Rogues and Heroes
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.
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.
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.