Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What's in a roguelike?

Well, I was going to wrap up the year by posting a link to my second article on Unwinnable and calling it good. Unfortunately, it looks like I waited too long. In my laziness—perhaps as a result of it, for all I know—there seems to be a server issue with Unwinnable that has rendered anything pre-July 2011 inaccessible. Anyway, hopefully that gets resolved soon and I can furnish said link.

Still, that leaves the question of what to post for December 2013. So here's an idea. Let's talk about genre … or rather a particular sub-genre in the realm of video games.

Yes, I still want to be able to call FTL a roguelike.
It's recently come to my attention that some people have taken exception to the term “roguelike” — or rather, its liberal usage as a catch-all genre descriptor for a recent surge of games that involve a heady mix of procedurally generated content and permanent player death. I've written about some of these games on my blog (namely Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac), and in both cases I've basically called them both “roguelikes.”

It's also come to my attention that people have debated the usage of the term for different reasons, on the one hand because it may or may not violate a set of guidelines established by some people who met five years ago at a little get-together in Berlin. Other people say the term “roguelike” is just a bad name. It's confusing. Right from the get-go it references a particular game most people have never even heard about.

I may not have a personal stake in this debate, but I do have an opinion. I guess it just never struck me that the term was problematic.

I myself have never played Rogue or any of its spiritual brethren that used ASCII characters for graphics. For a couple of years I'd heard the term “roguelike” kicked around, not really knowing what it meant. Then, slowly, I began to piece it together. I started reading and following up on games like Epic Dungeon for Xbox Live Indie Games, 100 Rogues on iOS, and eventually the Spelunky remake for XBLA. The latter game particularly piqued my interest, and it was all I could do to resist buying it until it went on sale toward the end of 2012. It turns out I enjoyed the game about as much as I anticipated I would. And yes … it was sort of like being introduced to a new kind of game.

The game was like my own personal dungeon master. Each new attempt to make my way through the mines, jungles, ice caves, and that confounded temple was a unique experience. Each freshly generated level was like unwrapping a mysterious Christmas gift. It could be a Red Ryder BB Gun (a free jetpack waiting for me in a nearby item crate). It could be a lump of coal (a dark jungle level, wherein I stumble into a hive of giant hornets). I had to prepare myself for a multitude of potential scenarios, to gamble my precious time and resources on an unknowable path of downward progress.

This past year I played two of the other popular games commonly associated with the “roguelike” moniker—the aforementioned The Binding of Isaac and the spacefaring FTL: Faster Than Light. As far as I'm concerned, these three titles constitute the holy trinity of the neo roguelike. With no disrespect to the many talented developers who have been working within or around the genre for multiple decades, I think it's really these three games that have put the roguelike under the spotlight for a larger audience.

Partly what I like so much about the more generalized roguelike definition is how it puts the emphasis on something other than a game's central mechanics. In other words, by calling a game a roguelike we're not necessarily dealing with the specifics of what the player is doing. Spelunky could just as easily be considered a side-scrolling platformer, because the player must literally navigate their player avatar through a network of 2D platforms while avoiding hazards and fighting off enemies. Clearly, the same could not be said about The Binding of Isaac, which would more likely be pegged as a top-down dungeon crawler. FTL, which has players strategically managing the crew of a spaceship in a series of real-time encounters, is perhaps the most divergent of the three games, at least in terms of how the player interacts with it. What ties them all together is really more a matter of design philosophy. And while things like procedural content generation and permanent death might still be perceived as rather prescriptive or rigid genre signifiers, as these three games demonstrate, there are many different ways to put those signifiers into practice. There remains a similar quality to the playing experience, one that for me is about learning how to overcome the fresh surprises and incredible odds being stacked against me as I progress (hopefully) closer and closer toward the final boss encounter.

As I mentioned earlier, there's a crowd of people who take issue with the fact that these recent slew of games do not fit the more restrictive set of guidelines for what should be considered a true roguelike. None of these games are turn-based, grid-based, etc. None of them—to reiterate—use ASCII characters for graphics. This is partly out of deference and respect to a particular canon of games that became popular around the same time. It codifies a particular moment in gaming history.

In an attempt to satisfy the demands of the Berlin interpreters, some have suggested we call these modern-day imitators "rogue-lites" or—worse yet—"roguelike-likes." I myself am not a fan of either term. The latter one seems particularly silly and redundant. If we do have to make a distinction, I would rather use the term "neo roguelike," which I alluded to earlier.

I can appreciate the recent efforts of game developer Lars Doucet, who has tried to singlehandedly coin the all-new term “procedural death labyrinth” as a replacement genre name. I could maybe get behind the shortened term “deathlab” if enough other people did the same, but … here's what I really think.

Popular opinion has already spoken.

I think it's already been established by too many people that Spelunky, FTL, and numerous other recent titles are indeed modern-day roguelikes. To try and backpedal seems to do little to elevate the conversation surrounding these games. But more than that, it might be futile. There's nothing wrong with educating people about the past, but people need to understand that genres and terminologies tend to function more like avalanches than like meteorites—they pick up more stuff over time. If you ask a pop music historian what constitutes hip hop music, they might be tempted to correct you in saying that "hip hop" technically refers to an artistic subculture that originated amongst the black and Latino communities of 1970s New York. While most people might use the terms "rap music" and "hip hop" interchangeably, for many the latter usage would be inaccurate, because hip hop also encompasses DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Still, try and tell that to the people who organize the music section at your local big-box retailer. It will probably fall on deaf ears.

Even today, there are those who would argue that a film noir can't truly exist beyond the boundaries of 1958 without being a self-conscious imitator of what was previously an undefined and organic trend in American cinema. And while I admit there may be some truth to this—once a genre (or really anything) has been defined and labeled, it reshapes our perception of the thing—no one can deny that artistic influence shapes all creative output with or without the guidance of established genre definitions. Many of the classic film noir pictures would never have existed in the same way that we know them without the hard-boiled literature that formed the basis of their adapted screenplays. The original game Rogue might not have been the same game without the influence of Dungeons & Dragons.

At its best, genre helps us identify and celebrate the ties, influences, and commonalities that underly a particular work of artistic expression in relation to other works that came before, after, or contemporaneously. Personally, I'm of the opinion that genre should try to be inclusive wherever possible and used as a means to encourage thoughtful elaboration, deviation, and reinterpretation of old ideas. Some of the best genre films, for example, have originated from iconoclasts like Robert Altman, who contributed to our understanding of multiple Hollywood genres by the act of subverting their conventions.

Then again, I also understand that we each must draw our own lines in the sand. Just as a particular camp of people have tried to argue for years that Citizen Cane is a film noir, so have a small but persistent number of people remained adamant that The Legend of Zelda is an RPG series. Determining whether or not a particular work of art fits a particular genre is always a matter of opinion, both to the populace and to the individual.

I will agree that the biggest danger with using the term “roguelike” is its inscrutability to the casual game player. But I'm also of the opinion that people marketing and developing games should find better ways to describe their products than through a reliance on genre tags. I'm more interested in the use of genre as a vehicle for rhetorical criticism. People who will want to know what a "roguelike" game is will be able to find out, just like I did.

As much as I might otherwise steer clear of semantics debates, I actually think it's a little bit exciting that this conversation is happening at all. I think it speaks to the fact that people do want to elevate and advance the way we think and talk about games. And whatever we want to call these particular games in question—be they roguelites, rogue likes, death labs, or something else completely—they've certainly struck a chord.