What the hell is a roguelike? We try to hash out a definition
Okay, so what the hell is a roguelike? People are throwing the term around, and players are either absolutely sure they know what it means, or they have no idea and don't wan to ask. Or they do ask, and we trip all over ourselves trying to come up with a clear definition.
Genres are tricky things to nail down in video games, and I’ve seen arguments about names as seemingly simple as “adventure” games and “role-playing games.” Sitting through an industry awards show and trying to figure out how certain games were placed in certain genres and designations can lead to migraines and another trip to the open bar. But let’s try to nail this one down, because the genre is only getting more popular.
Let’s start with Wikipedia, which is going to give us a good base on which to build.
The roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement. Considered an obscure genre, most roguelikes are made on a non-commercial basis and only feature ASCII graphics, with newer games increasingly offering tile-based graphics.
Games are typically dungeon crawls, with many monsters, items, and environmental features. Computer roguelikes usually employ the majority of the keyboard to facilitate interaction with items and the environment. The name of the genre comes from the 1980 game Rogue.
This makes a ton of sense, but I’m going to add a few bits, because some of those designations don’t really apply to modern roguelikes, unless you believe in a sort of set in stone designation for each genre. I don’t think that’s a helpful attitude, especially since modern games tend to borrow from many influences and often exist in the margins of the names we give them.
I also have a feeling this story is going to lead to a lively comment section. We live in a world where Final Fantasy games, Skyrim, and World of WarCraft have all been called role-playing games, so let’s all get comfortable with a certain amount of debate that’s possible with these terms.
Rogue and Nethack provided us with the basis for the roguelike designation, and the most interesting facets of the genre: randomization and permanent death. When you start the game you don’t know where to go, as roguelikes offer a different experience every time. So the environments, maps, enemy and item placement are random. The game is different every time you play. That's one of the first pillars of the roguelike.
Permanent death is also an important signifier of the genre. When you die, that’s it. That character is gone. You can’t reload a previous save, and you can’t get your items back. There is no quick saving. This leads to a sense of danger and tension, and roguelikes tend to be known for their high levels of difficulty. You need to move slowly, and plan ahead. Mistakes are punished, and any levels you gain or items you earn are taken away when you lose the game.
So these are the classical ideas behind roguelikes, and one could even argue that Diablo played on hardcore mode could be considered a close brother to the roguelike genre.
The “Berlin Interpretation” of roguelike as a genre also states that the game needs to be turn-based, although many modern games that are often called roguelikes share more in common with action and adventure games.
Consider Spelunky, a game with random environments and permadeath. It’s often called a roguelike, although it relies on hand-eye coordination and reflexes as much as strategy and planning to win. It’s also played in real-time instead of turn-based.
You can also look at games like FTL, which feature random elements and permadeath, but is also played in real-time. In fact, the FAQ for the game refers to FTL as a roguelike-like.
“We use the term loosely, mostly just as a representation for some of the main thematic elements of the genre. This includes permadeath, randomly generated game worlds, relatively short play sessions (5-90 minutes), and a single-player focus,” the official page states.
“A new term would be good, as the word is being used to describe random levels/scenarios, actual consequences,” the Rocketcat Games twitter account said when I posed this question via Twitter. “Current term for this: The awful ‘roguelike-like.’ Randomized-Survival? Chaos-Survival?”
Binding of Isaac is another good example of the modern roguelike, or roguelike-like, as the game is played in real time, is randomized, single-player, with full games being playable in a short period of time and death resetting all progress made in the game. The upcoming Road Not Taken also fits into this designation.
There will be a few grognards who will say roguelike-likes aren’t roguelikes at all, especially if they grew up addicted to Nethack and feel that the Berlin Interpretation is somehow binding. It may be time to start thinking of the genre as a best-fit line that incorporates one or more of the pillars of the modern roguelike-likes, and cut off the last “like” to the designation.
Would anyone object if we just labeled all these games as roguelikes, and state that the broader definition of the terms includes single-player games with randomized elements, permadeath, and manageable length of play sessions? There are problems with these designations, and not all games we consider roguelikes fit into every one, but it gives us a descriptive term for a growing, evolving genre.
Now, let's not get started on Metroidvania...
What is a roguelike? The fact that we have to ask this question catapults roguelike past “third-person shooter” or “adventure game” as the worst genre name video gaming has ever dreamed up.
The problem with “roguelike” is that it utterly fails in its function as a succinct byword that helps people understand a broad idea with a simple phrase. If we - the writers and readers of PAR who together comprise some of the most avid gamers on the planet - have to hold a think tank to define what a roguelike is then what hope does an average gamer have?
It works for people who already know what a roguelike is, but this is a small portion of the gaming audience. I write about games for a living, and I still need to look up the definition every time I read it to make sure I'm clear.
The crux of the word depends on the reader having played an early 80's text adventure. Something that no self-respecting reporter would ever do under any other circumstances, it implies very specific knowledge you can't be sure your reader carries.
You wouldn't call something an Achetonlike and expect someone to know what you were talking about, or reference a mechanic as being similar to the gameplay of A Mind Forever Voyaging. I'd be willing to bet my next paycheck that less than 10% of even hardcore gamers know what Rogue was, and vastly fewer have played it.
It's essentially the same thing as calling a game a “God of War-clone,” which itself is an embarassingly poor turn of phrase. Except most hardcore gamers have at least heard of GoW or seen the marketing, and know how it plays.
Why bother using a byword that actually confuses the reader more than just explaining what the game is? Ben may hate “Metroidvania,” but it references two very specific, very popular games in long-running series.
What is a roguelike? I don't exactly know, and that's why it ought to be tossed in the trash forever. On the other hand, if you've read this article and you have a slightly better idea of what writers and designers mean when they use that phrase? All the better. If you have a better idea, we'd love to hear it.