Roguelikes: how Spelunky, Dark Souls and Isaac made death matter again

Death must be permanent. When the games emerged in the early eighties, they opted for a certain number of lives. Generally, three, although in many cases, this could be increased to five, seven or nine. Mario sank in bottomless pits, Sonic grazed one of the many peaks and we would wait for him to finish a jingle before being reborn on the screen to try again. This is how life developed when we sat cross-legged in front of large televisions; Impressionable minds seeing second chances.

Once that handful of lives were exhausted, we were offered the possibility to continue. By pressing the start button, we would return to the beginning of the level, a step back, but revitalized with more life. There was always a lifeline, a safety net, so to speak. We could play with abandon, attacking levels because we knew that if death dragged us, there would be another round.

Returning from the dead he remained a central throng of play for many years. Many offered a counter along the edge of the screen, marking attempts at a constant stumble towards the end of the game or the final success. If it were not for life, this security network could be seen at constant checkpoints, numeric passwords in the 16-bit era or later, such as save files. We get carried away by a sense of security, knowing that no matter how fast we move or how ferociously we attack enemies, we could return, using the same set of skills as before. If you fought to get a jump in Tomb Raider, it was not a problem, Lara reappeared a few steps from the edge to try it, try again.

It did not take long to start emulating the life of the games, offering only an attempt to reach a goal. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Spelunky.

Sure, while an intrepid explorer who delved into cave systems in search of a hard-to-reach treasure was not exactly innovative, the mechanics were. Given only a whip, some bombs and a handful of ropes, the idea was to reach Olmec and free the God of his treasure. The exploration was integral, highlighting the explorer archetype. The levels were full of traps that were hidden inside the walls to shoot arrows and, often, there are blind drops, with spikes waiting in the background. The change here was that he only had one attempt, and if he died, it would be directly at the beginning of the game, losing everything he collected along the way.

Safety nets now come as elements; a parachute for those long falls or if you had collected enough money, the Ankh inside the hidden Black Market would save your life only once. Spelunky tried patience, forcing players to slow down, evaluate the design of mines, ice caves and temples. From here, games depended less on instinct and reaction, and more on choice. Weigh the pros and cons of venturing more to reach the box that could be the key to success. Roguelikes or Roguelites, as they were nicknamed, suddenly moved from a portion of more specialized games to the mainstream. The developers noticed how Spelunky dealt with several mechanics, establishing them as principles of the genre; death, knowledge and randomization.

Dungeon crawling and risky brawling

For a small handful of pioneering titles, death is now permanent … at least for that iteration of your character. Life became precious and the players were cautious, knowing that each action could be the last. Rogue Legacy, The Binding of Isaac, even Dark Souls, all consider the balance between risk and reward. The progression was now a bet; Do you take the new article, not knowing how it will affect your trip? Or do you leave it behind?

Of course, some players love the risk, not caring if they lose an hour of progress to have the opportunity to see something new. Others play closer to caution, mocking the results with small steps. Maybe the object subverts death anyway? "Progression in any form is a primordial desire in humans, and most Roguelikes are progression systems with steroids," says Teddy Lee of Cellar Door Games, creator of Rogue Legacy.

Progression in any form is a primordial desire in humans, and most Roguelikes are progression systems with steroids.

Teddy Lee

To make progress in life, we make choices and choices. Sometimes we reject that new job because the change to life is not worth it. What if we had taken a stand against that bully when we were younger? Often games do not offer this sense of decision-making, at least not for that purpose.

Far from the TellTale adventures, these options that alter the game are less, the action titles are often more linear, which entails the risk of the player only in the difficulty of setting pieces or the amount of obstacles. The ability to save games on a whim can lead to recharging a file if we do not enjoy the result of a decision.

With Rogue games, that function is rarely an option. Take 'Plan C' in The Binding of Isaac, an active item used at will. It is a harmless red pill, whose name only vaguely suggests the result of its use. By using the object, the character will kill everything in sight, causing massive damage even to the toughest bosses, but the protagonist will also die. Plan C is an abortive drug in the United States, now you know it. The player must react and adapt, knowing that this element can only be used if he has chosen a way to resuscitate after the act.

"The Roguelike genre is very similar to real life, sometimes it's crazy and you win the lottery, or sometimes you take off the face of an Old Navy ad monkey," says Isaac's creator, Edmund McMillen. "You're playing with your life, basically."

This idea grew over time and the gap between games and life was reduced, and the developers not only try to ask you to participate in your character, but also to do it with those around you. The indie games were perhaps the first to implement the mechanics of the death perma, with larger studios following their example to bring it to the general public. The creators allowed the teammates or group members to improve over time, unlock new skills, encourage the player to rename them and form a link. Faster than Light, X-Com and Fire Emblem forced players to take care of those around them, knowing that if a key member of the team died, they would not return. Our choices began to have weight: do you send your pilot pilot to the fight knowing that if they die, your progress will take a step back while you train someone new?

