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

One of the interesting ideas that that sadly-vanishing class of amusement machine, the pinball table, brought over to the scene from its less-reputable kin, the slot machine, is that some aspect of the game could carry over between plays. Although modern pinball games, which take almost as much inspiration in their design from video games as video games took from pinball back in the late 70s and early 80s, tend to downplay this kind of thing, it used to be that that progressive jackpots were a common feature on pingames.

A progressive jackpot is an award that builds, not during just a single game, but over many, and when someone earns it it resets to a minimum value. This could be considered bad because the traditional concept of a score is of a measure of a player's skill, and this upsets that notion by potentially giving different scores to two jackpot-earning players who have had identical games, simply because one of them played when the pot was at a larger value than the other. It also seems nonsensical in that, unlike with gambling devices, the points awarded by a pinball machine are wholly arbitrary in nature. While a slot machine cannot dispense money indefinitely and thus progressive jackpots allow for a good balance between income and outlay, a pinball machine can mint points indefinitely.

But what progressive jackpots provide best is a sense of continuity between games. By introducing variables into the game that are not at a default or random state at the beginning of play, a sense is introduced that the game goes on even after the final ball is lost. Further, it draws in other players: if you play ten games and build the progressive jackpot up to a high value then walk away from the table, it will still be at that level when the next player comes along, and he could earn the whole thing. In that way, different players may contribute to a game in interesting ways, producing a collaborative effect, a truly meta kind of game. There is no real reason to put this kind of feature into an automated amusement device like a pinball machine or a computer game program, but it is still an oddly compelling idea. It injects an aspect of the real world into the play.

This idea, in a form, is used in Will Wright's upcoming Spore, which doesn't have literal multiplayer but does have in-game opponents supplied from other players' installations of the game, but beyond that it is interesting that so few other games proudly feature outside influences. They seek to simulate a world completely removed, or at removed as possible, from the real one, so every game begins from a zero-state. But of course, stories that feature Final Dark Sources Of Ultimate Peril Threatening Generic Fantasyland, at the end, do not stand up well if they recognize the existence of prior, or future, playthoughs. The game would be subtly suggesting the world doesn't need saving, silly user, you already saved it last time.

So... do roguelikes do this kind of thing? The answer, sometimes, is yes.

Remembering dragons, beloved developers, and the whole wide world

Almost all roguelikes feature a high score table, which is an elementary example of the type. Beyond that, meta game features vary widely, and many don't have any at all. Angband and ADOM sort of do, in their monster memory feature, by which a player can have his character inherit the knowledge of opponents gained from a prior character and carry it into a new game. But this doesn't actually change the play; it simply makes more complete the automatically-compiled, but ignorable, information collected during the current game. It is possible to play both these games, and win, without even realizing that monster memory exists, especially if the player takes notes on discovered monster strengths himself, which we can consider to be the traditional form of monster memory.

But there are games that genuinely change the world in response to events outside the current play. ADOM also contains the Bug-Infested Temple, a special region that can only be found once 100 characters have died on that installation of the game. The region contains considerable dangers, so it is ignorable, even if present, if the player doesn't feel up to the challenge, but it also contains some nice rewards, along with statues of various maintainers and bug-finders who have worked on ADOM. Still, the existence of the temple falls under the category of Easter Egg more than a true influence to later plays of the game, since the temple's presence is binary. It's either there or isn't without degrees in-between, and its doesn't otherwise change no matter what the player might do. It doesn't truly utilize information gathered during prior runs, it just counts them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is up-and-comer Dwarf Fortress, which stretches the definition of roguelike a bit. Its Fortress mode is definitely not roguelike in nature, but its Adventurer mode does play much like a very idiosyncratic roguelike, one that discards item identification and much of the genre's Dungeons & Dragons roots and ruleset underpinnings. What makes it truly fascinating, however, is that the contents of the game world are influenced by all the games that have been previously generated in that "world."

