Original Definition of Roguelike, updated for Modern Titles
- Turn-based—The primary challenge of Roguelikes is making good choices, but the player is given as much time as needed to make those choices. Modern Roguelikes aren't necessarily turn based. Where games like Darkest Dungeon still use character turns, FTL allows the game to unfold in real time. The player is allowed to pause the game, however, and can issue commands in this pause state which their ship and crew will perform once the game is resumed. In this way, the player is still given ample time to make decisions, and the primary challenge is still proper decision making.
- Grid-based—Modern Roguelikes have a rigidity to their game world, which confines the actions that a player and enemy characters can perform to reasonable variability, and I'm using "reasonable" literally. When a player reads a description for a character ability which states that an enemy will be knocked back two squares, the player can reason about how far two squares is. If the game world was operating on a full scale physics simulation, the same ability might knock a character back with 300 newtons of force, but that value is extremely difficult for the average player to conceptualize, and so those details are generally hidden in games with physical effects. Roguelikes rely on rigidity to allow the player to infer the outcome of effects, given their prior understanding of how "far" two squares is. How many turns will it take to traverse two squares for follow up attacks? How big are play spaces generally? Some modern Roguelikes ditch grid-like play spaces, but still implement their own form of rigidity in combat. Darkest Dungeon places characters in slots from left to right, with enemies in the right most slots and player characters in the left. These slots are relevant to combat, and characters often move between these slots for various reasons. Some abilities forcibly change character or enemy positions, but the player is able to understand the exact effect of those changes and reason about possible ramifications.
- Permanent Failure—Though the player might be allowed to save a play session before exiting the game, that save is then deleted when the player loads back in. The player is therefor unable to load an old save in order to amend choices or adjust outcomes. This leads to the logical conclusion that death is permanent in a Roguelike, but permadeath—as it's called—is merely a side effect of not allowing the player to reattempt areas. If the player cannot fix their mistakes, and if those mistakes lead to death, then the player cannot fix death. Death does not always lead to restarting the game. In FTL, the player commands a ship full of crew, and can continue the game even if one of those crew dies. The player is only forced to restart if the ship is destroyed. Darkest Dungeon is even more forgiving. There is no ship in Darkest Dungeon, and losing an entire party still allows the player to continue with other members, though those members may not be leveled enough to continue a run.
- Procedural environments—Modern Roguelikes scramble encounters throughout the game world at the start of every new run. Players can't memorize what they will run into when exploring different areas, and are forced to make decisions with imperfect information just as they did when first learning the game. Proficiency at traversing the dangerous world of Roguelikes does not come from the omnipotence of a seasoned player, but from a familiarity with the way the world operates. If a players ship is severely damaged in FTL, that player should attempt to avoid conflict while searching for repairs, but they can never do so perfectly. They could choose to backtrack through areas that they have already explored, but new areas always come with a risk. An ever changing environment also allows for information gathering as a game mechanic. Skyrim allows the player to save whenever they first enter a dungeon. If the dungeon is too difficult the player is always given the option to back out of the encounter with no consequences except wasted time. If Skyrim dungeons came with real consequences, players might be forced to research areas before heading out. Which could result in players waiting to attempt a particular dungeon until they're higher level or preparing for the dungeon in a more intentional way.
- Random conflict outcomes—Despite the world, by in large, being procedurally generated, many of the constituent encounters will need be repeated. This is due, in part, to budget constraints of the developers, but it's also necessary for players to become familiar with the world and how it operates. A fantasy game might have locked chests which show up repeatedly, which makes since in the context of the world, but also allows the player a chance to make an informed decision on what to do with the chest. Do they attempt to pick the lock, which could diminish their valuable and limited supply of lock picks, or do they break the chest open, which might break some of the items inside. Notice the word choice here: could diminish supply, and might break the items. If a choice always has the same outcome, the choice becomes easy to make very quickly. The encounter becomes a trade, where the player spends one lock pick to get such-and-such items. If the outcome is randomly selected from a range of possibilities, however, the amount of time for the player to become familiar with the encounter is elongated. Now, the player must try many different actions, observing the distribution of outcomes in order to familiarize themselves with the possibilities. Even if the outcomes and their probabilities are given freely, the unpredictability of the encounter challenges the players reasoning. A poker player must in maximizing their odds on each hand in order to eventually wrestle a tangible edge from the jaws of uncertainty. Likewise, a Roguelike player must make choices which maximize their chance of success given their situation when besought with uncertain outcomes. If the player is low on lock picks, maybe they don't even attempt to open that chest, but if they're low on supplies, maybe they go ahead and risk failure. The player must analyze how the risk vs reward fits in their current run, which ensures that the player won't form the boring habit of always making the same choice.
- Item, Inventory, Equipped—The player is expected to build a unique character on every run, but some RPG mechanics, like perk trees from Skyrim, are too predictable to prompt a unique character. Items found in the world allow the procedural and random mechanics to influence the players options. As long as these items are powerful enough to be necessary, and are distinctive enough to affect the way the player approaches further encounters, items will force dynamic character builds. The player, however, must have to chose between items. If all items encountered can be picked up without trading off other items, the player has no agency in the items they wield, and the challenge of building a viable character goes away. Most Roguelikes achieve this through limited inventory space, but Slay the Spire forces choice in a more direct way. At the end of every encounter, the player chooses one of three cards to add to their deck, the agency comes in this choice, and not in swapping out items later due to running out of slots. There is also, often, a distinction made between items that are equipped and items that aren't. The player may be allowed to hold onto a certain number of items that they are not currently using. Allowing for more options later.
- Single Character—Roguelike games need a definitive point of failure, which should kick in whenever the run becomes hopeless. Many squad games come with permafailure. When an soldier dies in X-Com there's no way to bring them back, but the game never forces you to admit defeat. The idea is to keep moving, building a new squad and running missions with them, but this leads to one of two outcomes. If the game has forward pressure, like how X-Com's missions get harder as the game progresses with no option to go back, the permanence of consequences will create a positive feedback loop of failure. Squad members die, their replacement is inferior, their replacements die, and so on. If the game lacks forward pressure, however, then losing your best squad simply forces you to role back the difficulty of encounters and grind until your backup squad is up to snuff. This is surprisingly similar to loading an old save. It may not be a perfect snapshot of where you were, but you are going back to replay a part of the game you've already progressed past in response to failure.
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