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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!