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Guided Tour: Roguelikes

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With over 72 million monthly visitors across over 320,000 wikis (and counting!), Wikia is a hotbed of passionate expertise on an incredibly diverse range of topics. With such a plethora of information to sift through, breaking into a new franchise or genre can seem a tad overwhelming. To help break the ice, we're going to be asking experts from various communities to tell us what it is about their area of expertise they find so captivating -- and the steps they recommend beginners take to set themselves on the path to geekery.

We're calling the series "Guided Tour," and our topic this time is the Roguelike video game genre.

What is a Roguelike?

Rogue Atari
If there’s one term in gaming that’s thrown about now more than ever, it’s Roguelike. It’s nearly impossible to find an upcoming game that doesn’t include the term somewhere in its description, no matter how dubious the claim may actually be. So what is a Roguelike? As with all difficult questions, the answer hinges on who you ask.

The term Roguelike stems directly from the 1980 computer/Atari game Rogue. Rogue was a fantasy RPG that featured the following traits:

  • Randomly generated dungeons
  • Randomly generated item locations and functions
  • Turn-based combat
  • Single-player gameplay
  • Permadeath that forces the player to start over from the beginning

Games that adhere to all of these rules are considered Classical, or Berlin Roguelikes. The vast majority of modern Roguelikes though, tend to to deviate from this formula in one way or another, which is where the ambiguity starts to pop up. Many Roguelikes blend action gameplay with some of these elements (Rogue Legacy, Risk of Rain), while the super popular building genre (Minecraft, Rust, Starbound, Don't Starve), all use randomly generated environments, but vary wildly after that.

There's even another term, "Roguelite", to describe games that actively try to forego the crushing difficulty of most Roguelikes. Basically, if a game includes any one of the above mentioned traits, people feel comfortable calling it a Roguelike, even if it really isn’t.

That said, a lot of the design choices pioneered by Rogue are great on their own, and they add a huge level of re-playability and surprise to games at a time when many of them are accused of being too linear and predictable.

Seeing how subjective the term Roguelike can be, it only makes sense that we turn to some of Wikia’s Roguelike gaming communities to see what they think the word means, and what some of their favorites are.

Expert Opinion



“The events that occur, the choices you make, the risks, the successes and the crushing defeats are all given legitimacy because they're real.”

Only a few years ago Roguelikes were an obscure niche genre many people had never heard of, but recently they've become one of the most relevant in modern gaming. In defiance of modern game design's slip into overly cinematic, choreographed, and inflexible experiences designed to rigidly limit the player to a pre-defined sequence of events, Roguelikes focus very heavily on creating organic gameplay.

Among the key features of the genre are the randomization of your character, the environments, enemies, and power-ups that can appear in each run. Roguelikes also put a focus on making sure these dynamic gameplay mechanics interact smoothly with each other. This creates an original and un-staged set of challenges for the player to face that can never be predicted or rehearsed. Unique game sessions are given real stakes due to the risk of permadeath and the brutal difficulty these games are known for.

The events that occur, the choices you make, the risks, the successes and the crushing defeats are all given legitimacy because they're real. This is why Roguelikes are such a compelling genre. You can play for hundreds of hours and still not see everything or get tired of it. You never know what you're getting into, whether the game will reveal a powerful combination of items that synergize well and let you invent new tactics, or face you with a devious series of dangers that force you to fight desperately to save everything you've achieved. It really is a potent formula for a game that remains engaging even after a long time of playing it.

Roguelikes have evolved over the past thirty years as developers modernize the genre by adapting design theories to other games. Some of my favourite iterations of the genre are the hybrid games, the 'rogue-lites' that apply Roguelike qualities to new frontiers. Platformers, shooters, stealth and adventure games have all helped inspire game designers to create unprecedented concepts, releasing a welcome slew of new games into a tired market of rehashed ideas and derivative sequels.

