For those of you who don’t play games, 1. How did you end up here? 2. Would you like to know what I mean by ‘roguelike’? It literally means “games which are like the 1980 game Rogue”, but the modern usage has changed a bit. It now commonly refers to a type of game-play without retrievable saves if you die. Many allow you to save and come back to the same place but once you die you have to start a new play-through, hopefully having learnt from your mistakes.
The indie revolution on Steam has seen an enormous uprising in the roguelike game style. This is likely because the procedural nature of a roguelike makes it fairly easy for an indie developer to construct a game with surprising depth and re-playability. What has made a few titles stand out as great is the delicate balancing act these developers have to perform in order to hit that sweet spot of the perfectly compulsive roguelike that doesn’t quite drive the player to throw their PC out the window.
I am going to mention my 2 favourite modern-era roguelikes, which have really stood out to me as the pinnacle of this game style. I am aware I have missed out so many great titles so if you would like to discuss more games with me and the gang, head over to our forums (link) and feel to berate me on my incompetencies there.
The first game I am going to look into is FTL, which I am sure you have all heard of. If not, don’t worry we all miss games from time to time, but if you are into the indie scene on steam then this is really a title you shouldn’t leave out of your library. FTL is a tactical upgrade ship builder. You traverse 9 or so randomly generated, progressively harder maps fighting rebels, pirates and all sorts of squishy aliens. To start with, you are given a single ship layout with basic crew and weapons. As you travel around the map you encounter events or battles from which you can win more resources in the form of scrap, missiles, drone parts and fuel. Scrap can be used to upgrade your ship’s systems. It can also be used to purchase upgrades, weapons, crew members and other resources from stores scattered around the map. The random events and enemy types can provide a huge variety of benefits and dangers. Some encounters will do nothing but damage your ship, and some encounters can get you extra crew members or sometimes you’ll randomly be given the most powerful weapon in the game, not that you’ll have the power to use it of course.
From playing many many run-throughs of this game, I can also guarantee that even if you do come across an encounter you have seen before, it doesn’t mean you’ll experience the same outcome. That small unassuming trader ship that upgraded your engines for free last time might be hostile this time and blow a huge hole in your hull or steal one of your crew members. Certain races of alien that you can recruit to your ship and certain upgrades available will sometimes give you a blue option on an encounter which would not normally be available. Often these blue options have a higher probably of causing a good outcome for the encounter, perhaps your ship takes no damage where it might have taken some before or perhaps your rewards are increased. For this reason it is good to ensure you have a varied crew. On the other hand however you don’t want to generalise too much. You won’t have the time or the resources to max out your ship before reaching the final boss battle so you need to pick a specialisation early on and stick to it. Various encounters and achievements will unlock new ship types and layouts, but the main way to unlock more content is to win, and that is no easy feat.
If the worst should happen and your ship is destroyed then that play-through is over and you have to start again, even if you are only one FTL jump away from the boss battle. Hey, if your ship got destroyed you clearly weren’t going to last long in the boss battle. I’m not going to go into the details of the boss battle. I’d much rather let you find out all about that yourself, because I am a cruel despicable human being who wants to see you suffer as I have. While skill is a big factor, this game also relies on luck. Often you have no way of predicting the outcome of an encounter; you can only work on probabilities. If you have had consistently bad luck towards the beginning of your journey it is likely you won’t have upgraded your ship enough to get to the end because you have spent all of your resources on fixing your ship. Best recognise defeat and try again. The reliance on luck does make FTL more frustrating than other roguelikes I have played, but for some mad reason that didn’t stop me. The lure of taking down that last rebel mothership was too great. Now I have won, I bet I’ll try to do it again, maybe just to prove that I can.
My other favourite roguelike is inspired by Tim Burton. Don’t Starve is a survival roguelike indie game published by Klei Entertainment who also made Mark of the Ninja. Your starting character is Wilson, a Neil Gaiman lookalike scientist explorer chap. You are given one instruction: “Don’t Starve”. Easy enough? You pootle about and hey there’s a carrot and ooh a fluffy bunny! Piece of piss. But then, you encounter the hidden subtitle for the game which is ‘Don’t Starve: Or die in any other of these many many possible ways.’
