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Roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by procedural level generation, turn-based gameplay, tile-based graphics and permanent death, and typically based on a high fantasy narrative setting. Roguelikes descend from the 1980 game Rogue, particularly mirroring Rogue's character- or sprite-based graphics, turn-based gameplay that gives the player the time to plan each move, and high fantasy setting. In more recent years, new variations of roguelikes incorporating other gameplay genres, thematic elements and graphical styles have become popular, and are sometimes called "roguelike-like", "rogue-lite" or "procedural death labyrinths" to reflect the variation from titles which mimic the gameplay of traditional roguelikes more faithfully.
Gameplay and design
Early roguelike games put the player as the role of an adventurer in a high fantasy setting, exploring a multi-level dungeon. The player moves the character across the tile-based dungeon level, fighting monsters and collecting treasure until they find a stairway to the next or previous level. Gameplay is turn-based, with the player moving the character one tile or performing one action, with all the other monsters then taking their turns. Actions performed by the player usually required a single keypress, but in-game menu systems would allow for more complex actions, such as equipping armor or transferring items between containers. An important facet of roguelike games is the randomness of the game. Levels are procedurally generated each time a new game is started, and special magical items like potions or wands are named by random descriptor ("a bubbly potion", for example) until the item is identified, with the descriptors being shuffled each game. Another core feature is the concept of "permadeath"; players may save the game state between sessions, but this saved state is overwritten immediately on reloading, such that if the character dies, the player cannot restart from earlier in the game.
The interface for the original roguelikes, played on UNIX-based terminals, would use ASCII or ANSI characters to represent the top-down view of the dungeon. Traditionally,
@ would be used to represent the character,
- to represent the floors and walls of the dungeon, and
> for stairs. Other letters and symbols would be used for monsters and items, such as
D for a dragon. With more modern systems, these simple ASCII graphics were augmented with detailed tile set graphics. Isometric-based graphical front ends have also been developed.
The Berlin Interpretation
Due to the expansion of numerous variations on the roguelike theme in the mid-1980s, the gameplay elements characterizing the roguelike genre were explicitly defined at the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008, named the so-called "Berlin Interpretation". Some of the "high value factors" used in this definition include:
- Roguelike games randomly generate dungeon levels, though they may include static levels as well. Generated layouts typically incorporate rooms connected by corridors, some of which may be preset to a degree (e.g., monster lairs or treasuries). Open areas or natural features, like rivers, may also occur.
- The identity of magical items varies across games. Newly discovered objects only offer a vague physical description that is randomized between games, with purposes and capabilities left unstated. For example, a "bubbly" potion might heal wounds one game, then poison the player character in the next. Items are often subject to alteration, acquiring specific traits, such as a curse, or direct player modification.
- The combat system is turn-based instead of real-time. Gameplay is usually step-based, where player actions are performed serially and take a variable measure of in-game time to complete. Game processes (e.g., monster movement and interaction, progressive effects such as poisoning or starvation) advance based on the passage of time dictated by these actions.
- Most are single-player games. On multi-user systems, leaderboards are often shared between players. Some roguelikes allow traces of former player characters to appear in later game sessions in the form of ghosts or grave markings. Some games such as NetHack even have the player's former characters reappear as enemies within the dungeon. Multi-player derivatives such as TomeNET, MAngband, and Crossfire do exist and are playable online.
- Roguelikes traditionally implement permadeath. Once a character dies, the player must begin a new game. A "save game" feature will only provide suspension of gameplay and not a limitlessly recoverable state; the stored session is deleted upon resumption or character death. Players can circumvent this by backing up stored game data ("save scumming"), an act that is usually considered cheating.
Roguelike-likes and procedural death labyrinths
With computers and video game consoles capable of more advanced graphics and gameplay, numerous games have emerged that are loosely based on the classic roguelike design but diverge in one or more features. Many of these games use the concepts of procedural-generated maps and permadeath, while moving away from tile-based movement and turn-based gameplay, often using another gameplay genre such as action games or platformers. As such, the term "roguelike" has been used to describe games that possess one or more of the features of the Berlin Interpretation though not necessarily all of the features. The term "roguelike-like" or "rogue-lite" has been used to distinguish these games that possess some, but not all, of the Berlin Interpretation features from those that exactly meet the Berlin roguelike definition. The phrase "procedural death labyrinth" has also been applied to such games, as they retain the notion of permadeath and random level generation but lack the other high-value factors normally associated with roguelike games.
Early popularity (1980-2000)
The "roguelike" term comes from the video game Rogue, programmed for Unix-based systems in 1980. Rogue itself derived from concepts from early games, including Adventure (1975), Dungeon (1975), DND/Telengard (1976), Beneath Apple Manor (1978), and several written for the PLATO system, such as the multi-user games dnd (1975) and Moria (1975).
