I’m preparing a talk for the Indie Games Expo in London 4th June on “Art in the @: Lessons from Roguelikes on Pure Artistic Gameplay”. It’s related to something I’ve discussed on rgrd in the past, and something I’m hoping to speak with Jeff Lait about on Roguelike Radio in the future. How does the pure gameplay deliver an artistic message? I’ve consciously put work into this in Broken Bottle and some other games, with the specific thought of conveying emotions like guilt and despair, but without wanting to give a direct message. However in preparing the presentation for next week and reflecting on my own works I’ve come to some startling realisations about common threads in all of my games, even ones I thought I had designed as pure games.
In every work I’ve made power has a cost, and is labelled as dangerous or outright evil. Most of them do not have simple bump to attack, the traditional “easy power” in roguelikes that you can use for free. In most of them you are weak and fragile, able to die very easily. And in most there is zero or minimal progression, though the world becomes harder. A breakdown:
- In Gruesome you are easily killed at any moment, and you can’t assault enemies directly.
- Toby the Trapper is about an exceptionally weak character, who again cannot attack directly. There are more powerful abilities later in the game, but they are hard to use and dangerous to yourself. The ultimate power found in the game is outright deadly, and if used will produce negative endings. A high kill count also tends to give more negative ending text.
- Unstoppable gives you ultimate power from the start, but with the caveat that this power will come back and destroy you.
- Broken Bottle gives a cost to melee attacks, with stronger weapons demanding more stamina to attack. Alcohol is empowering in the game, restoring stamina and a little health and letting you attack children, but the theme of the game makes it clear that this is a very negative thing indeed. Part of the mechanics of the game is to test whether the player will become “addicted” to this power cycle or will wilfully shun the alcohol.
- Run from the Shadow has you constantly on the run from an initially unassailable foe. All powers in the game are represented by negative icons (lies, denial, passing blame, etc) and the ending for achieving victory through power is meant to disturb.
- Harrowed makes you more powerful than the enemies, but with their superior numbers death is inevitable. There is no winning in the game. The idea was to give a feeling of a lion being brought down by wolves.
- sick peter makes you unable to attack and has you weaken as the game progresses. Even moving costs a resource, meaning there’s nothing powerful you can do. The game deliberately goes against the usual feel of WW2 games glorifying war, instead giving the real experience many people had at the time.
- Rogue Rage gives immense powers, but in short bursts, and the theme of the game portrays them negatively. The basic bump attack costs a resource.
Now it could just be that I like to make challenging games, and these features all fit with that, but it does so happen that I have strong feelings about power and its misuse. I’m very anti-war and anti nuclear weapons. I also believe that the gratification in violence in many games is a very negative thing. But I never realised until I sat back and reflected on my games that these feelings have made their way into the mechanics of all my games. With games like Toby the Trapper I never intended to have any artistic message, but I’ve ended up incorporating these reflections of myself without even realising it.
I wonder if other developers have this? When we make mechanics, are there subconscious parts of ourselves we put into our games? It’s an interesting thought…