Rogue Clone IV ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre..]

Before we kick off this column on the niche-but-awesome genre of roguelike games, it should help to define what is meant by that term.

Roguelikes are dungeon-exploration computer games, patterned after their classic namesake Rogue, and set in a randomly-generated world. They are known for their tremendous difficulty, unpredictability, permanent character death, and the large number of methods they use to inflict that death. They were most popular in college computer labs in the 80s, and while they never achieved widespread success, the genre nevertheless persists to this day, and its dedicated cadre of devotees will argue night and day that these are the greatest computer games ever made.

(Click through to read the full, inaugural column from Mr. Harris!)

Just in case it isn't obvious by now: I am one of those devotees.

"Is that a computer game or bad ASCII art?"

From one perspective, the roguelikes are throwbacks. Here is a class of games, not really mainstream but not obscure either, that have largely resisted modernization. While it might be difficult for someone looking at Colossal Cave to connect it with being of the same kind as, say, Telltale’s recent Bone games, roguelikes, by and large, look the same as they always have.

Although two of the three major roguelike games have color graphic modes, they also retain their classic ASCII mode, and practically all other computer roguelikes use an ordinary text console window as its sole display. Nethack has inspired a number of attempts to give it fairly modern graphics, yet possibly the most-played form of the game even now, twenty years after it came into being, is on public telnet servers with hundreds of players, not tremendously different in appearance from Rogue itself back upon its release in 1980.

TTY NethackBut while there is an air of the Neanderthal surrounding these games, they've survived for so long because, even after all that time, they're still so startlingly modern. Since Rogue was created, the grand parade of computer games is supposed to have advanced in every respect. Their graphics now approach the point where they are indistinguishable from reality. So it is damning indeed that most of them are not more interesting to play than an old terminal game that has barely changed in 26 years.

"But it helped me last time!"

Perhaps the best explanation for roguelike longevity arises from the fact that they are randomly created each game. Every play, the dungeon levels are generated anew, so the player must again explore the mazes in order to make progress. But these days this isn’t as innovative as it once was, as a good number of other games have featured random dungeons since then. Many of them were directly inspired by Rogue or one of its descendents. Diablo, one of the biggest software success stories on the past ten years, remains quite popular. And yet in almost all cases, those games reveal only a glimmer of understanding of what makes Rogue so interesting.

Instead of random dungeons, the defining feature of the roguelikes is likely that the items generated during the game are also randomly selected, and their appearance is scrambled each game. That is to say, when you find an unknown potion lying on the floor of the dungeon, you don’t know at first what it will do when you drink it. One game it might heal you, the next it may rob your character of sight making you easy prey for wandering monsters.

Diablo 2 - image from neoseeker.comThat by itself isn’t so interesting, but what is is that the appearance of the various items in the game is consistent within that character's life, so all orange potions will be the same type, and the same goes for all cloudy ones, for milky ones, and even plaid ones. The game’s interface recognizes this too, so that if you drink a blue-green potion and get healed, all blue-green potions will be automatically renamed "potions of healing." Some of these items are less obvious in their effects (what the hell is ‘makes you feel warm all over’ supposed to mean?), so for them the game will ask the player what he thinks the item did, and will then use that name until the player can find a better one. Discovering items through experimentation, in this way, is an important process in any real roguelike, and its lack is what prevents Diablo, for all its admirable traits, from being as good.

Part hack and slash, part scientific method

All the potions and scrolls in Rogue, and most of its descendants, work that way: the player drinks or reads the item, it is used up, and its effect upon the world is described as well as the player’s character can see. But there is usually one type of item, the scroll of Identify, that will infallibly name an object. Since some items are so subtle in their workings that the player is unlikely to ever figure out their use through trial and error, Identify scrolls are valuable treasures. But the player can only ID things he’s carrying at the time the scroll is read, and he can only pick which item is to be ID'd, not pick the effect. If you’re dying to discover which potion is extra healing, only chance can bring that knowledge to you.

There are other types of random items in Rogue too, which are even more difficult to figure out. Rings have subtle effects that are very challenging to discover through observation, and wands are dangerous to play around with. Even in a winning game it is unlikely that the player will see all the items that can be generated, let alone figure out what they all do. While there are plenty of other things to like about Rogue and its descendants, in the end it is this need to discover the game world anew every time that makes them fascinating. In a roguelike, the monsters are just one facet of a dangerous game world ready to do you in on a moment's notice, and sometimes the beasties are less likely to end a game than the player's stuff itself.

In the coming months, we’ll be investigating many of the most interesting aspects of this venerable and challenging genre. We’ll take a look at the most popular games, and many lesser-known ones too. We’ll take a tour through the strange and exciting world of user-created Nethack patches. We’ll investigate the phenomenon of the popular Japanese series Fushigi no Dungeon, the closest that roguelikes have come to mainstream gaming anywhere. We’ll even dip into the vaults to investigate some of the almost-forgotten games that used to be played late into the night on college campuses, but are now all but lost to history.

We’ll do all this and much more, so be sure to come back in two weeks. Look for the guy waiting by the downstairs, whistling for his dog.