguelikes, in the Berlin Interpretation they reference complexity as one of the high value factors,
“The game has enough complexity to allow several solutions to common goals. This is obtained by providing enough item/monster and item/item interactions and is strongly connected to having just one mode.”
The ways a player overcomes their obstacles are what create a unique and engaging story. Gears of War is the story of Marcus Fenix saving the world from the Locust, FTL is a story about the player saving the universe. Even though there is a crew in FTL, the story isn’t about them, it is about the decisions the player makes.
This focus on the player allows roguelikes to be engaged with at a distance that is much more meaningful than even other traditional games. The player might have an affinity for Master Chief because they played as him, but Master Chief always wins. The player has a much bigger connection with their character in a game like Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, the character can die at any moment, and when the character dies the player loses everything. The engagement with the game creates a distance that enhances the themes of roguelikes, a more engaged player cares more about the effects of their decisions. Even in games like XCOM 2 or Darkest Dungeon, where the player has control over multiple characters, losing someone that has been with the player from the beginning is heart wrenching. Every call the player makes is made with this in mind, everything they worked for, they could lose even easier.
Roguelikes are able to use this increased engagement to tackle real world issues as well as creating a better game. This War of Mine is a survivor roguelike that tackles the real life harshities of civilian life on the frontline of modern war. The game utilizes the brutal aspects of roguelikes to simulate the realities of war, forcing the player to make difficult decisions and facing them with loss, as well as the procedural generation to make the game feel unique each time someone plays.