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Screw the Berlin Interpretation!

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!

  1. April 16th, 2014 at 19:47 | #1

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  2. March 28th, 2014 at 23:56 | #2

    @Kk-
    Like Rogue? Which version of Rogue? Cause you know there’s graphical versions of it? In fact Glenn Wichman said they added tiles to the game as soon as it was ported to a graphical platform (Mac).

    I love ASCII, but the point of it for roguelikes is clear representation of game elements, which a clear tileset can equally do. It’s not necessary for the gameplay, which is what roguelikes are really focussed on.

  3. Kk-
    March 28th, 2014 at 23:47 | #3

    @Kk-
    To clarify before you argue:
    The differences between “Roguelike” and “like Rogue” are as follows:
    Roguelikes follow the mechanics to a t.
    “Like Rogue” is how much a game is like Rogue, and since Rogue was in ASCII graphics, therefore making a game in ASCII graphics as opposed to a tileset makes it more like Rogue.

    This is not a difficult concept to understand.

  4. Kk-
    March 28th, 2014 at 23:45 | #4

    Your arguments are nonsensical, and you clearly didn’t bother reading anything but the rogue wiki’s article on roguelikes.
    You argue against the minor factors, when they were very clearly stated that they do not take away from a game being more or less a roguelike, but more or less like rogue.

    There are differences between those 2. However, roguelike is not a fluid nor evolving term due to the wording of the genre. Roguelike means “like rogue”, amusingly enough, and therefore the term roguelike is used to describe games that are like the game “Rogue”. This means it has a solid, set in stone definition, and no amount of you arguing against it will in any way influence what it is. In fact, it’s like arguing with a roadblock because it’s blocking your way, instead of moving past it.

  5. e
    December 19th, 2013 at 18:36 | #5

    @Jo Well, there’s at least one other genre named after specific games: “Metroidvania”.

  6. May 30th, 2013 at 01:39 | #6

    Graham F. :

    Definitions evolve over time, and ‘roguelike’ still fits a common set of criteria.

    But that is precisely my point. Definitions evolve, and for many the term ‘roguelike’ has evolved. Trying to lay down something like the Berlin Interpretation is doomed to one day go out of date. In fact it’s futile from the start – you will never get enough people agreeing on that common set of criteria.

  7. Graham F.
    May 29th, 2013 at 07:55 | #7

    ‘ The terms “decimate” and “role-playing game” no longer hold their literal meaning, and neither does “roguelike”. ‘

    I’m sorry, but that’s like saying that ‘arcade cabinet’ shouldn’t be used because a ‘cabinet’ is a place to store dishes. Definitions evolve over time, and ‘roguelike’ still fits a common set of criteria.

  8. May 23rd, 2013 at 13:17 | #8

    Considering that we, as a species, have difficulty defining *anything* in a concrete manner, that our language is steeped in cultural bias, ‘common usage’ bias, and ambiguity, and we have an entire branch of study devoted to thinking about thinking…

    …I think we have to say ‘it’s all a bit grey and woolly, and will probably cause arguments’… Like everything else.

    As with censorship, we’d best *all* be unanimously agreed when we reject something for not being Roguelike-ey enough.

    Until then, lets just be happy with a nice percentile score. Red Rogue is currently a 67% Roguelike i.e. if you list Rogue’s features, it shares around 67% of them. I’m sure we can all agree on that. :)

  9. May 18th, 2013 at 14:32 | #9

    I completely agree with this position. While the Berlin Interpretation may be a starting point in trying to define the genre, at best I would say it accomplished is a summation (not a definition).

    As a software developer who has tried his hand at creating a roguelikes, I’ve found I take elements from different genres and combine them with roguelike elements where they seem to fit. Are those new elements traditionally roguelike? No. Do they fit in a roguelike game? Emphatically, yes. The combination, to me, doesn’t suddenly disqualify the game from being categorized as a roguelike.

    While I do believe that there is a such a thing as a definition of a roguelike, I also think that the Berlin Interpretation is overly restrictive and (dare I say?) stifling.

  10. Jo
    May 17th, 2013 at 10:52 | #10

    The definition issue probably has something to do with the fact it’s based around a single game. It’s named for it. We don’t have Mariolikes or Doomlikes, we have platformers and FPS games. Those are defined by a single gameplay feature.

    What would a Mariolike be? Have pipes? Be cutesy? Sidescroll? Hop and Bop?

    There are so many elements to any game design that you can draw something from it but be completely different.

    So the questions is really what are the defining features of Rogue? The procedural content is definitely one of those things, but the other big features like resource use, tile/grid, turn based, ascii, fantasy theme, dungeon crawl, RPG stat building, etc….are those essential?

    When my ignorant friends ask me about the genre I call it ‘procedural dungeon crawl’ not ‘roguelike’.

  11. rebthor
    May 17th, 2013 at 10:29 | #11

    The “problem” with your definition as it stands is that seemingly something like chess would be a roguelike.

    [I]t’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.

    All of which are true of chess. Yet I think everyone would agree that chess is not a roguelike. I think I’d have to agree with the first poster, “I know it when I see it.”

  12. Jo
    May 17th, 2013 at 00:22 | #12

    A judge in the US, trying to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

  13. Jo
    May 17th, 2013 at 00:20 | #13

    My personal take is thus: A game that derives interesting gameplay from the interplay between permadeath and procedural content.

    And the we immediately see exceptions and my definition becomes, well, as dumb as the rest.

  14. Jo
    May 17th, 2013 at 00:18 | #14

    I’m not sure this post is a roguelike.

  15. May 15th, 2013 at 05:41 | #15

    This makes sense to me, why is a better question to as than what. I too have changed my game to try and fit into a roguelike template better. It didn’t hurt in the end, but it feels a little tacked on.

  16. Bandreus
    May 15th, 2013 at 00:33 | #16

    Great post!

    I certainly think all the debate about “is it a roguelike?” and the yes/noes a game should abide to in order to qualify as such can easily go to hilarious grounds all too often.

    It’s a great time for RLs, with tons of games going in so many new and interesting directions.

    When it comes to me, if a game uses procedural generation of content (maps/items/enemies/puzzles) in order to enhance the gameplay experience and has Permadeath (as an option even) then I can easily regard that as a RL. To me it’s definitely more about that replayability, always fresh gameplay and immersive experience rather than any given game mechanic.

    Instead of putting RLs apart from RL-Likes, one could easily talk about Action Adventure RLs, Strategy RLs, RL Shooters, and so on and so forth.

    Obviously a game can be more RL-y than others, or more old school if one prefers to say so, but trying and putting arbitrary fences to cut games which don’t respect certain arbitrary rules out of the genre? NONSENSE !!!

    Let’s not forget St33d sort of had to implement Dogmatic Mode into Red Rogue for it to qualify a bit more under the Berlin definition. Which is a bit sad.

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