Genre Study: Roguelikes
Walking into this project, I can’t say I had much experience with Roguelikes. Sure, I had played some Roguelike-likes (FTL, Torchlight, etc), but I hadn’t spent much time with more central examples of the genre. My general concept of the genre focused on two points: procedural level generation, and permadeath. While this is not wrong, it is not quite a complete definition.
The International Roguelike Development Conference has identified several factors, known as the Berlin Interpretation, that qualify games as roguelike. The high-value factors are as follows: random environment generation, permadeath, turn-based gameplay, grid-based maps, non-modal gameplay, the possibility of complex solutions, as well as emphases on resource management, hack’n’slash gameplay, exploration and discovery. Not all factors need to be present to make a game rogue-like, and not all factors are weighted equally. To explore what this means, let us examine a game that is only roguelike-like, Torchlight; to determine how integrating some, but not all, of the Berlin criteria affects gameplay.
Random Environment Generation
Like the roguelike canon (defined as Rogue, Angband, Nethack, ADOM, and Crawl) Torchlight randomly generates its environment. Certain thematic and aesthetic elements are chosen for each floor, and implemented in an internally consistent manner. The physical layout varies from playthrough to playthrough, though the general theme and aesthetic for each floor remains similar (abandoned railcarts, similar color palettes, etc). Moreover, floors generated in such a manner are persistent, so that retracing one’s steps will not result in entering a newly-generated level.
Permanent death, or permadeath, is an optional feature in Torchlight, much like other modern roguelikes. To explain, while permadeath is activated, when a character reaches 0 health and is killed, that character is deleted, their save file is destroyed, and (without the use of techniques taken as cheating) that character may no longer be played. Modern roguelikes differ from traditional roguelikes in that the latter had no option to disable permadeath. Once a character was gone, they were- for all intents and purposes- truly gone. As indicated, however, this feature may be disabled in modern roguelikes. Presumably, this feature was added to allow a greater percentage of players to experience the game, seeing as how many (such as myself) might be initially put-off by the concept of irrevocably losing all of one’s progress.
Torchlight, however, eschews the turn-based gameplay common to most of the roguelike canon. It traces its lineage through the action roleplaying games, Diablo and Diablo II. As such, the gameplay is portrayed as real-time, with different actions taking appreciably different amounts of time to complete. Spell casting and cooldown times are modeled in real-time, whereas more traditional roguelikes would instead have such actions represented by numbers of turns. Moreover, a single turn in the roguelike canon is of an indeterminate length, based more of the currency of a single action than on the duration of that action itself. Casting a spell takes as long as swinging a sword, which takes as long as crafting a suit of armor, which is just as time-consuming as eating a sandwich.
Likewise, since the game’s timing is no longer based on the currency of a single action, Torchlight does not implement the roguelike’s traditional grid-based navigation. To beat a dead horse, the navigation is completed in real-time, traversing whatever ground indicated by the player. The player points and clicks on some part of the level’s topography, and the game’s AI plots a path and moves the player’s avatar to the desired point. Such an element is reflected in later Roguelikes, such as Dungeon of Dredmor, but would not have been present in Rogue’s original keyboard interface.
As far as my comprehension goes, Torchlight does not fully fulfill the criteria of non-modality. Non-modality, according to the Berlin Interpretation, is that all actions should be available to the player at all times. The obvious snag for this is the implementation of stores. While there, players may buy and sell items, as to expected. While in the game’s main dungeon, players are no longer able to purchase items, being forced to salvage and loot better gear from enemies and chests. They may still sell items using an AI-controlled companion, but, again, being unable to buy items at any time prevents Torchlight from being fully non-modal. However, similar exceptions are noted in the roguelike canon, namely in Angband and Crawl’s shops, further complicating the notion of roguelike non-modality.
Torchlight does, perfunctorily, fulfill the roguelike requirement of gameplay complexity. Players are presented with multiple manners of dealing with enemies, insofar as it does not violate the hack’n’slash gameplay required of roguelikes. Players are not given options to negotiate with or sneak past enemies, and must kill them in order to progress. However, the Berlin Interpretation does, in fact, define complexity as being “obtained by providing enough item/monster and item/item interactions”. With that in mind, Torchlight fulfills this criteria.
Resource management, the next of the roguelike criteria, is handily implemented in Torchlight. In addition to needing to keep track of the standard character health and mana totals, players must manage the number of useful items they are carrying (mana potions, health potions, scrolls that allow them to teleport out of the dungeon), all the while juggling these items within a finite number of inventory slots. Each of these interaction levels necessitates its own form of resource management.
Returning to the concept of hack’n’slash gameplay, as previously mentioned in this piece, Torchlight once more fulfills the Berlin criteria. The general method of interface with a all monsters outside of certain ‘safe’ zones is by killing them. There is no form of diplomacy between you and any of the game’s monsters, nor is there any monster-on-monster conflict present in normal gameplay. The Berlin interpretation mentions the concept of the game as “player-vs-world”, an idea borne out in Torchlight’s gameplay. If they are not shopkeepers, enchanters, pets, or plot-relevant NPCs, they exist solely to be killed by the player character.
Exploration & Discovery
The final high-value Berlin criterion is the twin concepts of exploration and discovery. Torchlight heavily incentivizes full exploration of each floor through the use of random gear drops and experience. Should a player attempt to traverse a level as quickly as possible, they will likely not acquire sufficiently high-powered gear to stand up against stronger enemies on later levels. Likewise, missing monsters will lead to a similarly underpowered character, likely leading to character death.
Therefore, to remain competitive, players are encouraged track down and kill all monsters on each floor, sifting through all looted items to find what works best for them. Likewise, some items have randomly-generated magical properties, and must be identified for their full benefit to be revealed. As the wikipedia article on roguelikes points out, such games may feature ‘a “bubbly” potion might heal wounds one game, then poison the player character in the next.’
Torchlight, ultimately, diverges most from standard roguelike formula in eschewing turn-based gameplay and non-modality. However, those changes bring two dramatic shifts in gameplay. On the first count (the transition to real-time), Torchlight differs from Roguelikes such as Dungeons of Dredmor, preventing the player from contemplatively planning their actions, as in most traditional roguelikes. The real-time combat of the game necessitates more broad awareness of the battlefield, while simultaneously distancing players even further from the proceedings. Combat becomes less of a measured experience, making it harder to plan ahead and prioritize the destruction of certain enemies. Instead, I observed a more frantic, spray-and-pray tempo to combat, simply battering anything than came within range of my attacks. I cannot place a qualitative judgement on this choice (because, afterall, I still subjectively enjoy Torchlight’s combat), but it is a substantive departure from general Roguelike theory and practice.
In regards to non-modality, Torchlight enforces a second narrative dimension with its inclusions of non-combat modes. The limited inventory space available to the player forces them to reconsider further immediate pushes into the Dungeon. They are presented with three options at this juncture: 1) return to town, sell the excess items themselves, and definitively interrupt their immediate progress 2) send their pet away with the items to be sold, and proceed with greater caution (the player’s pet will aid them in combat, necessitating a more cautious approach when it is absent), or 3) proceed, with the assumption that any items that must be abandoned due to space constraints are not worth their use. No matter the ultimate choice, the inclusion of non-combat modes forces the player into an informal tense-and-release structure: players must stop and consider their options before proceeding. That element seems common to Rogue-likes, which favor (as mentioned) turn-based gameplay for such a reason.
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