Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Roguelikes: The RPG Ancestors of Diablo. Free, Complex... and still relevant.

With the release of Diablo 3 on the horizon, I've done a lot of thinking. Some of it has been about the recent controversy regarding a persistent internet connection required for even single player, and the in-game shop where players can buy and sell in-game items for real money (Blizzard takes a cut, of course.) These issues are important to the geek community, but there is little I can say about those at this point that hasn't already been said many times by many other people. What the bulk of my thoughts has turned to is the history behind games like Diablo and Torchlight, from humble origins as games nearly as old as I am to the current state of massive releases that can inspire Geek Holy Wars like the one that rages on as we speak. Before there was Diablo, there was Nethack, and before there was Nethack, there was Rogue. These early descendents form a subgenre of RPG gaming on computers that is easily overlooked, which is a shame, because nearly every game in the category is free.

Rogue, text symbols only edition. I played this on my Palm Pilot years ago.

Rogue is remembered for giving the name to the category of RPG that it spawned, though when it released in 1980 it wasn't actually the first in its subgenre. The “roguelike” games are characterized by permanent character death, turn-based movement, typically text, ASCII or simple tile-based graphics, and randomly generated content for maximum replayability. “Random” is sort of a misnomer, as a truly random dungeon would inevitably have unplayable features like rooms with no possible way through, stairs or doors that go nowhere, etc. A more correct term is “procedurally generation” where content is randomized with a pre-set series of rules in mind making the dungeons and their inhabitants playable, if not necessarily “fair.” The first game in the roguelike genre was on the Apple II in 1978, called Beneath Apple Manor. It is worth mentioning that neither of the men developing Beneath Apple Manor or Rogue knew about each others' projects while making their games.

Early roguelikes were different from purely text-based dungeoneering games in that they had graphics, after a fashion. Symbols drew out rooms, the player was represented by the “@” symbol, and all manner of foul creatures from rats and slimes to vampires and medusae were typically represented by letters roaming the procedurally generated dungeons. Gold, food, armor, weapons, torches and magic items found in the dungeon all have their own symbols, and typically treasure is nearly as dangerous as the monsters. Items may be cursed, potions actually deadly poison, unidentified scrolls may have unpredictable effects... between the traps, creatures and rewards, sometimes the life of a character in a roguelike game is short and extremely unfair.

NetHack displaying a simple tileset translating the ASCII graphics to simple  image tiles.

Later games improved on the formula and added shops, more character options and depth to the gameplay. Angband, which was heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings, and Hack were early standouts for addition of new and fun features. Hack was followed up by NetHack (the Net added to refer to UseNet groups that distributed new versions of the game,) which enjoyed continued content updates from its original release in 1987 through 2003. In addition to refining the mechanics and systems behind this style of gaming, graphical tilesets became popular. A simple front-end could be added to the base game to translate ASCII symbols into specific graphical tiles to improve the graphics somewhat, though many players prefer the extreme “low-fi” option of playing without a tileset.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning a further offshoot of the roguelike genre that really deserves an article all its own. Dwarf Fortress (full title: Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress,) is, along with Infiniminer, the direct inspiration for Minecraft. Dwarf Fortress combines roguelike graphics, procedurally generated worlds and turn-based gameplay with city-building strategy in a uniquely complex and difficult game. Dwarves dig into the ground or mountains, fashion goods and living spaces, encounter and trade with or war upon other races, and have to deal with threats to survival that range from monsters to starvation and insanity. Someday, I'll be ready to give this game the sort of full writeup it deserves, but despite many hours of trying to get the hang of it, the learning curve has defeated me several times. I have time, however, as even though the game started development in 2004, the most recent update in March 2011 is still an early alpha stage of a game still being worked on.

Dwarf Fortress with a Tileset. Civilizations, trade, economy, even gravity
and erosion are modeled in this ludicrously detailed game.

Though I've played every game I've mentioned in this article with the exception of Beneath Apple Manor, there has been one in particular that has grabbed my attention. As I've said before, I love zombie gaming. Most roguelikes are fantasy, swords and wizards, but my current favorite doesn't have any of that. Rogue Survivor is a zombie apocalypse survival simulation where “treasure” is food, weapons, medical supplies, and fighting is necessary occasionally, but most of the time... you run and hide. There's a lot of work left to do on this game, but in its current state, it is a blast. Your survivor gets skills like “light eater” to consume less food, “hauler” to get extra inventory space, “leadership” to get others to follow, and you get a new skill each time the sun rises.

Rogue Survivor puts you against the constant threat of zombies, the need to scavenge for supplies and find a safe place to sleep. In addition to zombies, skeletons and zombie masters, players need to stay on their guard against biker gangs, other hungry survivors willing to murder for food and employees of the sinister CHAR Corporation. Exploring residences and stores can get some basic equipment, as can picking through what is left over by those unfortunate enough to be cornered and killed by undead. You can barricade buildings, explore the sewers, race to army supply drops when food gets short, hide your cache of goods from other scavengers... There is a lot of depth already in the unfinished version of the game available right now. My personal best time so far is 13 days, when my hardware store base was found by 2 zombie masters, a zombie lord and 5 shamblers and I died with an empty shotgun and six of the eight creatures at my feet.

A public park littered with corpses, a street with cars aflame, and a nearby
skeleton ready to attack in Rogue Survivor. 

Open source, free and infinitely replayable games with constant content updates that have inspired some of the greatest computer games of the current era. Roguelikes are unique in that the existence of the games they inspire doesn't make them obsolete, or any less fun. Most of them are labors of love from a single programmer/designer or a very small team, and I think that a lot of them will never be completely “done”. The time investment from character creation to probable death in a lot of these games is short, with the exception of dwarf fortress. These aren't 30 hour epics, but there's no padding to the content. It is pure, undiluted gameplay. You'll die and curse, and restart again. I'll play Diablo 3 when it comes out, but I'll almost certainly play my roguelikes long after I've become bored with it.
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Jay said...

i've never tried dwarf fortress, and part of me feels that i never should. ;)

Desert Scribe said...

Thanks for writing about these games. I'd heard the term "Roguelike" before, but I didn't have a clear idea of what the word meant. Sounds like I need to give them a try.

Alpha said...

Ah, Dwarf Fortress...you cruel mistress.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I used to be hopelessly addicted to Dwarf Fortress. Well I still am. But I used to be too.

George said...

My, what a yummy mango...

Justin said...

Ooh, cool post. I actually have not played any of these. I'll be looking up a couple of these!

Zombie Ad said...

Awesome. I am looking forward to Diablo 3

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