Roguelikes

It seems like there’s been a big split in the video game business as of late. One the one hand, there are the expensive gigantic games, commonly referred to as triple A, these include the Call of Duties, Grand Theft Autos and Elder Scrolls, among others. On the other hand, are the independent games, commonly found on Steam, such as FTL or Spelunky. Arguably, the most popular game right now is Minecraft, which certainly isn’t a AAA game, even if its now owned by Microsoft is very much in spirit an independent game.

Now the best games have one of the following things in common, they are either

a: primarily played against other people (most First person shooters, also real time strategy games)

b: they are primarily setting based (most RPGs fall into this category, but also Grand Theft Autos)

or

c: they are mainly gameplay based (puzzle games, but I’ll go into more detail later)

I’m going to mainly skip over type a as I have nothing interesting to say about it; so let me jump into type b:

For setting based games, the main draw is viewing and interacting with the environment; take one of my favorites, Fallout 3. In it, you emerge from a fallout shelter, which was a perfectly self contained society, into a big, scary post apocalyptic wasteland. As you journey, you both find out more about society, the new divisions (humans, super-mutants, ghouls), explore the ruins of society (such as the Washington monument and the Pentagon, but also mundane things such as schools and supermarkets), you experience the world (Fallout has a great theme based on 50’s music, art, culture and even paranoia) and your character also changes, becomes more powerful and more able to face challenges, affect her surroundings, and generally kick ass. In several ways its artificial (relying primarily on your character stats and items), and in several ways its natural (you as a player become better at dealing with and responding to situations through gameplay).

Another example is the Dragon Age games. (its been a while since I’ve played, so forgive me if my memory isn’t exactly correct). Dragon Age Origins is basically a standard RPG, you choose race (Elf, Dwarf, Human), class (Fighter, Rogue, Mage), and “background” (like noble human or wood elf), but the backstory doesn’t matter that much. You start out weak, and get strong through leveling up your characters and getting powerful items. Basically, if you like RPGs, you’ll like Dragon Age origins. Anyway, so at the beginning of the game, I as a player was naturally roleplaying, I was very scared to go to places in the game which I thought would be dangerous. By the end of the game, I felt like a badass and just walked into the enemy’s HQ. Basically, the decisions I made in the game reflected the decisions my character naturally would have made in the same situations, which creates the feel of immersion and makes for a pretty good experience.

(As an aside, this is why I hated Elder Scrolls 4, the enemies leveled up as you did, which totally ruins the immersion.  There’s no reason that would ever happen in real life, and knowing that anywhere you went the enemies would be as strong as you were meant that deciding where to go wasn’t an important choice, which instantly changed the world from interesting to boring. Furthermore, the way the game leveled up, if you made the wrong decisions on what stats to level up, the game basically became impossible, so the choices you make are about min-maxing, not about making decisions within the context of the world or in what your character would do.)

The problem with these immersion games is a simple one, death. You can’t die permanently in these games because doing so and restarting the game would mean that either you would never get to explore all areas, or the game would be so easy as to present no challenge. So, of course, these games let you save and reload (or “respawn”) at previous locations so you don’t have to start over each time you are killed.

Of course, this starts to break the immersion, you are essentially immortal, which means that beating the game is only a matter of putting enough time into it. This gives us a conundrum, you can’t make a game too big and still have permanent death as there would be no point to creating all that content if most players would never see it, and with the ability to save and reload, there’s not much incentive for the player to master the game, not when any challenge can be met purely by repeating it over and over again. So what to do about games where skill is the point?

Enter the roguelike. A long time ago (1980 to be exact), there was a game that used only asci graphics, you know either letters or things like $ # !, it was called Rogue. I won’t go too far into it, but it introduced two basic mechanics, randomly (or in nerd talk, procedurally) generated levels, and permanent death. There have been any number of games with those two characteristics, and they can make a game great.

A recent favorite of mine is call FTL, in it, you command the crew of a spaceship, it plays like an RPG in that you crew “levels up” (individuals can get more competent at tasks such as piloting or hand to hand combat), you buy or find new weapons and enhancements. But because its relatively short (it probably takes 2 hours to finish a winning campaign) and because death is almost always a threat and almost everything you do has repercussions throughout the game, even “routine” fights and somewhat normal decisions carry with them urgency and importance. Deciding which armor to buy in Skyrim, for instance, might make a little bit of difference, but it won’t define the rest of the game. Choosing what weapons to buy in the beginning of FTL may be the difference at the end boss.

To use another example, I’ve been playing a game called “Spelunky,” in it you play an Indiana Jones type explorer descending deep into a cave. You find treasure, items which help you, enter stores and the like. Anyway, the game, oddly enough for a game mentioned in a blog post about randomly generated levels and permanent death, has randomly generated levels and permanent death. This leads to two exciting aspects of gameplay. First, the whole game presents a challenge; you are pretty much forced to treat the whole game world as a dangerous place; this leads to excitement. Secondly, because the game is randomly generated, you can’t anticipate what will come next, which means that you won’t just memorize locations or timing, you deal with situations not as you’ve memorized them but by figuring everything out as you go; you know, just like in real life.

These games are commonly made by independent studios, with repeating art and text, a team of only a few can make a great game. As these teams don’t have to earn back a huge development cost, they can introduce novel and risky game play ideas. I expect he future of the gaming industry to continue to be pushed by these smaller and riskier developers.

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