TenhGrey recommends

Expert Opinion



“In a game like this, the point is not necessarily to win the game, but simply not to lose. Each game day you survive is a small victory in itself”

The Roguelike genre of games, as I understand it, focuses on two major components: Permanent death and random level design. Each play through should be unique. The point is to place the player into an unknown situation and force them to adapt to the world. You can't just remember where to find the key to that door from the last time you played; the key and the door may not even exist this time. You also never know when danger will strike, and thus you will die, a lot. Playing a game like Don't Starve forces you to learn the skills needed for survival; how to react to situations and how to plan for unforeseen problems. In a game like this, the point is not necessarily to win the game, but simply not to lose. Each game day you survive is a small victory in itself.

I first found Don't Starve when I was looking for a game about surviving in the wilderness. What caught my attention was the unique art style; what kept my attention was the game-play. The constant risk of hunger, the other creatures which could (and did) easily eat me for lunch, this was my first experience with anything rogue-like. For the first time in awhile I was actually afraid of dying in a game! Most games these days baby the player along and provide safety nets and auto-saves. Don't Starve does have a few of these, but as you get better at playing you find yourself turning those off too.

Roguelike games are for players who actually want to be challenged. The type of player who looks for cheat codes after the second time they die is probably not going to be a fan of this genre. Roguelikes typically are also not action-oriented, but they may have action elements. In Don't Starve, you spend a lot of time exploring, collecting and crafting, and occasionally there are heart-pumping moments like the first time you're chopping firewood in the snow, and the tree next to you stands smacks you for killing his friend. Then you enter the true Don't Starve experience; survive, learn, and somehow get that firewood so you don't freeze to death!

Don't Starve Wikia recommends

Expert Opinion



“Roguelikes can be challenging, frustrating experiences, but when you finally reach the end, assuming there is one, they’re incredibly rewarding.”

My name is Matt and I’m a Community Development Specialist for both entertainment and gaming here at Wikia. I help flesh out communities with aesthetic flourishes, interesting content, and more — if you ever need a hand with anything, don’t be afraid to reach out.

Roguelikes remind me of a bygone era in video games, before players could save games, before even rudimentary password saving, when gamers only had a single chance to exercise their skills and overcome whatever obstacles a game might present. You’ve died? Tough luck. Hit reset and try again. Roguelikes can be challenging, frustrating experiences, but when you finally reach the end, assuming there is one, they’re incredibly rewarding.

Though I’ve never had the chance to play through the original Unix dungeon crawler (something that’s probably more fun in theory than practice), my love affair with the genre began a bit earlier than with the most recent resurgence, with a weird little Final Fantasy spinoff for the PSX called Chocobo’s Dungeon. While more of a Roguelite (there were certain aspects that players could save in a hub overworld), certain elements — like permadeath and randomly generated dungeons — make it an obvious spiritual precursor to the genre's recent spike in popularity.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying a wide variety of Roguelike titles. The Binding of Isaac is a dark overhead dungeon crawler along the lines of The Legend of Zelda. With random map generation, a slew of weird items, and strange (oftentimes disgusting) enemies, it never fails to entertain (despite being incredibly frustrating.) Rogue Legacy (which is, in its own way, a “Rogue-lite”), is a side-scroller that borrows basic mechanics (and harrowing difficulty) from classic platformers like Ghosts and Goblins and Castlevania. Randomly generated castles, an intriguing lineage mechanic, and nail-biting difficulty make it almost endlessly replayable. Faster Than Light is a sci-fi Roguelike that meshes randomness and fear of permadeath with both real-time and turn-based strategy. It simply wouldn’t offer the same agonizing sense of tension and drama without its front-and-center Roguelike qualities.

It’s easy for beginners to be immediately frustrated and deterred by the difficulty of many Roguelike titles — but stick with it. This is definitely a genre where it's generally more about the journey than the destination.

Mhadick recommends

Wikia resources

Want to learn more about Roguelikes? All of our experts provided a number of links to help you dip your toes into their exciting, ever-changing world. They also recommend you reach out to them via their message wall, wiki chat, or talk page if you have any questions. Here's the syllabus:

Got any questions about Roguelikes or a favorite Roguelike to recommend? Leave a comment below!

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