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Rogues and Heroes

May 10th, 2013

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!

  1. Anonymous
    September 11th, 2013 at 17:22 | #1

    @Kevin Granade
    Brogue with the flammable gas, uses for lava, deep water, potions of descent, brimstone, the helaing pods, and more.

  2. August 8th, 2013 at 08:07 | #2

    I see the hero trap happening in C:DDA as well. Probably the biggest hurdle to get over when you start playing is that you generally don’t want to fight things. House infested with giant wasps? Go somewhere else. Also as you allude to, heroic actions aren’t necessarily rewarded, where in the more typical heroic game they’re careful to ALWAYS reward heroism. In roguelikes, the rng rules, and frequently the non-heroic approach can net you just as much reward as the heroic path. C:DDA takes this to an extreme, where the rewards have almost nothing to do with defeating enemies.

    A somewhat related issue is the combat style in roguelikes, which is often very methodical and borderline exploitative of the game mechanics, such as pillar-dancing, poisoning your enemy, getting them hung up on obstacles*, and pulling. There are certainly times when you don’t have to be that careful as well, but for significant fights I’d guess the more “rougish” combat style is called for in the majority of cases.

    It’s a good point that the roguish nature of rogulikes might be a historical accident. It seems to me that the precursors to RPGs, mostly DnD and the ilk were very survival-oriented, and frequently had a similar kind of non altruistic set of goals, but that RPGs as a genre have become steadily more hero-oriented as they have become more mainstream. Rogelikes though, have if anything become even more entrenched in the gritty anti-heroic theme.

    *Actually how common is managing difficult terrain? Now that I think of it I don’t recall playing any roguelikes other than Cataclysm where there’s significant difficult terrain, but I haven’t played a TON.

  3. May 13th, 2013 at 12:43 | #3

    Hi there,

    I enjoy Roguelike Radio very much. Just felt like commenting on this.

    I wonder if the fact that roguelikes aren’t about heroes is a mere quirk of their history though, in that many of the genre-defining games lack a plot. Perhaps not being about heroes is not something intrinsic, unless you consider not having a story intrinsic to roguelikes. My line of thought here is that, both being a hero and being an anti-hero involves doing what is superhuman, what not everyone is capable of doing, in the face of a very real threat of failure. I’m reminded of Star Wars, where Luke &co arrive at the Death Star. They wander through corridors and do some fighting, but they also have to put on disguises, escape through hatches into the unknown ‘garbage-mashers’ where greater terrors await, and use their wits and anything else at their disposal just to stay alive and escape. At the end of the day though, what makes Luke a hero isn’t just his will to self-preservation, it’s the virtuous decisions he makes over the course of the saga. Han Solo goes through the same dungeon crawl ordeal in the Death Star as Luke and yet (for the moment at least) he remains unchanged. He’s still the rogue.

    Hope that made sense. I just thought that facing impossible odds, not being a ‘chosen-one’, experiencing fear, suffering and even dying are at least as much a part of being a true hero as a rogue, so maybe it’s just the lack of heroic storylines that makes a roguelike seem… rogue… like.

  4. May 11th, 2013 at 09:52 | #4

    Well, the adventurer turned hero trope is fairly normal. You still end up saving the world. Of course in a big RPG with a story that spans continents I think it’s very hard to avoid this. And players do like to have a heroic story as an incentive to win particularly long games.

    The rescue the girl quest I suggested myself, so I’m not in a good position to criticise it :P But the “let her die for more power” is not a real choice in the game – it’s made clear that the ultimate reward is “getting the girl”. The more interesting choice the game presents (and which players actually respect) is “don’t risk it” since it’s such a dangerous quest, and as a roguelike you can’t take unhealthy risks. This comes back to the subject of the article above – roguelikes by their nature don’t encourage heroic deeds.

    FTL has some great moments like this too. Let the slaver live in exchange for a free crew member? Accept the pirate’s bribe so you don’t have a difficult fight? Attack an innocent supply ship so you have easier progress through the sector? When life and death is on the line suddenly the heroic deeds are much harder to choose. This isn’t the case in other games, where usually the heroic deed leads to better rewards. Roguelike by their nature subvert any reward cycle by having the risk of permanent death hanging over all actions.

    It can be a big newbie trap though. Many ADOM players for instance get frustrated trying to do every heroic optional quest in the early game, meaning they die more often than if they just don’t take the quest. Non-roguelikes condition us to take on these heroic quests and to not even see them as optional.

  5. May 11th, 2013 at 03:58 | #5

    Nice article!
    Just one thing: ToME does not setup the player as a hero, not at first: you are a simple adventurer out for the gold :)
    And the rescue the girl part can be subverted, letting her die for more power!

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