Modern Roguelikes and the Value of Life

I recently beat the game Risk of Rain. It took me about 75 minutes to beat it. That may not seem impressive, especially when the newest world record for beating the original Super Mario Bros. is 4:57.69, but this was not a speedrun. Risk of Rain is a very short game.

But that may not be completely true. From start to the final boss it may have only taken a little over an hour, but I have logged a total of 9 hour into the game. That’s because Risk of Rain is a roguelike, a genre of platformers that typically are procedurally generated, that give the player only 1 life to complete the game, and are punishing in their difficulty. The other 7-ish hours I played Risk of Rain were characterized by many deaths, which the game reminded me were painful every time I died. Rogue Legacy is another roguelike that is currently quite popular which shares one large similarity with Risk of Rain, and it is one which shows a strong break from roguelike games of the past. While death is frequent and frustrating in these games, death is also a tool.

Roguelike 2

The bad news is you died. The good news is you unlocked two new items.

Risk of Rain, like most current games, has an achievement system, but it also has a largely unrelated in-game achievement system. By performing specific actions with certain characters, surviving a certain length of time, progressing through levels quickly, and by completing many other challenges, the player can unlock new items and characters. In Rogue Legacy, the player can carry over items, money, and upgrades. Death becomes a necessity in these games. If the player never dies, they cannot unlock abilities to maximize their potential. Death may be somewhat discouraging, but in essence the player is making a bridge out of the bodies of previous attempts to get to the other side. It’s akin to knocking down a wall by banging one’s head against it; a painful, frustrating test of endurance.

Roguelike 3

Thanks for the update. I hate you too.

I don’t mean to imply that these games aren’t fun. They are very fun, and they have a punishing difficulty, but death doesn’t have the same oomph as earlier roguelike games do. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but one of the things that made those older games so punishing was knowing that when you died, that was it. It would be like if Diablo III‘s only difficulty mode was hardcore. one death and your character is gone forever. While it sounds fairly negative, these games cheapen death. A player isn’t going to invest themselves very heavily into a character if is just another body being added to the pile. Because these lives are so quickly thrown away, they almost cease to be characters. They are ammunition.

Roguelike 4

Its almost like this, but replace ‘soaring through the air’ with ‘pointed at a wall’.

As strange as it is to say, the way that death is treated in these games has more in common with tower defense games than it does the older roguelike games. I have been playing a lot of Kingdom Rush lately, and it struck me at one point how cruel it is within the world of the game to treat my troops like I do. I will build weak barracks to hold enemies in the line of fire for stronger towers, knowing full well that those troops are going to be slaughtered. If I need to change strategies, I’ll just erase a tower and all of it’s troops to get enough gold to build a different one. Even the heroes get throw into suicide runs to fit into my strategy. Like with these two roguelikes, there is no true character the player controls. As a player I am more likely to identify with my save file, with all the upgrades and unlockables I have earned, than I am with the characters constantly dying at my behest.

Roguelike 5

I stopped counting after the 7th soldier he ate.

Though I find that older roguelikes engender a bit more immersion and investment on the part of the player, I don’t want to sound as though I am romanticizing the past. The fact that these newer roguelikes are less immersive, mase somewhat easier through the use of upgrades, and incorporate elements of tower defense style casual games are not necessarily detriments. Risk of Rain and Rogue Legacy are both very good, enjoyable games. But understanding a game’s ‘pedigree’ so to speak is important for understanding how the player is going to relate to and identify with a game. And with that, I’m off to bang my head against a wall some more, but now I’ll be doing it with an Engineer and a Blood Sword.

About The Author

Justin Tokarski is currently at Michigan State University pursuing a Masters degree in Telecommunications, Information Studies, and Media with a focus on Serious Games. So, if he isn't eating or sleeping, he is probably doing something related to digital games. Then again, he has made Pacman pancakes, so even eating and sleeping are suspect.