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You should say Roguelike more often
by Dustin Anglin on 12/05/13 04:29:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Cross posted on my personal den of tomfoolery Daily Monotony

Firstly, if you haven't read Lars Doucet's exquisitely argued article for the Producedural Death Labyrinth then stop reading this... well keep reading long enough to finish this sentence and then go read it.  It's incredibly well reasoned, it's even handed and non-confrontational, and, moreover, it supports the expansion of the gaming taxonomy rather than the abolition of a particular phrase.  You should know this by now having come back from reading it, right?

I like it.  And the abbreviation "Deathlab."  (credit to Adam Perry @hoursgoby)


On "On Procedural Death Labyrinths"

The case for the PDL is really well rounded.  If you look at the Berlin interpretation of the term "Roguelike," it suffers from being so descriptive that it becomes exclusive, and in doing so leaves out games that have been instrumental in bringing the term "Roguelike" back into  Darren Grey wrote a brilliant rebuttal of the Berlin Interpretation which basically says the same thing, only way better than I can.  Go read it, too.

I think Lars is on to something by looking at the trouble that a broad rubric creates when trying to assign a genre.  By distilling it down to the actual thing games have in common, you unlock a more representative and inclusive set of descriptors.  And when you distill the aspects of the Berlin interpretation down and apply it against these modern gems, you sort of are left with games whose commonalities are: Procedurally generated levels, permanent death of the playable character, and relatively constrained environments with a heavy emphasis on exploration over scripted or sequenced play.  And now all your Roguelites and Roguelikelikes fit easily into the definition.  Which is cool.

So yeah, PDL is a far more inclusive grouping, as well as being a catchy, pithy acronym, if maybe a little clunky on the tongue in its fully phrased version.  Well, clunky in my slurred, poor articulated speech.


From out of the primordial memory

Games like FTL and Dungeons of Dredmor harkened back to something from the primordial, collective gaming memory.  Something that was so devious and insipid that it unearthed a comparison for a game that, let’s be honest, all most no-one in modern memory has played.  I think the first time I ever heard the term was listening to a gaming podcast talking about this insane game called Demon Souls where you could play for hours and hours and hours, and then in one wrong move lose all of your progress.  NO CHECKPOINTS!  NO REGENERATING HEALTH!  Total and utter lunacy for a modern game, and then someone said it reminded them of a Roguelike.  

I, didn’t know what a Roguelike was, or what Rogue was to be like, so I immediately interneted it, and immersed myself in it, and Hack, and NetHack, and games that I’m pretty sure I had played on those 1001 FREE GAMES! CDs from the early 90s, but had never paid much attention to.  You know, because they weren’t Commander Keen.

But they were awesome, and hard, and compelling, and hard, and oddly addictive, and SO hard.  

You know, kind of like Demon Souls.

Video gaming’s “Dickensian”

And there’s the key thing, this word “Roguelike,” which was pretty much gibberish in my headphones, turned into a trigger for discovery.  And rather than it just being a container of descriptors, like First Person Shooter, or Role Playing Game, it was a genre whose core aspect involved comparing one cool thing to another cool thing; a cool thing that was cool enough to become a rallying point for emotions and experiences we get from certain other games.  

That’s why I love the term “Roguelike” so much.  Not because it’s particularly useful in scientifically describing the aspects of a game, but because it serves to emotionally entangle the feelings we get from one game with the feelings we get from another.  It’s the legacy of a great innovator preserved in a subversive genre definition.  It’s video gaming’s version of Netflix’s “Because you liked...” genres.  It’s video gaming’s version of  “Dickensian.”

But science!

Yeah ok, so my reasoning is a little heavy on the emotion and little light on the library science.  I get that classification is important.  To that end, the Procedural Death Labyrinth is a way better interpretation of the term Roguelike.  Though you could also argue that Procedural, Permadeath, and Labyrinthine are the actual taxonomic classifications, of which some games contain them, and some don’t, and whether certain games contain them all or not *may* not necessitate a neologism.  That said, I love new words, and I love Lars’s article, and I fully plan on calling games Deathlabs in the future.

I was trying to describe the awesome game State of Decay (on Steam & XBLA! Buy it today!) to a friend recently, and I started with, “You know the game XCOM?  Well imagine all the zombie games you’ve played, like Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising, and you added that thing where when a member of your squad dies, they are dead forever.  That’s State of Decay.”  It’s an XCOM-like.  I could have said it was a “3rd person, action beat-em up, with base and team building, resource management, and character permadeath” but it just felt so much more engaging to compare the heartbreak I felt in State of Decay to the heartbreak I felt in XCOM when you lose a valued member of your crew FOR-EV-VER.  