On the first play-through of Dwarf Fortress, the game spends a large amount of time randomly creating a world for many games, not just the first one, to take place in. In addition to an overworld, and cities, mountains and such, the game also generates civilizations relating to the world, which adventurers can contact and even attack, and with which player fortresses may build relations or trade, or be attacked by. More interestingly, when a player loses a game, the details of his game are added to the game's record files of the world in a substantive manner: tales of any legend he (or his dwarves) created are added to the game's logs, fortresses become abandoned and filled with monsters, and some of the old traps that had been constructed (which in Dwarf Fortress may be complicated indeed), and become an area to explore rather than defend. And from the lemons-into-lemonade department, it is also possible to reclaim fortresses lost in prior games in an entire game mode that, by itself, can only played if the player has already lost a Fortress game.

Civic Improvement Through Reincarnation

Shiren the Wanderer, the popular Japanese roguelike made for the Super Famicom, takes the same approach that the Fushigi no Dungeon games have taken from the beginning. While in a traditional roguelike each game is considered to focus on a different character, of a class and race either decided by the player or chosen randomly, who dies when he runs out of hit points and then is no more, Shiren's play metaphor is subtly different.

In that game, and the others in its series, there is one character who attempts to explore the dungeon (or dungeon-like area) over and over again, who doesn't die when he runs out of hit points but is instead mysteriously (since it is a Mysterious Dungeon after all) returned to the beginning of his quest should he run out of HP. In some games he also loses his items, or experience levels, or both, which is, in essence, the same fate that awaits a player of a more traditional roguelike. However, it also implies that it makes more sense that a player's actions in one game may influence the world in the next.

During Shiren's quest, he encounters a number of towns along the way. Unlike the game's random dungeon levels, towns are always static, although shops in town may have random contents. Also in the game are warehouses that can be stocked with objects. An object left in a warehouse will remain there even for later games. Item may be taken freely out of warehouses to assist the player on his journey, although, naturally, it will not be available for later, and will be lost if Shiren should run out of hit points.

There are also people in towns to interact with who may offer quests to the player. One example: in there is a restaurant in one of the towns that, after a few visits, contains an unpopular restaurant that is trying to get off the ground. To do this, they need a chef to prepare their food, and they need money to pay him. It is unlikely that a player will have enough cash to give to the proprietors on his first visit, but the total given persists between games so it can be paid off in stages.

When the full amount is paid, which may take many games, then the player must find the chef on one of the earlier dungeon levels and bring him to the restaurant, giving him the meat of a specific monster (which must be obtained by the player's own devices or with the Staff of Bufoo provided by the chef) to seal the deal. Once the chef is brought to the restaurant, the game unlocks these very useful Staves of Bufoo to be randomly generated in dungeons for later games.

Through participating in quests like this, the player is effectively making progress in two games at once. The real objective of Shiren the Wanderer is to complete the "inner game," getting Shiren to the top of Table Mountain before running out of hit points and beating the big monster there, but this is very difficult to do on the first try. The task can be brought to a more manageable level of challenge by playing the "outer game": building up warehouses, stockpiling resources over many inner-games to improve his chances on later plays; completing townsfolk quests, which can gain the player new objects which may appear in dungeons; and, by befriending various helper characters who can assist the player on his trip.

Thus, the first game of Shiren the Wanderer can be a substantially more difficult experience than the one in which the player finally gets the guy through. Just about all the Fushigi no Dungeon games, from Torneko's Mysterious Dungeon on, make use of this play metaphor, sometimes to the degree, in fact, that the roguelike qualities of the game are muddied. As I mentioned previously, one of the greater sins of the Pokemon Rescue Team games is that they put too much focus on that outer game, necessitating many, boring plays of the inner game to make progress in it.

This brings us, as so many roguelike discussions do, to Nethack.

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"Oh damn, it's 'Kill The Hero Day' in the Dungeons of Doom"

The primary persistent aspect of Nethack is its special "bones" files, but to describe them well it is necessary to explain a little of the way the game operates internally.

When a player is exploring a given level of the dungeon, at that moment, none of the rest of the dungeon exists in memory. When a level is left for another one, a file is saved to disk containing the complete state of the level at the point it was exited. When a level is reentered, its state is read back in and the floor's state picks up where it had left off, although modified slightly to take into account time passed since the level was last seen and objects and monsters that may have migrated there in the time since it had been last visited.

