You get only get one life. Make the most of it, and try to make choices that you won’t regret. Don’t waste too much time; you don’t have a lot of it. Every moment counts.

Finally, be careful. You’re fragile, and you don’t get any extra lives.

Roguelike Video Games

That’s good life advice, but it’s also great advice for playing a Roguelike game. Roguelike is a genre of video games where you only get one life. If you die, you have to start all over. The genre is named after a game released in 1980 called ROGUE. Games in the Roguelike genre have two defining characteristics that make them Roguelikes:

  • Permadeath: When the player dies, they must start the game all over. That means starting at the very start, with a new level 1 character.
  • Procedural Generation: Also known as random generation. Procedural generation is a technique that creates randomized content. This means that each new playthrough of a Roguelike game will be unique. Each playthrough has different level designs, enemies, and treasures.
The Binding of Isaac Roguelike
Cover art for the new age horror Roguelike: ‘THE BINDING OF ISAAC: AFTERBIRTH’

Note: This definition is different from the unofficial official definition, the Berlin Interpretation. The Berlin Interpretation is a strict set of rules that define a Roguelike game. The Roguelike Development Conference agreed on these rules in Berlin, 2008. The definition is, as follows:

The Berlin Interpretation

1. Random environment generation

The game world is randomly generated in a way that increases replayability. Appearance and placement of items are random. The appearance of monsters is fixed, their placement is random. Fixed content (plots or puzzles or vaults) removes randomness.

2. Permadeath

You are not expected to win the game with your first character. You start over from the first level when you die. (It is possible to save games but the savefile is deleted upon loading.) The random environment makes this enjoyable rather than punishing.

3. Turn-based

Each command corresponds to a single action/movement. The game is not sensitive to time; you can take your time to choose your action.

4. Grid-based

The world is represented by a uniform grid of tiles. Monsters (and the player) take up one tile, regardless of size.

5. Non-modal

Movement, battle and other actions take place in the same mode. Every action should be available at any point of the game. Violations to this are ADOM’s overworld or ANGBAND’s and CRAWL’s shops.

6. Complexity

The game has enough complexity to allow several solutions to common goals. This is obtained by providing enough item/monster and item/item interactions and is strongly connected to having just one mode.

7. Resource management

You have to manage your limited resources (e.g., food, healing potions) and find uses for the resources you receive.

8. Hack’n’slash

Even though there can be much more to the game, killing lots of monsters is a very important part of a roguelike. The game is player-vs-world: there are no monster/monster relations (like enmities, or diplomacy).

9. Exploration and discovery

The game requires careful exploration of the dungeon levels and discovery of the usage of unidentified items. This has to be done anew every time the player starts a new game.

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Early History

Roguelikes are named after the popular 1980 video game, ROGUE. ROGUE is a high fantasy adventure game where players explore a dungeon seeking The Amulet of Yendor. Players explore procedurally generated (randomized) floors of the dungeon and fight monsters. They search for armor, weapons, and treasures to aid them in their quest. In the original ROGUE, the graphics were made with ASCII, which is only slightly better than text symbols. The graphics of ROGUE are practically unrecognizable to a modern day gamer.

The original ROGUE, in all its 1980s graphical glory.

ROGUE inspired a series of copycat games in the decade subsequent to its release. These games became the Roguelike genre. Some popular titles included HACK, NETHACK, ANGBAND, and ANCIENT DOMAINS OF MYSTERY. Roguelikes are usually high fantasy themed. The games were popular with college students in the 1980s and 1990s. They fell into obscurity at the turn of the century, but they’ve been making a comeback recently.

Modern Roguelikes

Ever heard of THE BINDING OF ISAAC? That’s a Roguelike. THE BINDING OF ISAAC is one of many Roguelike video games that have gained viral popularity in the past five years or so. You may have heard of a few others, such as DON’T STARVE, FASTER THAN LIGHT (more commonly known as just “F.T.L.”), and RIMWORLD.

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The Roguelike genre’s revitalization is largely thanks to Steam. Almost all popular Roguelikes today are independently developed and released on Steam. They go for ridiculously cheap prices, averaging about $10. Steam Sales offer even bigger discounts up to 90% off on those games. Thanks to Steam, hundreds of hours of Roguelike fun is accessible for as little as a dollar.

Lord Gaben of Steam, giver of Summer Sales

Appeal of the Genre

Roguelikes are a refreshing break from traditional grindy RPG games. They are full of heart-pounding action from the moment you spawn to the moment you die. Every new playthrough is a different adventure. Every death has one of two things in common: it is either hauntingly inevitable or sudden and violent. New treasures lie around every corner. Old and new secrets wait patiently to be discovered. Every game is a new adventure.

Random Elements

One of the great things about Roguelikes is their randomness. When a player starts a new game, they have no idea what to expect. They might find a powerful magic sword in the first room they explore… Or a boulder trap will kill them right where they spawn. The random awesomeness of Roguelikes boils down to three major categories: level layout, items, and enemies.

Level Layout

Let’s use FTL as an example. When you start a new game in FTL, you get to explore a whole new universe — every single time. Everything will be different this time; there will be unexpected traps hidden on planets. Weapons and resources will be found in newly generated events. Dead end nebulas will force players to turn and fight their way through the pursuing Rebels. Players never play the same galaxies twice, and they’ll never command the same ship or crew twice.

