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.]

For 34 weeks now we've talked about all kinds of roguelikes, including many of the major ones and a few niche cases. These are games that can attract incredibly loyal fans, not loyal, perhaps, in the dress-up-at-DragonCon style, but fans who can nudge the system of an intrinsically chaotic game like Nethack to the degree that they can maintain incredible winning streaks.

Hmm, I said nudge there. That seems oddly appropriate; the game genre that roguelikes most resembles, in a sense, is pinball. Traditional RPGs are games in which the world is laid out beforehand, every encounter planned out. Other than the very earliest of these games, there is generally a way out of any situation you can get in. This is, in fact, more or less game design law these days throughout the industry: if the player is not dead or inescapably falling towards it (like, seconds away), then there must be a way out. Although one or two may strive mightily, there is nothing to prove that a roguelike is winnable every time. Notice that all the major streaks in the list linked to above have ended months ago.

The need, in traditional computer games, to avoid inescapable situations produces certain subtle limits to their play. Most Lucasarts adventures are actually impossible to lose. Because of this, the player can mostly disregard that pesky danger sense. He won't die, he won't get a puzzle into an unsolvable state, and he won't be able to lose an item he needs to win. If an item is needed to win, but can be lost, then if there is an infinite source of them somewhere in the game (like, say, the clown in the first year of Grim Fandango telling you he'll provide as many worm balloons as you want) it's a pretty sure bet it's important somehow.

The fourth case of the original Phoenix Wright has a place where Detective Gumshoe offers you a choice of three different tools to use in searching for clues. Only one provides the necessary clue. Because of this, it's always possible to go back and try a different item if you picked incorrectly....

Can always go back? Wait a second!

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That doesn't sound like it's a real choice at all! And in fact, Phoenix Wright, traditional adventure games, and many other games too like console RPGs, suffer from an absence of player choice. He may be able to roam around, but that rarely matters to the game. He may need to solve puzzles to proceed, but it's more of a choice between solving it and moving on, and not solving and being stuck. He may (in Phoenix Wright) lose a case because he's been penalized too many times, but running out of points is the only resource in the game, and the play doesn't change in any other way from losing them.

It seems to me, and feel free to debate me on this, that when you reducing the fractions all the way down thes games end up being nothing more than sophisticated versions of a "next page" prompt. If games ultimately are about the choices a player makes and their consequences, then these cannot properly be called games.

swat.pngNow, it should be said that the common definition of "game" is a little different from this, and that even under a strict definition this is not always true. There are some computer games that tell a story with branching outcomes, and the player's decisions, ultimately, determine which branch is followed. There are even games that make the "decision" a game mechanic: Ogre Battle is notorious for its "Chaos Frame" game system, where a score is kept of a number of variables, with more points usually assigned to more difficult practices (like not over-leveling your characters), and the characters who join and the ending are determined by the score.

And there are interesting things happening with Chris Crawford's Storytron, which is an algorithmic storytelling engine. In fact, if you take a roguelike as being a tool for the player to create his own adventure story, then Storytron starts to look a little (but just a little) familiar.

This is why roguelike games are especially important now. As games move further into being "interactive stories," with increasing deemphasis on "interactive," games are becoming less and less game-like. And as games increasingly take movies as their model instead of board games, puzzles, pinball, and so forth, this problem will only get worse.


For putting up with this admitted rant, here is a special bonus section: a list of games that are not roguelikes. Just pretend it's still April 1st ,folks.

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DOOM
Although the seminal first-person shooter may have nothing to do with roguelike games, a bit of thinking reveals surprising simularity. You fight monsters and explore from the same "world," after all, and there is a considerable amount of chaos there. But in the end the set mazes, encounters, powerups and "puzzles" mean it's really not a lot like Rogue at all. (There is one notable person trying to close the gap between the two, mind.)

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CIVILIZATION
It's got random maps, risk/reward encounters spread around the world, deep play and turn-based movement. You can even get an open-source variant, and you can play Middle Earth nations in that, so you can be an elf too! Surely, this must be a roguelike. But no, no: all roguelikes have dragons in them. Where are the dragons, Sid Meier? Also, Civ is a world-conquering strategy game, with no amulets Yendor in sight.

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ROBOTRON:2084
Has real-time play and no inventory system at all. But other than that, suspeciously similar. Arnold, Wichman and Toy should get around to asking Eugene Jarvis where he got the idea from.

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STREET FIGHTER II
Obviously not a roguelike, although SLASH'EM's support for SF2-like special moves (a special ability of the Monk class in that game) may fool some.

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DIABLO
Oh, get serious.

"Objection!" image from Jeux Video. DOOM screenshot from ID Software. Civilization screenshot from Firaxis. Robotron and Street Fighter II screenshots from KLOV. Diablo 2 shot from markeddragon.com.


Links of the two-week-period:

Roguelike The Magazine, back in action and better than ever: http://magazine.roguelike.us/

Glenn Wichman, one of the three guys who created Rogue, participates in the 7 Day Roguelike Project, making one out of Javascript, saving games as browser cookies, and yes I'm about to explode just contemplating such a thing: http://www.babelsphere.com/7dayquest/game/