This function, the ability to save a snapshot of a level at any time and load it back in as a level of the dungeon later on, is the core of Nethack's unique Bones feature. When a player dies, as they frequently do in Nethack, there is a chance that a snapshot will be taken of the level and saved to the game's bones directory, for a later, diabolical use.

Whenever a new random dungeon level is called to be generated, there is a one-third chance that, if a bones exists from a prior game for that level, it will be loaded instead and the file will be deleted. On the spot where the player died will be his stuff, his corpse, a ghost with his name, and, usually, all his stuff, now cursed (some objects will be changed in rare cases; ultra-important objects like the Amulet of Yendor cannot be found this way, and artifacts that already exist in the game will be found to be ordinary things).

The level is otherwise much as it had been at the fatal moment, meaning if the previous character had met his end due to a monster, that monster is probably still around somewhere. If that was an incredibly strong monster relative to that level then this sometimes results in another quick death, which itself might generate a bones level. Most experienced Nethack players have stories about a series of poor games, each brought to an early end due to a string of back luck in generating and loading bones. If you ask one to tell you the story you might be pleasantly surprised, but it's more likely you'll just get a lot of cursing, followed by weeping.

There are other cool things about bones levels too, and here we progress from the realm of merely awesome to that of really absurdly, extremely, mind-spinningly awesome. If one is playing Nethack on a multi-user instillation, as was formerly done quite often, then bones levels can be shared between players. It is possible to find the remains of a player who almost won the game, collect a whole pack-load of cool stuff, take three steps, then get engulfed by Juiblex (who had been summoned by the prior player due to a sacrificing accident) and rapidly sickened to death.

Not that I was mad about it.

But really, why is that so cool?

It is because an increasingly popular way to play Nethack is on public servers like those alt.org and devnull.net, which count as multi-user systems in the same way as in the old days, and so players encounter bones from players they'll never meet, playing in ways obscure to their own local clutch of hackers. Much like how Spore is a single player game that utilizes data produced by other players, so Nethack can make use of the still-warm corpses of past games to inject a good measure of excitement (in both good and bad ways) into each game. There even exists a well-regarded utility, Hearse, that a user can run periodically to send and receive bones files between systems, so even games on single-user systems need not miss out on all the "fun."

But really really, why is this so cool?

Honestly, I can't say. It just seems to be that way.

Something else that's cool without it being obvious why is Nethack's mysterious time and date effects. Long before games like Animal Crossing and Pokemon offered special events for playing at special times, Nethack was playfully modifying the game based upon the current real-life phase of the moon. These effects are a bit obscure (full moons provide a minor luck bonus and new moons make cockatrices a bit more dangerous), but at least neither is likely to greatly bork one's game. Unlike....

Some time during Nethack's long development process the decision was made that players should be given a small luck penalty on Friday the 13ths. On a full moon, players get default to starting with a +1 to luck, meaning that random effects like fountain drinking tend to be slightly better and the player hits more often in combat. On a Friday the 13th, players start out with a base luck of -1, which is worse than a +1 is good because prayer, that essential resource of the newbie, which can fix problems ranging from being low on hit points to starving to death to turning to stone to being strangled by a piece of cheap jewelry, never works if the player has negative luck. This makes the game substantively harder on that day, hard enough to avoid playing unless one is looking for a challenge.

According to the time spoiler, Nethack also has a couple of time-of-day effects but they are encountered much more rarely: undead creatures do double damage during the hour of midnight (but they are not huge damage doers anyway), it's harder to tame dogs on full-moon nights, and gremlins sometimes steal intrinsic properties of the player (like fire resistance or automatic teleportation) on successful attacks between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. In fact, for all the fuss that some players have made about them, Nethack's time and date effects, aside than Friday the 13th, are actually rather subtle.

And this is not really such a bad thing. It is one thing for a game to be somewhat different depending upon the hour at which it is played, but it is quite another for it to be constantly different every hour of every day. Nethack is already a game that, sometimes, pushes the amount of knowledge a successful player needs to know to extremes. ("Why should I not eat these eggs I found on the floor?") To add a calendar to the spoilers that most every winning player must read might be--if this is possible--too much.