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Archive for May, 2013

I Shouldn’t Enjoy Being This Busy

May 28th, 2013 2 comments

I should apologise to any Roguelike Radio fans that have been missing episodes of late. This is largely down to the fact that I’ve been tremendously busy lately! Also, we tried recording an episode a couple of weeks ago only to find out 80 minutes in that it was only recording my voice – I had over an hour of recording of me just rambling to myself, woo. Shame, since it was some great discussion, but we’ll repeat the episode at some point. In the meantime another episode has been recorded about the Hunger Clock in roguelikes, and once I find time to edit that I’ll get it online.

So what’s been keeping me busy I hear you not ask? Well, a few things:

  • 7DRL Reviewing. Actually, I’ve been quite poor on that front. We’re near the end of the review process, just a few more left to do, but it’s proving quite a struggle to get over this last hurdle. Volunteers are still welcome! There are way too many cool 7DRLs this year  :P
  • GameCamp. This was a games festival in London with a lot of cool talks, presentations and experimental games. As well as lending a hand in running the day I showed off Mosaic there to some interested folk – procedural music has so few people working on it that even my basic potterings gains some attention.
  • GaME13. A really cool conference held every year at Imperial College (which is where I have my day job, though in a completely unrelated field). I had the honour of presenting at the conference, and gave a speech on procedural generation. I built my own roguelike presentation for the talk – it was kinda cool.
  • Mosaic has had some further work on it so I could show it at the above events. The music in particular has been much improved over earlier versions. There’s still work to do to make it even better though. I’m in two minds over whether I should submit it to IndieCade or not.
  • Writing, but this time for a short story collection called Tales from the Frontier, an official tie-in novel with the in-development Elite: Dangerous game. I’ve also just been interviewed about this by Lave Radio, a fan-run podcast about the game.
  • Lots of social stuff, including a nice trip to Paris where I met up with DarkGod (ToME4 developer) for crepes and a weekend with an old school friend where I converted him to FTL and coached him to victory in it. My first successful conversion of someone to a roguelike! (for a certain definition of roguelike ;) ) We also discovered the really cool gaming-themed Loading Bar in Soho, with game-themed cocktails and lots of free games old and new to play. London is such a cool place to live :D

Alas the busyness is not letting up. Coming up in June are the following points of excitement:

  • Fishing Jam, which I’m tempted to take part in if I can think of a good game idea. I know of at least one person doing a roguelike fishing game for it.
  • London Game Jam, which I have a ticket for but may need to pull out from :-/
  • International Roguelike Development Conference in Poland 8-9 June! I’m very much excited for this :D I’ll be presenting on procedural music and sound, showing some of the lessons I’ve learned from Mosaic and discussing ideas for how this can be expanded.
  • Rezzed game event, which looks like it’ll have a lot of cool independent projects on show, including the procedurally generated 3D stealth game Sir, You Are Being Hunted.
  • Whatever Roguelike Radio episodes we have on
  • A bunch of other non-roguelikey stuff that’s still rather interesting and time-consuming.

This isn’t me whining by the way. Being this busy is tiring, but also very rewarding! Wish I had more time for actual game development though – I seem to talk about it much more than I put it into practise  :-/

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Screw the Berlin Interpretation!

May 14th, 2013 15 comments

In the year 2008 several men and women came together in Berlin to create the last, best definition of a roguelike. It failed…

Or at least in my view it did. The Berlin Interpretation as it became known was a set of high and low value factors for what constitutes a roguelike. These were based largely on the major roguelikes of the day. They ranged from the obvious like random content to the downright nonsense, like being set in a dungeon or using ASCII.

Let me make this really clear – adding ASCII to your game does not in any way make it more roguelike. Taking ASCII away does not make it any less roguelike. It’s absurd to place value on this beyond an aesthetic choice. It’s like saying platformers have to have pixel graphics because all the old platformers had pixel graphics. This is just one of several utterly nonsense features that the Berlin Interpretation terms roguelike.

The Interpretation comes with a disclaimer stating “The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.” However prefacing a definition with this line is as futile as saying “I’m not racist, but…” Of course it puts constraints on developers and games! Devs want their games to fit in, and so tweak their works to score highly on this system. Gamers want to be exclusive about their community, and so rail against anything that doesn’t fit the letter of their newfound law. This has been happening for all the years since the Interpretation was made public, and has reared its ugly head again this week in a poorly written PA Report on “What the hell is a roguelike?” The comments on the post and the related reddit thread are at least polite by internet standards, but there are still many in them that stick dunderheadedly to the idea that the Berlin Interpretation is the golden rule of what is or is not roguelike.

The problem with the Berlin Interpretation is a problem with definitions in general. Firstly, a definition is only as good as its use in general conversation. The terms “decimate” and “role-playing game” no longer hold their literal meaning, and neither does “roguelike”. Meanings and context change over time, and in the five years since the Interpretation was written there have been many changes in the roguelike scene, with novel 7DRLs and indie roguelikes stretching the genre into new and unforeseen areas. It’s out of date and out of touch with modern roguelikes. All definitions are doomed to end up like this. Those who insist on sticking to the rules are like annoying grammar pedants who spend more time arguing about English than having real social conversations. By analogy those who argue over the Berlin Interpretation aren’t playing enough modern roguelikes.

