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What is Roguelike? Understanding the genre and its impact on modern-day indie games

A look into the genre which defined the indie games (Image via Sportskeeda.com)
A look into the genre which defined the indie games (Image via Sportskeeda.com)
Sampad Banerjee

While I was working on this particular piece, I started playing a Roguelike called Noita. The premise was pretty simple. You are a wizard, and you need to go to the depths of a mountain while trying to not die. On the way to protect you from dying, you get magic wands, which can be used to kill monsters. If you're unlucky, and you die, everything gets reset. Even the levels get reset, and all of your progression gets removed.

This whole style of gameplay is what the community popularly calls “Roguelike”, where it is completely normal to die over and over again, and no one will shame you for that. After all, playing the game in various successions is one of the key features of Roguelike games.

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Be it Noita, Binding of Issac, Spelunky, or many other games, Roguelike is very much adored in the community for its replayability and the challenge it provides. While I can talk about quite a lot of things related to Roguelikes, this article tries to cover things that help a newcomer into the genre.


Roguelike games and their inception

Before we jump down into the big hole that is called Roguelike, we need to know how the genre was created and what makes the games fun and immersive to play.

Even though the exact timeline is very confusing, many might agree that Roguelike games are inspired by a 1980 game called “Rogue”. Developed by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, Ken Arnold and Jon Lane, Rogue was a dungeon crawler for Unix-based operating system computers. Other games tried to make sure players skipped death, but Rogue embraced death as its core design choice.

A scene from the game Rogue (Image via Rogue)
A scene from the game Rogue (Image via Rogue)

In Rogue, players had to navigate a dungeon with their character, and death was permanent. Every time a character died, players would lose all of their progress had to start a new game of Rogue with a new character. Each fresh start would change the layout of dungeons, items, and even enemy placements. The end goal was to reach the bottom-most layer of the dungeon, retrieve the Amulet of Yendor and reach back the surface while fighting monsters that get stronger as the player progresses.

The popularity of the game among college-goers at that time, and the unavailability of the source code by the game developers for fans to make fan expansions, led more people to create games with similar features to Rogue but with expanded gameplay features.

Enter Hack and NetHack. Two games, which are considered to be the backbone of the Roguelike genres. Hack was introduced in 1982 and was very similar to Rogue in gameplay. Hack also introduced new features like items, shops, more monsters, and spells.

A scene from Nethack (Image via Reddit user u/slartibartfastBB)
A scene from Nethack (Image via Reddit user u/slartibartfastBB)

NetHack was released in late 1987 and will feature everything introduced in Hack, but newer gameplay elements and humour throughout the game. You still have to descend the dungeon and grab the Amulet of Yendor but have much more to do throughout the process.

These two games are considered to be the first generation of Roguelikes and can also be the games from which the genre flourished. But surely, Rogue is deemed one of the games to inspire the many Roguelike games that exist today and are played by thousands of players.


So, what is a Roguelike game?

In simple terms, Roguelike games share features from the game Rogue. Permadeath, procedural generation, and Turn-Based are often the core features that make a game roguelike. The genre got more popular amidst indie game development, where game developers took the permadeath and random generation of levels and items as core level designs.

Now the hardcore Roguelike community follows what is called the “Berlin Interpretation”, which was established at the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008.

Some people do counter question the Berlin Interpretation, saying that the definition is not correct as the genre is ever-changing. In certain cases, developers call their games “Roguelite” to separate it from the Berlin Interpretation.

If one asks me, as a player, I’d say Roguelike games are the ones where most of the sections of the game are randomly generated after each death. Be it weapons, levels, or enemy placements. Some widely popular games like Spelunky, Risk of Rain, Noita, Binding of Issac, and many others, can be considered Roguelike games.


Roguelike and its success in Indie development

Noita (Image via Nolla Games)
Noita (Image via Nolla Games)

Roguelike is a genre with a lot of success under the indie spotlight. Be it FTL: Faster than Light, Noita, Binding of Issac, among others, the genre saw huge success amidst the indie circle, so much so that it evolved and became a separate genre of its own: Roguelite.

But why do developers choose the Roguelike model? Why make something which generates randomly instead of carefully hand-crafting everything?

Petri Purho of Nolla Games, one of the developers of Noita, was asked about why they chose Roguelike to make Noita, to which he said how the genre would make sense from a design point after they experimented with others like RTS, God Game, etc. Petri and the team felt that Roguelike would not only let them finish the game but would make the game replayable.

