Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Roguelikes ~or~ The Death of Gaming and its Infintaneous Rebirth

IIf you could find one game that you loved, that was different everytime you picked it up, would you ever need to buy another game again? If your title was overly-ambitious and dramatic, would you quickly abandon it to talk about the real subject matter? The answer to both questions is yes. Roguelikes.

The term roguelikes refer to games that use randomly generated drops, items, levels and enemies to create a completely different game experience on every play through. You might pick up the game and get the best item ever in the first five minutes; or play for an hour and curse every time you open a chest to find another health draining, hope sucking, 'screw you' sent from the bosom of the unemotional, godless algorithm. I coined the term infintaneous (ah, made-up words...) because many of these games allow you to immediately restart, with endless playthroughs. The real kicker being, every death is permanent, prepare to lose all of your hard earned items and power ups. The only thing you're ever left with are the options to either give up, or roll the dice again. 

The term 'roguelike' itself applies to an old school game called 'Rogue', in which you play a plucky little @ symbol making its way through a dungeon made up entirely of other punctuation and letters found on a keyboard. The walls are #, the enemies are always letters (watch out for uppercase!), stairs are < etc etc. What's quite fascinating about this as a concept is that after a small amount of playing, you start to see through the jibberish letters and actually get a real feel for how the dungeon looks; just like one of the operators in the matrix, but on an Ipad and in your underwear (you, not the game). On one play though, I entered a room to find this symbol \g/ which I quickly realised was actually depicting a goblin torture chamber, at which point I also realised I was genuinely bricking it and started legging it away from a gang of terrifyingly calculated, masochistic lower case g's.

This guy is actually in some pretty serious s*#!

So Rogue was among the first to use the whole randomly generated dungeon crawler thing effectively, and it's a large part of what makes this game really great. You can pick up an updated version either called 'brogue' or 'brogueX' in both the app and play stores. Don't, whatever you do, confuse it with the celtic band of the same name. It's like walking past a lively pub and hearing a party going on that you'll never be invited to.

I've come across a few of these roguelike games and just been completely unable to put them down. Here's a list of the absolute top 3 - you could pick up all 3 for less than a triple A, and in my opinion, more gameplay hours...just saying

Faster than Light
This, ultimately, is a space-management game. Not in the Eve online 'why not just become an accountant and set your desktop background to the milky way' sort of way, but in more of a, keep your eye on the ball because if the oxygen drops in your weapons bay, 'Skippy McBoogers' will be dead and there is nothing you can do to bring him back.

You can do everything right, and there's still a good chance you'll end up looking at this. 

FTL has a lot of the characteristics that both make up a fantastic rogue-like, and feature in the other games on this short hit list:

It's ludicrously hard. It's jam packed with secrets. Unlocking some of those secrets is ludicrously hard. 

If you've ever seen the show Firefly, (and let's face it, you're reading a video-games blog) this is Firefly the Game, except you can get aliens as crew members, and you get to be Malcolm Reynolds, even down to the no nonsense attitude if you want. Random multiple choice events occur on a regular basis, something like "someone beams aboard your ship: Kill them, Side with them, Sell them for meat" but with more flair. The actual writing of the game is superb, it really makes you care about the story that you're creating, which is one that always feels incredibly epic. 

The idea of leading a valiant crew to save the galaxy comes across really well in the tone of the game as a whole; when skippy dies on board, you will both mourn his tragic loss, and recognise that his gave his life serving a greater cause. Just like when Sally died of dysentery on the Oregon trail. Each brave frontiersmen in their own way.

Indiana jones based, this roguelike platformer gives you plenty of secrets to figure out, each one an absolute wonder. These games go back to some of the funnest aspects of games from our childhood which was the sharing and social aspect of it all. "Did you know if you take the golden idol and give it to Sprocketsaur you get a rideable albatross?". 

Simple and flawless gameplay mechanics make this game as close to perfect as any game can be. Like any great game, every time you die, you have no one to blame but yourself. Every death a lesson in how to not play like a total moron. 

You fight fewer nazis than Indi, but you save more adorable puppies (Aww - Ed)

You start in a cave and work your way downwards looking for a sacred piece of ancient treasure. If you've not played it, I won't say anymore than that because each discovery is itself a hidden gem. I will say, I've attempted a new run-through maybe nearing 10,000 times, I've only reeeally made it to the end three times. It is extremely hard.

Binding of Isaac
Combining the best of brogue with some key aspects of Spelunky, and heaps of Macmillanism, The Binding of Isaac is the grand daddy of all modern roguelike games. With hundreds of stackable items and enemies, the combinations of power-ups are nearly limitless, meaning no two play throughs of this game will be identical, or even particularly similar. On top of that, once you kill the main boss, there are at least 4 alternate secret bosses and 8 secret levels just that I know of so far. The game really keeps on giving. You could play it forever. Someone recently asked me if it was a short game, I just said "sort of". With the secrets, unlockables and new areas to find, it's one of the richest games you'll ever play.

The Ed Macmillan aspect of it is definitely part of the enjoyment, but it also makes it an incredibly hard sell. You play as an abused and abandoned child, with a homicidal, overly zealous mother intent on sacrificing him to God. You make your way through underground levels beneath your house to escape her, armed only with your own tears, against an underworld of demons and monsters. So good luck explaining to anyone why you consider that a fun use of your spare time.

It's lucky the internet has already desensitised us all to horrific things.

Like Spelunky, the items you find are usually religious artifacts with power-ups that are loosely based on their real-world historical meaning. So there's even a vaguely educational aspect to it all, if you like Wikipedia-ing all of your pick ups. If you do pick up this game, there is a recently released mega-update called 'rebirth' that contains a ton of extra content and is well worth the extra coin.

In conclusion, roguelikes are a lot like my love for them, essentially endless.

Liked this article? Why not read more by Tom Dransfield and how he wants to make great games accessible to perverts:

Or why not look at other ways of expanding your gaming repertoire:

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