I’ve been playing a lot of Torchlight recently.
This is not the first time I’ve played a lot of Torchlight. I played a lot of it on Windows, at a desk. I bought it again and played a lot of it – mainly on trains – when it came out on the Mac. And now I’ve bought it a third time, on the Xbox, and am playing it from my sofa.
I know why I’m quite so engrossed. It’s not just that Torchlight is a fine iteration of the dungeon-crawler, walking the tightrope between light-hearted entertainment and dense inventory management just so. It’s something more personal, that takes me right back to the dawn of Tom-as-a-gamer, embedded in the core of my gamer DNA.
I’m playing a lot of Torchlight, because, when I play it, in my heart, I know I’m really playing Rogue.
Rogue is, really, the ur-dungeon-crawler. It’s so straightforward: enter the randomly generated dungeon; descend to the bottom floor; steal the Amulet of Yendor; make it out to the surface, alive.
(You can play Rogue on almost anything. Designed for a Unix shell, I first played it on DOS; there are ports to every OS under the sun, as well as a decent iOS version).
It’s not real time, but rather nominally turn-based: every move you make is a tick of the clock, and each tick, enemies will also take a step, status effects will come a step closer to ending, your hunger will grow. Turn-based, with turns only coming when the player is ready. The keyboard-driven interface is simple. There are dedicated keys for actions like throwing, dropping, reading, inventory, and everything else is overloaded onto movement: walk into an enemy to strike it; walk into an item to pick it up.
As well as a mechanical core, Rogue gives us some shared culture: it’s rooted in serious Western fantasy, with the appropriate touch of Tolkien for a game popular on US college Unix systems in the early 80s.
From Rogue we get the Roguelike: the family of dungeon-crawlers it spawned. Roguelikes are a large family, diversified by their emphasis on different elements, but with obvious core components: randomised dungeons; a lone player character; varying levels of both Tolkienesque references and West Coast surrealism; and, until the modern era, an interface made out of ASCII characters.
Nethack is perhaps the best known Roguelike (and even seems to eclipse Rogue in its popularity). Nethack is a triumph of ongoing development. In over fifteen years of continual development, it has many strange, esoteric systems layered over the basic dungeon crawler (from tracking the player’s fidelity to a deity to keeping tabs on their diet) that has lead to a legendary complexity. It also makes for a legendary journey – towards Nethack’s endgame, known as Ascension. A great insight into the strange world of Nethack can be found in be this (long) tale of one player’s Ascension. It may look like the tale of a single game, but in fact, as the author points out, that game is the culmination of twenty years of play.
Twenty years of failed games, deaths at early levels, myriad corpses lost in the dungeons, to finally put all that expertise to use.
From Larn we get the overworld – shops to buy and sell in, an office to pay your taxes, and also a shortcut to more challenging levels. Angband and Moria – and their successors – offer a more combat-driven take on the genre.
The Roguelike has reputation for complexity, as the Ascension story above will no doubt prove. As a devotee of Rogue – the original, and definitely the simplest – I blame Nethack’s influence on the genre. All those strange systems at play whether you know it or not, the layers of myth that surround the game as a form of legend, twenty-plus years of metagame… they make it seem frightening.
And I don’t think Roguelikes should be frightening. At their heart, for me, Roguelikes are casual games.
They are not games to be played casually; that dungeon will eat you alive if you don’t treat it with the respect it deserves. But: they are games that can be played as a casual part of life. A short session here, resulting in failure, might also result in better understanding of the effects of a particular potion. A quick burst before saving the game, to pick it up later, might solve another of Nethack’s Sokoban levels. And, out of short, flawed, ten-or-fifteen minutes runs – before being booted to the command prompt again – comes the years-long journey to the surface.
Where’s the dungeon-crawler in the modern era?
Blizzard’s Diablo series is the most obvious heir to the Roguelike. (By which I mean: the solo, third-person, dungeon crawler, distinct from the first-person, party-based crawlers like the Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, and Bard’s Tale franchises.)
Diablo retains Rogue’s casual framework: the simple move-to-move, move-to-attack UI is now moved onto the mouse (click-to-move, click-to-attack). There’s now artwork that goes beyond “replacing ASCII characters with tiles”. We still have the random dungeons underneath an overworld.
Diablo has always been surprisingly casual: a nice, lightweight, mouse-driven game, playable in bursts (and playable with friends: it was the game that launched Battle.net)
But something feels… different. Not quite right.