The main goal of this game is basically to survive. While you are doing that you can explore varied randomly generated maps and craft a huge library of weird and wonderful items. The usefulness and complexity of the items you can craft increases steeply. The resources you need to collect to build more things gets harder as well forcing you to be more daring in order to build that sweet rare item. You can easily keep things simple and just focus on surviving but it won’t be long before you are tempted out of your safe zone by some pretty loot. As time goes on the seasons will change and you have to learn how to survive in different conditions which come with their own set of different monsters. This can also lead to your home base becoming no longer a safe zone, particularly if you are near a coast (damn evil penguins took my home!!) For the most daring there are incredibly dangerous caves to explore which are of course incredibly rewarding, if you think it’s worth the risk. If that’s not enough for you, look for Maxwell’s Door. This is a portal to a whole other game mode called ‘adventure mode’. Instead of the sandbox style of the starting environment you are faced with challenges and 5 different randomly selected chapters which tell different stories. I’ll be honest, I have never made it past chapter 1, but I’m more of a sandbox player anyway.
The random world generation and depth of game-play isn’t all that this game has to offer. Upon your death you gain experience which unlocks alternative characters to play. Each of these new characters is equipped with their own benefits, abilities and often flaws. Such as Willow, the pyromaniac who will set things alight if you go afk (never go afk in a roguelike without pausing, silly goose!) and Woodie the lumberjack with the dark dark secret. Not all characters can be unlocked this way; some require in-game achievements to unlock, so don’t play it safe if you want to experience the whole deal.
A good roguelike will get the player fully invested in their current play-through which can lead to extra levels of anger when (no, not if, when) your character dies. A good way to mitigate the potential damage you will do to your PC/sanity when you die is to start your play-through with specific goals in mind. For example in Don’t Starve I usually pick a specific boss monster to tackle or a specific fanciful item to craft. I rarely stick to these plans however. I end up building elaborate camps and try to stay alive for as long as possible, and of course, the longer you don’t starve, the more pissed off you are when it finally happens. For me it is rare that I’ll die from a tricky monster or a daring feat. I will have wandered off at dusk without enough grass in my pocket to start a fire and get eaten in the dark. Cockiness does not pay! There are a couple of fail-safes such as the single-use touch stones which, if activated, will respawn you at that location upon death. There is also a craftable item which can prevent death, but it’s not an easy item to make.
Don’t like that feeling of self-loathing when you fail in a roguelike I hear you say? Would it make you feel better if you could blame someone else because you are playing multi-player? Well now you can! Don’t Starve Together is currently in Beta but I think at this point it is damn near ready to release. The game-play is as smooth as you could want it and the only updates they seem to be delivering recently is extra content or balancing the existing content. The multi-player version has picked a combination of stuff from the core single player and some from the expansion Reign of Giants, which is an add-on for the hardcore single players who felt they simply weren’t dying frequently enough. You can only play the sandbox mode as there is no Maxwell’s Door on the multi-player map, neither are there caves but those may be introduced at some point. What you do get is a little more security. As long as you trust the people you play with you can relax knowing that they have your back and together you can go farther, build higher and stay alive longer. If, sadly, one of your group does die, as long as one of the other players have enough health and sanity they can create a ‘telltale heart’ to revive them. If everyone on the server dies, that’s it. You’re going to have to create a new server. Remember that feeling of self-loathing you were trying to avoid? Yeh it’s back and multiplied by the number of players that were in your group. Or maybe you wanted them to die, you evil bastard (there’s a PVP mode).
I believe the root of our love for roguelike games is the nostalgia factor. When we were growing up we were never treated with the luxury of a save game option (or if you did there was always the chance of your save corrupting, gotta love that fear when loading). The lack of safety net inspires and excites. Why play if you know you are going to win?
A lot of gamers consider roguelike games to be a casual gaming experience. Games where you can dip in, die fairly quickly but yeh it was a bit of fun. That is not my experience of this game style at all. There’s a compulsion I experience when playing roguelikes which I call the “Dark Souls Effect”. Basically, each time I die in Dark Souls the higher my frustration levels get and the more reckless I become, which in turn causes me to die more and get even more frustrated. My ability decreases at an exponential level per resurrection, after a break of a few days I go back and try again using the skills and knowledge I learnt from my previous failed attempts and therefore I do better. However with a game like Dark Souls all this serves to achieve is you progress further in the game where the difficulty increases even further. I will never finish that damn game, dammit. Even so I will always count it as one of the most satisfying and fulfilling game-play experiences I have ever had. Great roguelikes give you a reason to try harder, a reason to play again and again.