Roguelike game felt something we could finish, and we would get more out of our procedural generation systems. Like if the player is going to play through the game maybe once or twice, why do procedural generation? It would be far easier to hand-craft everything because that way, we could more easily make interesting encounters and situations for the player. For the gameplay, it was also a similar argument. If the player finds a way to craft a wand that will allow them to destroy everything, then they can just beat the game with it and be done.

Petri also says that Roguelike features like permadeath, once implemented in the game, made the experience better and made it tighter.

“Once we had permadeath in the game, the game became more intense and fun to play. It just amped up all the things that were in the game and squeezed them into a tighter experience.”
Noita (Image via Noita/Kotaku)
Noita (Image via Noita/Kotaku)

Justin Ma of Subset Games, one of the co-creators of the game FTL: Faster Than Light and Into The Breach, was asked why both the games adopted Roguelike features.

FTL: Faster Than Light (Image via Subset Games)
FTL: Faster Than Light (Image via Subset Games)

Justin says that in the case of FTL: Faster Than Light, they wanted players to make choices that would have consequences for their game, to which Roguelike features like Permadeath and Procedural generation made sense.

For FTL we were interested in requiring the player to make difficult choices throughout the gameplay and the easiest way to make choices feel difficult is to have lasting serious consequences to those choices. It logically followed that a rogue-lite structure of permadeath and procedurally generated threats would aid those design goals nicely.

For Into the Breach, the philosophy carried forward. However, Justin and the team at Subset Games wanted to play with the consecutive playthroughs connected to the main storyline. Which Roguelike allowed them to do.

Into the Breach had a similar foundation of design, but we also wanted to play with the idea that consecutive playthroughs would all be connected through the same story. Having permadeath and random missions also helped create a feeling of an 'infinite puzzle generator' which is more interesting to us as developers than purely hand-crafted content.
Into The Breach (Image via Subset Games)
Into The Breach (Image via Subset Games)

In both cases, it is safe to assume that procedural generation and permadeath are the features that interest the developers. The other factor is the interest in experimentation, which indie development has a lot more liberty than the bigger AAA counterparts.


The Future for the genre

Rogue in 1980 paved the way for Roguelikes to be born, while Hack and NetHack became the first generation of Roguelikes. In fact, many consider Spelunky to help inspire many indie developers to base their game under Roguelike moulds. Petri of Nolla Games and Justin of Subset Games believe that, respectively.

PETRI: It wasn't until Derek Yu's Spelunky came out and opened mine and many others' eyes to the various ways the same experience could be translated into other kinds of games. The impact of Spelunky is such that I think what [we now] know is called roguelikes should be called Spelunkylikes - a term Raigan Burns coined. I feel all modern roguelikes owe that much to Spelunky.
JUSTIN: The big shift was the original Spelunky. Prior to that, it never occurred to me to take the core systems of true roguelike games and combine them with other gameplay mechanics - it felt quite revolutionary for me.

With Roguelike enjoying success and warmth in indie development and Spelunky inspiring a section of indie developers to create great games, it evolved into a genre of its own. Roguelite.

Spelunky (Image via Mossmouth)
Spelunky (Image via Mossmouth)

Roguelites were not exactly Roguelike but only adopted a particular feature of Roguelike (Be it permadeath or random generation, among others) while having a much more forgiving gameplay design.

Dead Cells (Image via Motion Twin)
Dead Cells (Image via Motion Twin)
Hades (Image via Supergiant Games)
Hades (Image via Supergiant Games)

Games like Dead Cells and Hades are among some of the most popular and successful Roguelites and are still enjoyed by people of all ages. But what is next?

Petri of Nolla Games believes that more ambitious projects are allowed to come out with people accepting the genre and understanding what Roguelike is.

It seems like the player base at large now understands what a roguelike is and that allows for more ambitious and expensive games to come out. Like Returnal from our friends at Housemarque. I think the genre i here to stay and there will be a lot more roguelike games.

Justin from Subset Games also thinks that the genre will keep evolving and is more excited to see how the new generation of developers take the Roguelike and Roguelite formula and develop it.

I assume that the genre will continue to evolve in ways that take the best mechanics and systems while making it a little less about punishing your failures (for example, you almost look forward to dying in Hades because it continues the story). I look forward to seeing where the new generation of developers take the idea of roguelites + roguelikes.

For the future, who knows what will happen. For now, Roguelike and Roguelites are here to stay. With successful Roguelike and Roguelite games like Hades and Returnal getting the love and warmth from gamers worldwide, the future for genre definitely looks a bright one, and not a random one.


Note: A huge thank you to Petri Purho of Nolla Games and Justin Ma of Subset Games for talking with us about this article. Without them, some of these points and this article would not have been successful.


Edited by Yasho Amonkar

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