While the independent scene often gives these new ideas due to freedom within creation, the tropes eventually bleed through triple-A titles. The designer of Minit, Jan Nijman, reflects on the independent scene for his freedom of mechanics: "Small teams are flexible. If you are a solo developer with a lot of free time, you can do whatever you want. On the other hand, if you are responsible for more than 200 employees and their mortgages, it is very dangerous to take risks. "

The issue of perma death may be better shown in the" triple A "titles, such as Until Dawn, in the one that you control a group of protagonists in a horror scene, trying to keep each of them alive, once they die, you do not have to reload a saved game to try again, since the game constantly supports your Progress, which makes the option to explore the sound outside the cockpit even more dangerous Lend a new style of emotion and fear of procedures Death must be a consequence, not inevitable.

The carrot and the stick

Venturing into the unknown allows the game to risk and reward, developers put in danger opportunities like carrots on a stick. Consequence means much more in the gender Rogue because the decision can be catastrophic, do you take the money or see what is behind the door? Opening a strange capsule in F.T.L can free an alien that attacks a member of the crew. Dealing with the devil in The Binding of Isaac directly asks the player to make a sacrifice for potential growth. If you play well on an Isaac floor, without losing the integral health of the red heart, the devil will appear with a selection of elements, most of which will increase the damage or offer a lifesaver upon death. To accept these, you must sacrifice your health. As Edmund McMillen points out, "the risk of a heart or two for greater harm is one that you will always take, but the articles of the devil cost life and ask you whether or not to give in to temptation."

It's "just a heart or two", but that damage can be the key to winning.

There is still a hint of the old way of life. Each death gives us time to reflect, we can analyze every choice we made along the way, using that information in the next attempt or in the next life. "In a good Roguelike, the players & the final failure should always be a moment in which they can understand, learn and try again," explains Rami Ismail, creator of Nuclear Throne. This is the central principle of the genre. Knowledge comes from death and death is used as a tool. Sometimes a "race" will inevitably end in failure, even in a sacrifice, as we seek information or try new things. In Nuclear Throne, one of the weapons is a screwdriver, which if used in the right car opens a secret level. Use it in the wrong car, or even in the wrong enemy and it will explode, ending your progress abruptly. Experimentation is key, death is inevitable and growing as a player through mortality is a necessity. Think of it as being born again, or as Edmund McMillen subtitled The Binding of Isaac HD release, Rebirth .

A game to implement the idea of ​​transmitting skills and knowledge, transmitting traits and riches, is Rogue Legacy. Instead of asking us to choose a template character each time, the team uses a lineage system. Starting a new "career" meant receiving part of the money from a past life, along with any improvements made to that character. "We had to face the player change as soon as possible," says creator Teddy Lee. "This led to the classes, which led to the sub-weapons, which eventually led to the genetic traits and the lineage system."

Learning the mechanics of a Rogue game subverts the way we usually learn about games. We know that Mario can run faster by pressing the "B button" to increase his jump, this is a skill that the developers gave us, without which it would be impossible to finish many levels. "I enjoy Roguelikes because they encourage players to learn the underlying systems instead of the designer's 'routes' of intentions," explains Lee.

However, Lee does not agree that sacrifice is necessary within the genre to learn: "eliminating false roads is artificial complexity at its worst".

Along with the reinvention of mortality and urging players to adapt to the new design structure, players take a step closer to life with the random element of Roguelikes and lites. It is not often that the words Rogue and the procedural generation are not of the hand, since the teams strive to emulate the randomness of life within our games. This can come from elements, where you will never know what is inside a chest or, above all, the level generation. Video games are often an escape from life, but Rogue games offer real-life risks with little to lose. "Failure has no result in real life, regardless of whether your career is shortened," says Rami Ismail. This genre and its peculiarities offer players a new way to control the random things we find in real life: danger, risk, choice, without the inherent idea of ​​failure or regret.

Reincarnation of rogues

I enjoy Roguelikes because they encourage players to learn the underlying systems instead of the "routes" of the designer's intentions.

Teddy Lee

Looking back to the Renaissance, there is an air of Eastern religion about Roguelikes, each of these new games or "lives" can be seen as a form of reincarnation. The Buddhist teaching describes reincarnation as a process of being born again and again, improving previous incarnations to achieve Nirvana or enlightenment. This is the key similarity between the two; Each one has a specific goal in mind, although with the games, it is usually to reach the final credits or, in some cases, the perfect career.

Interestingly enough, for a game that kills its central character every 60 seconds, Minit's designer, Jan, feels that the game is not about death, but about life. "Minit has never dealt with the part of death: it's a representation of leading a very hasty life, while everyone else seems to be comfortable where they are, and the idea that it should always be productive," he explains. "Minit is about how it's not always like that, and how sometimes it's okay to just stop and look at the world, explore and interact with the people around you."

No other genre leans so close to real life, we live far away from our computers and consoles. As the genre grows and infiltrates so many titles, we as players have the opportunity to make important decisions that have a true sense of result.

Rogue games do not offer only black and white decisions, like many adventure games, there is a kaleidoscope of shadows created from random chance and risk. Some of them will lead us down a dark path tinged with loss and pain, and others will lead you to enlightenment.

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