Secondly, definitions are about excluding things. They ultimately draw a line in the sand and say “if you stray beyond, you are forgotten”. This is terrible from a design point of view, as it limits creative potential. It’s awful from a community point of view because it pushes people out. The Berlin Interpretation tried to be wishy-washy with its “you don’t need every rule” but people don’t read it like that. Descriptors like “turn-based” get used as clubs to beat other games out, even games that do innovative things with the time system like FTL.

Thirdly, definitions only look at the “what” behind things, not the “why”. I’ve railed against what vs why in a similar context before. There are reasons behind the features listed on the Berlin Interpretation, and understanding the why lets you understand how they can be changed and still keep the spirit of the game. There’s a certain feel to playing a roguelike, and a reason why several of the common features work well together. That roguelike feel can be described, but it can never be reduced to a pathetic ingredients list. Trying to define the features that make a roguelike so special is akin to describing a cake’s flavour as being flour, water, butter and sugar.

So why is a game a roguelike? How does it play? Well, in my view it’s inherently replayable, capable of surprising the player on many playthroughs. It rewards cleverness and tactical thinking. It cannot simply be learnt by rote, but it can be mastered with experience. It emphasises gameplay before aesthetics, concentrating on making that replayable experience fresh and engaging on each play. It’s unforgiving, but all the more rewarding when you perform it well, offering an honest sense of achievement and satisfaction. Much of this satisfaction comes from the internal knowledge of having done well at the game itself, rather than artificially constructed rewards. [Edit: Some people are taking this as a suggested definition – it is not! It’s just meant to be a more healthy way of reflecting on what makes roguelikes what they are.]

When making or playing a game think about how the design satisfies these feelings of play, and which features best contribute towards the spirit of roguelike. And screw the Berlin Interpretation, or any other list of yes and no features. These definitions are only used by pedants to silence conversation and stifle creativity and potential in the genre. We don’t need that crap! Roguelikes are an exciting genre with a huge range of still untapped potential – we need to be exploring new territories and looking for new boundaries, instead of trapping ourselves into a tight space of already knowns.

Viva la Roguelike Renaissance!

Rogues and Heroes

May 10th, 2013 5 comments

One thing I like about roguelikes is that they are not about heroes. Well, they can be, some are centred around a heroic quest, with the player eventually taking up the mantle of heroism. But whilst most may involve heroic deeds they are not in essence about the hero story that plagues so much of modern gaming.

Rogue Epyx box art - a thief seeks an amulet in a dark dungeon

The original Rogue box art from Epyx emphasises the depowered nature of the game’s protagonist.

The Hero is the chosen one, the powerful one, with some special abilities that give him (almost always a him) superiority to his foes. He goes through the game undefeated, conquering all trials before him, and eventually slays the evil dragon and rescues the princess. Or perhaps his loved one was killed and he seeks revenge against the evil sorcerer that also happens to be threatening the world. Or whatever other cheesy male power fantasy trope you want to choose. I personally hate these stories – they are boring and usually laden with misogyny.

The Rogue is different. He seeks to steal an item and escape with it. Instead of climbing a tower he descends into a dark dungeon. The creatures he defeats are not a threat to the world outside, they’re just obstacles to his end goal. Some of the creatures are too powerful to defeat and have to be evaded or run away from. The Rogue gets hungry, gets scared, gets debilitated, and most importantly gets killed. He or she is not the chosen one, oh no, for many men and women have died beforehand and more will die again.

At the heart of the roguelike story, going right back to the original Rogue, is a subversion of the typical power fantasy. Though the setting may be fantasy the player is not invited to live a fantasy lifestyle. They may have swords and sorcery, but those swords can break and that magic can fail. There is a gritty realism to how many roguelikes play, a simulation of just how a desperate thief in a monster-filled dungeon would feel. You can make mistakes and they are permanent. The game has no pity for you when you die.

Rogue C64 box art, with a muscley man wielding a homoerotic sword. In the background is a bikini-clad lady to rescue.

But Rogue’s C64 box art completely misses the point. Image NOT representative of game content!

And what’s wonderful is that communities accept this. YASDs are frequently far more interesting than YAVPs. Suggestions for game additions often come in the form of new enemies and obstacles rather than new player powers. People invent extra challenges and restrictions to play with that make the Rogue’s journey even more excruciating. Players complain when the game gets too easy.

There are some major exceptions – ADOM and Angband are all about being the hero and saving the world, and you can build supremely powerful characters in them. ToME sets the player up as a hero (albeit with uncomfortable moral quandaries), and even has a “save the girl” sidequest, complete with cheesy smooch of victory. But it’s interesting to note how often people do go back to the original “get an item and come back with it” quest of Rogue, such as in DCSS and Brogue. Or how games like Smart Kobold deliberately frame the hero as being someone motivated by greed rather than adventure. The one Roguelike I know of which specifically has a “save the royalty” main questline is PrincessRL, where you are the princess saving the prince – again a subversion of the popular fantasy tropes.

It may be part of what makes the roguelike experience alien to outside players. It’s not just the poor (or lack of) graphics, archaic interface and unforgiving difficulty. It’s also the way they strip the player of a feeling of power. They don’t pat you on the head and say you are special. This is not a simple escapist experience where you have fun being a cool wizard or warrior. In both the mechanics and the theme of the game this message is repeatedly reinforced. You are underequipped, always running out of resources, always facing enemies that are stronger than you, having to use your wits to survive. You are not a Hero – you are not here to save the day, and even your death may be pitiful and forgotten. You are a Rogue, and the dark places you walk in are fraught with danger.

So go play some Rogue!

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