FTL Roguelike
The standard ‘Kestrel’ class ship in the Roguelike game: Faster Than Light

Items and Equipment

Item generation in Roguelikes is like gambling, and THE TALES OF MAJ’EYAL is a perfect example of epic item randomization in a Roguelike. In TALES, a player might hit the jackpot and find a named unique class ring that gives +10 to their primary stat AND a powerful survivability talent. That one item makes the rest of the game a breeze. Most of the time, though, players end up with a stack of common rarity items that are worse than the weapon they started with.

Enemies

Finally, there are the enemies. Roguelikes like PIXEL DUNGEON have a few different classes of enemies. There are the normal guys, who spawn in their own environment. There are rare enemies, like the White Rat who are stronger than normal and give extra XP for defeating them. Then there are mini-bosses, like the Guardians who can and will one-shot you if they’re carrying a powerful weapon. On the other hand, they’ll drop that powerful weapon if you manage to beat them.

Pixel Dungeon Roguelike Animated Statue
These creatures are brutal.

Away with the Grind

One of my favorite features of Roguelikes is their departure from typical RPG level grinding. For the unfamiliar, RPG games are notorious for ‘Level Grinding.’ Level grinding is a term for spending hours repeating a repetitive task to gain levels and make your character stronger. It’s exactly as boring as it sounds. Roguelikes do away with that convention.

In a Roguelike, level grinding is totally pointless; why bother grinding if you might die around the next corner and waste all that time? Instead of level grinding, Roguelikes feature rapid and variable character growth. The character you build through a playthrough will depend largely on the treasures and obstacles that they encounter. What works one playthrough will be completely useless for a different dungeon.

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‘Git Gud’

Roguelikes are hardcore. A game featuring permanent death is not for the faint-of-heart. Playing Roguelikes requires patience, and the ability to learn from your mistakes. Above all, they require a masochistic ‘Git Gud’ mentality.

Dark Souls Git Gud
The only advice Dark Souls players ever offer.

‘Git Gud’ is a term coined by fans of a game series called Dark Souls. Dark Souls has a reputation as a brutally unforgiving game, in which players die countless times as they fight their way through horrific monsters and dungeons.

Whenever a player complains about the difficulty, other more experienced players unhelpfully tell them to get good. ‘Get Good’ is intentionally misspelled as ‘Git Gud.’ This behavior developed into a hardcore attitude that became glorified by the Dark Souls community. For Souls gamers, dying repeatedly is all part of the fun.

In a Roguelikes, dying IS part of the fun. Players learn the hard way which items keep them alive, and which enemies to avoid like a crazy ex-boyfriend. Every new playthrough is a chance to try a new strategy or build. It’s a chance to explore a whole new dungeon with no idea what you’ll find. Still, that kind of hardcore mentality is pretty extreme. Luckily, for players who aren’t that hardcore, there are Roguelites.

Roguelike vs. Roguelite

As Roguelike games gained popularity, they started to bleed into the mainstream gaming audience. Mainstream gamers who played Roguelikes found them infuriatingly difficult. They demanded a more casual game that didn’t make them want to punch their monitor. Game developers gave them Roguelites: games where players still died permanently but can unlock upgrades and bonuses to make the next playthrough easier.

One major example of a Roguelite would be FASTER THAN LIGHT. The game features permadeath, but players can unlock new ships and ship/crew layouts that make the game somewhat easier. If the game is too tough at first, the unlockable ships will make it easier the next time around. Unlockables also give players a persistent goal beyond getting as far as possible in one playthrough.

FTL Roguelike Ships Unlock
Locked and unlocked ships in FTL

The exact difference between the Roguelikes and Roguelites is vague. For the sake of consistency, I consider both to be in the same ‘Roguelike’ genre, with Roguelites being a subgenre that has more mainstream appeal. The “The Berlin Interpretation,” explained above, is the most popular unofficial definition, but it doesn’t include the most popular Roguelikes of today. Indie developers are constantly pushing the boundaries of Roguelikes. The dated Berlin Interpretation hasn’t evolved to keep up with the games.

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Independent Development

Indie developers love Roguelikes. The biggest draw is probably the random generation of levels. It’s a lot more fun to build an engine that randomly creates 25 levels than it is to design every level manually. That random generation gives developers more time to focus on making the actual gameplay fun instead of spending hours on creative level design.

Another draw of Roguelikes is their traditional simplicity and minimalist stories. Roguelikes are traditionally top-down two-dimensional games. The graphics have (thankfully) grown away from the ASCII graphics of Rogue, but remain simple — usually, pixel or sprite based.

The Binding of Isaac Roguelike graphics
Horror inspired graphics in THE BINDING OF ISAAC

A final, significant draw of developing a Roguelike game is the community. In spite of their git-gud mentality, the Roguelike player community is very supportive of indie game development. Take FTL for example. FTL started as a Kickstarter project to develop a simple sci-fi Roguelike. Community support for the game was overwhelming. It ended up receiving 20 times more than its goal in contributions. The developers gave back to that loyal community by producing one of the most popular Roguelike games of the decade.

Note: If you’ve never played FTL, it’s a phenomenal game. I’ve played well over 100 hours of FTL. I would spend $5 on it again in a heartbeat.

Return of the Roguelike

Whether you’re a fan of the Roguelike genre or not, it has produced some amazing games in the past decade. Even for the casual gamer, Roguelites like THE BINDING OF ISAAC or CRYPT OF THE NECRODANCER are a ton of fun. Honestly, I’ve enjoyed some of these small indie games way more than AAA titles like FALLOUT or THE WITCHER.

Check out Roguelikes if you’re bored of formulaic video games churned out by big companies. They don’t even require a massive time investment… in theory. A typical playthrough takes 15 minutes, though you might find yourself thinking “just one more try,” three hours later.

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