I think that’s all you need to be able to call something an “whatever”-like.  A single strong emotional point of connection.  That’s why FTL is a Roguelike, why Demon Souls is a Roguelike, why I’d argue Kerbal Space Program with no quick-saves is a Roguelike!

So say Roguelike more often!

That fact that a game-to-game comparison is being used as a genre is awesome.  It means that there have been works of art so influential in the canon of video games that their mention is synonymous with the ideas they represent.  That’s also why I love Metroidvania.  They are terms that point to our influential past.  They are signs that our medium is maturing as an artform.

But most importantly, they are one word love letters to games we like, and when we say them, we help others like them, too.

Or you can Never Say Roguelike.  Which, yeah, she's probably right...

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Caspar Hansen
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After lurking on Gamasutra for years and almost, but not quite, being motivated enough to register to comment, your blog is the straw that broke my camel's back, so good on you for that. :)

What really got me thinking was this part: "And rather than it just being a container of descriptors, like First Person Shooter, or Role Playing Game, it was a genre whose core aspect involved comparing one cool thing to another cool thing; a cool thing that was cool enough to become a rallying point for emotions and experiences we get from certain other games." It's interesting to me that several people have wanted to clarify the term "roguelike" while mentioning the genre of "role-playing game" in the same breath. As far as containers of descriptors go, "role-playing game" is so broad as to be practically useless, since games from Halo to Bubble Bobble require the player to play the role of a character in the game world.

The RPG genre carries a hidden rubric, just as roguelikes do. RPGs usually (but not always) have some degree of character generation for the player character, a roster of NPC party members, a series of numerical stats that define the characters' strengths and weaknesses, improving stats by gaining experience points, a strong narrative with player choices, etc. None of that is even hinted at in the name! It's only our pre-existing experiences and connections from other games that implicitly give the RPG genre, not to mention sub-genres like WRPG, their commonly-accepted definitions.

So why is it a problem to have "roguelike" enter the gaming vernacular? To a newcomer, it's not much more opaque than RPG, and it's no less imprecise or laden with connotation. I think the difference is that RPG is already an established term, while roguelikes are still on the edge in the greater gaming consciousness, which gives us, as designers that strive for perfection, the opportunity to improve the term. But does it really need to be changed? I would argue that the problems that seem to exist with the term are transient, growing pains during the transition period from niche to (more) mainstream. I'm unfamiliar with the history, but I wonder if the term "role-playing game" went through a similar phase at some point.

So, what should we do about it? I would argue that we don't have to do anything, and that as more people become familiar with the genre and its history, as Dustin did, everything will sort itself out.

RJ McManus
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Don't even get me started on "role-playing games"... the less ambiguous/misleading terms we have like such, the better.

Shea Rutsatz
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I have to say... I'm one of the people against using the phrase. I don't know what it entails (I do now, I had to figure it out), and it seems to be attached to a large number of new indie games - which I always skipped, because I had no idea what it meant.

It still seems somewhat vague... at least not anywhere as bad as saying "Action Adventure". But, it's already caught on. I have this bad feeling that it's going to happen with others, and we'll be overwhelmed with "______-like" genres. Reminds me of heavy metal subgenres! Norwegian Symphonic Black Death Metal!

Wayne Marsh
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Anybody who already knows the term Roguelike has no confusion with it. People who haven't encountered it before grasp its meaning with ease (and get a brief gaming history lesson as a side-effect). The only people who have problems with the term are actively trying to find fault with it, and manufacturing one themselves.

Andy Lundell
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If any part of your product’s marketing requires a "brief history lesson", You're losing people.

Nobody does research to learn what a marketing term means. Like commenter Rutsatz above, they just move onto something they do get.

Robert Crouch
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"Roguelike" has a lot of vaguery to it.

Procedural Death Labyrinth is very explicit. You can have a roguelike that's not labyrinthian, like FTL. It might not even feature death, just failure. A game would still be a roguelike if the main character was forced into retirement after failure, causing the player to restart.

