On Procedural Death Labyrinths
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
A few weeks ago Tanya X. Short said, "Never Say Roguelike."
I usually shy away from vocabulary fights and let smarter people than me hash it out, so I was pleasantly surprised when her argument not only convinced me, but inspired me.
Shortly afterwards I posted the following chart on twitter (click to expand):
The chart basically compares the new crop of "games with Roguelike elements" that some advocate calling "Rogue-LIKE-LIKES / Rogue-LITES," (RLL hereafter) to the five "canonical" Roguelikes (RL), per the Berlin Interpretation (BI), the most-cited formula for what constitutes a "real" Roguelike (more on this later).
What immediately pops out is that the "canonical" RL's are very similar, whereas RLL's are all over the place. Just going by the chart, Dungeons of Dredmor is a "Berlin-approved Roguelike", and Desktop Dungeons could make a strong case. On the other hand, games like Rogue Legacy and Don't Starve would probably be excluded.
However, the one thing all these games have in common is that they easily fit the mold of a "Procedural Death Labyrinth" (PDL). What are the elements of a PDL, you ask? Simple:
Makes strong use of procedural/randomized generation, especially (but not necessarily) for level design.
Makes use of character permadeath, and/or has a strong death penalty.
Takes place in some sort of semi-contained environment, usually (but not always) procedurally generated.
PDL accomplishes my goals:
- "Less Worse" than RLL
- Catchy and easy to say
I want to be clear that I'm not looking for a term to replace existing ones, just a clearer alternative that people can use if they want. PDL (or whatever) doesn't even have to cover the same ground as the old terms, it's just another tool in our vocabulary to reach a shared understanding with our audience.
In particular, I have my sights trained on RLL rather than RL. The RL community is a well-established niche and I don't see much to be gained by messing with their word. So my position is a bit more moderate than Tanya's -- keep saying "RogueLike" as much as you LikeLike!
RLL, on the other hand, came into being quite recently and is already a confusing mess. (I don't mean to hammer on anyone for using the term, I've used it myself, after all). As Tanya pointed out, saying something is like something invites ambiguity because everyone has a different idea of what the "essential" parts of that other thing are. Notice how the Berlin Interpretation has "high value" and "low value" factors - there's a lot of ways a game could be "like" Rogue -- and people strongly disagree about what parts matter most.
Now, when we take it one step further and say our game is "like" a RogueLike, the reference point isn't even another game anymore, just another definition, and a controversial one at that. It's almost like saying something is an ArtLike, GameLike, or IndieLike -- you can't even get started until you work out what ill-defined terms like "Art", "Game", and "Indie" mean.
My term ain't perfect.
The weakest part is probably "Labyrinth." I prefer "Labyrinth" to words like "Dungeon" because it doesn't imply a specific theme or setting -- I wanted something that applied equally well to FTL as it did to Spelunky. So, in this sense I'm using "Labyrinth" in an abstract sense -- some sort of semi-confined environment with multiple passages. (Yes, I am aware that in mathematical terms a 'labyrinth' is unicursal. I'm using the colloquial meaning because it sounds better than "Maze," and I like the mythological connotations.)
In any case, the term needs to finish with a strong noun that suggests adventure, mystery, and danger, and "Labyrinth" fits the bill. Others have suggested "Quest," or even just "Game."
"Procedural Death Game" is fine and certainly broadens the definition, the trouble is it always makes me think of Russian Roulette. "Procedural Death Quest" is good too, it just implies that Death is the goal of the Quest, though I am fond of the acronym PDQ.
Procedural isn't perfect, either - it's developer jargon that might confuse everyday players. "Randomized" might be a better choice.
So here's a list of contenders:
- PDL: Procedural Death Labyrinth
- RDL: Randomized Death Labyrinth
- PDQ: Procedural Death Quest
- PDG: Procedural Death Game
And who says we need to come up with just one all-ecompassing alternative? There's 1st-person shooter and 3rd-person shooter, and Turn-based strategy and Real-time strategy, right? If you have a PDL where there's only one, super-hard path through the level, perhaps you'd rather call it a Procedural Death Gauntlet? Or whatever.
One of the advantages of terms like PDL is that they invite you to mutate them to fit your game's existing needs.
Joystiq's RPG critic Rowan Kaiser seemed to approve:
Worthless Bums, developers of Steam Marines was taken with the idea:
Brb, re-labelling Steam Marines as "procedural death labyrinth." xD— Stacy凸ಠ益ಠ)凸Banjobot (@Worthless_Bums) November 25, 2013
Pete Davison used the term to describe Desktop Dungeons in his official review for US|Gamer:
The term "roguelike" is rapidly becoming one of those descriptors that has been used so much it's lost its meaning.
In fact, I've seen a significant amount of debate on the matter on social media channels recently, with some even going so far as to suggest alternative nomenclature such as "procedural death labyrinth", which has a pleasingly defeatist ring to it.
So it looks like the term is already catching on. Neat!
*Before you hit "comment", it's time for all the caveats!
Berlin Interpretation, Schmerlin Interpretation
I'm not here to take a stance on whether the BI is "correct," and even if I did, I should point out that the BI itself considers its guidelines somewhat open to interpretation. The only reason I used it in the chart is because it's the first thing everyone trots out, and it's a good way to quickly describe what these five classic Roguelikes have in common. As I mentioned above, plenty of people have issues with the BI, and if anything, the fact that it's this controversial only helps to prove my point.
I don't really care what the "right" definition is, so long as we understand each other when we try to communicate. Arguments about vocabulary tend to take one of three forms:
- Enforcing Linguistic Purity
The author insists on a preferred dialect, but the variant they're attacking is arguably just as clear as the one they support. The preferred system is elevated principally because it is more "correct" rather than on more objective bases such as clarity, economy, etc.
- Vocabulary Land-Grab
In academia, getting to set the official terms is like the first phase in a 4X game - it's all about planting your flag down and keeping the other losers out. Naturally, this invites hostility and accusations of bad faith/exclusion from all sides. You see this anytime someone tries to strictly define once and for all what vaguely-defined terms like "game" mean, or how western-developed menu-driven turn-based RPG's aren't "real" JRPGs, etc.
- Hey term X is vague and unclear, let's maybe use a different one.
I'm all about this one. Rather than try to take a word everyone else is already using and apply a strict definition to it, I like to come up with a new word, preferably one that's self-explanatory, and use that instead.