It’s the grind. Diablo throws foes at you, and expects you to be able to defeat them all with relative ease. It showers you in rewards – gold and loot – for the slaughter.
And really, as John Harris points out in his first of series of entries from a Roguelike encylopedia, Rogue was never about grind. Your true enemy wasn’t a Kestrel, or a Centaur, or a Dragon.
It was the dungeon itself.
Rogue taught you to respect the lowest-level enemies, who could easily kill the unwary adventurer, short on health and food. It taught you to hunt for hidden doors and distrust curiously blank walls. It taught you to fear the rare rooms brimful with monsters. It taught you to fight in doorways to minimise the number of attacks you’d receive at once. Equipment was useful; enchantments moreso; and never underestimate how much food you’d need for the return journey. But there was no economy to track; no adventurers running a sideline in their own fantasy version of eBay, flogging leather gloves and rusty shields to gullible merchants.
Diablo is a fine game, but for me, the way it binds combat to loot, and both to progression, is where it starts branching away from the Roguelike tree and becomes it’s own game. It’s a game I’m fond of, and doubly fond of its offspring, such as Torchlight and Borderlands (oh, Borderlands).
But it’s not quite Rogue. Out of that growing emphasis on grind, the hectic combat against many foes, the game becomes less casual; more demanding of attention and skill. Despite its challenge, Rogue was always a measured game: you took it at your own pace. It was casual because it was a break from grind in all its forms.
Where, then, are the Roguelikes now?
I don’t really want to talk about Torchlight more than I have, but it fills a Rogue-shaped hole for me. It’s a logical successor to Diablo; more relaxed, more endearing, gentler on the player, and yet with enough room for advanced players to push themselves. It’s not as exploratory as Rogue, but nor is it as punishing. As a relaxing challenge at the end of a busy day, it’s ideal.
The spiritual successor to Nethack – for me – has to be Demon’s Souls. It’s dense, complex, full of systems hinted at (but poorly explained) that need to be be taken into account. It demands small, repeated assaults on the same piece of terrain, progression being as much about the player gaining understanding as their character gaining experience. It returns to slow, measured combat – a mirror to the lockstep movements of the Roguelike.
It falls down, for me, in a few limitations of modern console games; the pace may be right, but respawning in Nethack happened in a screen refresh, not seconds of loading screens. The counterpoint to the ponderous pace of the Roguelike was the rapidity of your return to the dungeon. When I die in Demon’s Souls – as you do, a lot – I want to be back in the fight in a second; not ten. That pause is more deliberate, more asymmetric to the pace of play, and pushes the game into terrain more familiar to console gamers.
The most convincing heirs might be the smallest.
Desktop Dungeons forces the entire play experience of a dungeon, from start to completion, into a single screen, a single session. Something to be fired up in a lunch hour, in a free five minutes, with a clearly defined goal and strategic gameplay that returns to Rogue’s emphasis on mastery of space.
100 Rogues, for iOS, is similarly compact, turning the Roguelike into a score attack game. It’s not about a single, overarching goal, an amulet to be retrieved; just the desire to do better than last time. “The game is more about player improvement than character improvement.”, says the official website. That’s the Roguelike in a nutshell, really.
Both games succeed because they understand that, whilst the ongoing relationship with a Roguelike might last many years, and that it’ll take that long to reach “completion” of any form, the play-experience of it is small, neatly defined, and compact.
Roguelikes are not for everyone, and yet, for a certain kind of player – like me, at 7, venturing deeper into the dungeon, dying again and again on successively deeper floors, each time getting nearer to my goal – they encapsulate one of the joys of play: bettering yourself.
The risks may be your own doing – zapping that unidentified wand, descending to the next floor without fully exploring the current one – but so are the rewards – the satisfaction of a quest that, though it ended it in failure, also ended deeper than ever before. The joy of competition with oneself, manifested in the obituary list that came up at the end of each session.
What a delight, then, to find that balance manifested in games I can now play in the living room: no longer sat upright, at a desk, ready to work, but sat back, in a space designed for relaxation. Twenty minutes of Torchlight is enough to make satisfying progress – be it in a challenge dungeon accessed through a portal, or clearing another floor, or finding enough loot to turn a tidy profit in the town. Short bursts, little and often, consistently rewarding, tickling a part of my brain I first discovered I had at seven, in front of a 286.
The Roguelike’s home was never the Unix shell, but the sofa.