That's why I much prefer the term Roguelike. It's simple, and I think it earns something from the fact that rogue is a very old game that many current roguelike players haven't actually played. It's saying "Hey, this is the same kind of fun that people were able to make over a terminal session using just ASCII back in the day. This is the kind of fun we can still have without the multi million dollar budgets and the 700 dollar video cards that can model the flutter of the main character's arm hair. This is a fun game based on a simple idea, that persistence in the presence of unfairness, and long term tactical choices made based on experiences from multiple failures can be fun. We don't need to be promised that we can win, and shown how with glam and glitter, we need to be told we can't win, and that will make us prove you wrong."

Kenneth Blaney
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For the most part, people don't know genres of anything outside of movies/books. To that end, it makes sense to describe a game as a XYZ-like when talking to most people. For example, if I describe a beer as a "Stout" you might not know what that means, but if I call it a "Guiness-like" you might have a better idea about it. To an extent, defining things as genres is required to add a little more of professional/academic nature to a field.

As a little bit of fun information about this. Most rougelikes these days make their creators more than Rouge made. Maybe they should be getting royalties for all of these rougelikes. Haha!

Kevin Fishburne
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I think a lot of these articles (this one was a breath of fresh air, BTW) attempting to break the term down into nearly mathematically quantifiable units are missing the forest for the trees. The base reason we identify games by genre is to be able to communicate some basic information quickly with the tradeoff of losing accuracy. A genre is a generalization for our convenience, broken by design, because most games are unique and can't be accurately summed up by a category.

My problem with the way genre names like Roguelike and Metroidvania are being thrown around is that when I look at the games being described as such they often don't look or play like those which inspired the genre name. A game like SMB3 could be described as a Metroidvania (non-linear progression, exploration and item collection with bosses). So is SMB3 a Metroidvania? Technically I guess so, but to the average gamer they'd probably react with a surprised "WTF???" when they realized it's a Mario platformer and not a Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid clone.

So forget the trees, let's define the forest. For me it's all about the first impressions of someone who hasn't played or just started playing the game, because that's the target audience for genre names; people who aren't already intimately familiar with the game. As vague as this is, the game needs to look and feel like the genre's namesake(s). If the game generally doesn't look and feel like Rogue upon your first impressions of seeing/playing it, don't call it a Roguelike. If you watch a Let's Play and don't think, "Oh shit, it's like Metroid or Castlevania," don't call it a Metroidvania.

Trying to break it down into a formula that can be applied mathematically is an interesting academic exercise but I don't think it helps strengthen the purpose of genre names, which essentially is to inform the uninformed of what the game's like on the most basic of levels.

Lars Doucet
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Best comment I've read on the whole debate so far.

Kevin Fishburne
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LOL. Guess everybody gets lucky eventually. Thanks.

Mike Weldon
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Sadly, the term has been co-opted by the indie community as a self-ascribed badge of honor for any game that contains any kind of procedural element. It has become as meaningless as other overused terms like "RPG elements". Which kind of sucks for people who are making actual Roguelikes.

John Gordon
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I prefer the term Roguelike to Procedural Death Labyrinth. You could call Demon's Souls a Roguelike, but you couldn't call it a Procedural Death Labyrinth, because there is no level or monster randomization. In the end the genre should give a player an idea of what the experience of the game is. The experience of Demon's Souls is a lot like a Roguelike.

George Ramirez
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I liked Tanya's original article and her stance, personally.

To me, If I got a game that my friend described as a "role playing game" or a "third person shooter" or even a "dungeon romper", it wouldn't take me much time playing to figure out what made that game a member of that genre, even if I had no other experience with that genre. I see the third person, I see the shooting, so then I see what a third person shooter is. More, I can see what is essential to the genre and what is not.
Roguelike, on the other hand, just says it is like Rogue.

k h
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As someone who actually played Rogue and Castle and Round 42 and Flightmare and Echelon and all the early games, lets be honest folks.

You had to leave a slime population alive so you could eat slime moulds on the way up from the bottom of the dungeon. Starving to death much otherwise?

It also really helped to write simple batch files to copy your saved game on exit (to a different filename) and resurrect your save file if you lost the game as Rogue deleted the save file every time you relaunched the game.

Jeff Beaudoin
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The fact that you are using Demon's Souls as your poster boy for Roguelikes should tell you that there is something wrong with the term.

You did research on the term when you didn't know what it was, and came away with: awesome, compelling, hard, and addictive. I think this result is completely valid, since the term isn't very well defined and playing the most relevant entries in the genre doesn't make the salient features very obvious.

And so, by this metric Demon's Souls IS a roguelike.
But so is Super Meat Boy.
So is Tetris.
So is horde mode in Gears of War.