Rogue proved popular with college students at the time, and eventually was included, along with its source code, within the BSD UNIX distribution package. This gave the ability for others to create software forks of the title, adding in new monsters, items, and gameplay features, creating several dozen variants. The expansion was also aided by the availability of the curses ("cursor optimization") programming API that helped users to create text-interface visuals. Most variants of Rogue could be classified into two branches:
- One branch of Rogue developed the game towards the fantasy setting of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, with Moria (1983) based on the complex underground maze featured within Tolkien's fiction. Levels were not persistent; when the player left the level and then tried to return, a new procedurally-generated level would be made; the goal would be to descend to the deepest depths and kill the most powerful monster in the game. Variations on Moria would lead to Angband (1990) (another Middle Earth location), which featured larger levels and more variation in player attributes, equipment, and monsters, and often featured a town level where the player could buy and sell equipment before returning to delve. At least fifty (50) known variations on Angband exist, but maintain the concept of non-persistent dungeon levels and lacking any deeper story.
- The other branch bore out in Hack (1982), where dungeon levels would contain more specialized rooms, such as vaults and stores, and where the player was to seek out the "Amulet of Yendor". The game retained the high fantasy setting but expanded out from the Middle Earth lore. Levels would remain persistent once generated, allowing players to revisit these special rooms. Hack would eventually lead to Nethack (1987), an expansion of Hack but bringing together numerous influences from other cultural works, including those that would otherwise be anachronistic in the dungeon setting. Nethack and its variants would typically feature some fixed story and specific gameplay goals in order to fully complete the game, often necessitated by revisiting the previously explored levels.
Modern resurgence (2000-onward)
Though new classical roguelike variants would continue to be developed, the genre languished as more advanced personal computers capable of improved graphics capabilities and games that utilized these features became popular. However, some of these new graphical games drew influence for roguelike concepts, notably action role-playing games like Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo (1996). Blizzard acknowledged that games like Nethack, Telengard and other roguelikes influenced the design of Diablo, including the nature of randomly generated dungeons and loot.
A resurgence of the roguelike genre came from Japan, primarily through the Mystery Dungeon series by Chunsoft, while applied roguelike concepts across several different game series for handheld gaming units; such games included Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon (lit tran. The Great Adventure of Torneko: Dungeon of Mystery) based on Dragon Quest, the Chocobo series based on Final Fantasy, and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon based on Pokémon. The developers had developed ways to reduce the difficulty of the roguelike by using progressively more difficult dungeons that were randomly generated, and included the option of permadeath in more difficult modes. Several titles in the Mystery Dungeon series were popular, and would become a staple of the Japanese video game market. The games were not as successful in Western markets when published there, as some found the lack of a traditional role-playing game save system odd, even though this was a fundamental feature of roguelikes.
Instead, roguelikes in Western markets saw a resurgence through Independent developers after 2000. Efforts were made by indie developers to incorporate roguelike elements into non-traditional titles, with one of the earliest examples being Strange Adventures in Infinite Space (2002) and its sequel Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space (2005) by Digital Eel, both space exploration games that included randomly generated planets and encounters. Dwarf Fortress (2006) by Bay 12 Games is an open-ended exploration game across a procedurally-generated map, and includes resource gathering and population management as well as permadeath. The title developed a cult following and is considered one of the inspirations for Minecraft. The Binding of Isaac (2011) by Edmund McMillian,Dungeons of Dredmor (2011) by Gaslamp Games, Spelunky (2012) by Derek Yu, and FTL: Faster Than Light (2012) by Subset Games were all roguelike-based games that received critical praise, and their success has lead to a more modern resurgence in roguelikes since.
The newfound success in roguelikes is considered part of a larger trend in those that play both board and computer games, looking for "rich play experiences", as described by 100 Rogues developer Keith Burgun, that more popular titles may not always offer. David Bamguart of Gaslight Games stated that there is a thrill of the risk inherent in roguelikes with random generation and permadeath, helping the player become more invested in the fate of their player-character: "The deadly precariousness inherent to the unknown environments of roguelikes gives that investment a great deal of meaning." Additionally, may of these newer roguelikes strive to address the apparent high difficulty and ruthlessness that traditional roguelikes were known for, and newer players will be able to find more help through user-generated game guides and walkthroughs made possible through wide Internet accessibility.
Particularly for smaller indie developers, the nature of the procedural-generated world allows teams to deliver many hours worth of game content without having to spend resources and development time on fleshing out detailed worlds. This also allows developers to devote more time in building out complex gameplay features and their interacting systems that are part of the enjoyment of roguelike games.
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