Before Spelunky and FTL, There Was Only ASCII

Games  |  Features
Before <i>Spelunky</i> and <i>FTL</i>, There Was Only ASCII

2015 marks the 35th anniversary of the original Rogue, the now rather distant progenitor of the more recent Faster Than Light, The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky. By these modern standards of games with massive replayability, ranges of classes/ships/characters and the careful integration of hand-made content into procedural worlds, Rogue seems strikingly simple and strikingly “un-procedural,” at least for a game that apparently marked the dawn of the quiet roguelike revolution that has taken off in the last five years. Each floor of Rogue’s dungeon contains a hidden three-by-three grid, and a rectangular room spawns in each segment of this grid; these are then linked up by corridors (each room has at least one corridor, but doesn’t always connect to all of its neighbors) and monsters and items are placed in there. And that, really, is it—remarkably “replayable” for the time, but very stark and minimalist by modern standards.

However, this game quickly lead to an exciting evolution, rapidly spawning the term “roguelike”—games like NetHack, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Angband and the recently-renovated Ancient Domains of Mystery came to prominence, taking the basic concept of Rogue and expanding it, developing it, and iterating upon it. These games contained many branches of a dungeon, far more extensive procedural generation, a far greater variety of creatures and items, complex religious systems, more varied and detailed mechanics, some story and mythology elements and in some cases even vibrant online presences and modding communities. All of these, however, remained ASCII—everything in the game was depicted with a textual character that could readily be displayed on a terminal. A player had to learn that a red “d” was perhaps a dragon, a magenta “m” a deadly mindflayer, a brown “d” a dwarf and so forth.

In recent years the genre has experienced two distinct trends: firstly, the rise of the phrase “with roguelike elements” becoming the new “with RPG elements” across many a Kickstarter campaign (even though many such games often consider “with roguelike elements” to mean nothing more than a virtual coin being sometimes flipped over spawning a particular piece of loot). Secondly, there has been a strong move away from ASCII towards distinct hand-made graphics for each game (the games mentioned in the first paragraph are all examples). Many people call these new games “roguelites” (i.e. a milder version of a “true” ASCII roguelike), roguelikelikes (a linguistically horrifying descent into the slough of sub-genre specificity) or “procedural death labyrinths” (a rather more amusing and accurate term, from this author’s perspective).

Procedural death labyrinth is, perhaps, the best description for this new breed of roguelike. All three words make sense within the context of videogames and draw a clear lineage to earlier roguelike offerings. They are procedural in that there are complex generation systems underlying the creation of each of Isaac’s floors and rooms, FTL’s enemy ships and sectors and Spelunky’s individual dungeon levels. They involve a quite striking amount of death since all these modern roguelikes feature permadeath—the player has only one life and their save file is deleted upon that death, so they cannot reload and try again from the same save state. They are also undeniably labyrinths—in this regard, the term “labyrinth” refers not just to the often maze-like structure of levels, but could also quite reasonably (at the risk of channelling Umberto Eco’s line in The Name of the Rose about the labyrinth of the library mirroring the labyrinth of the world) reference the abstract complexity of the world and the “labyrinth” of deciphering, and then coming to master, the game’s systems. Roguelikes, generally by design, have a habit of being rather cryptic. In many classic roguelikes a lot of in-game systems are well-hidden and confusing, and implicitly designed only for the use of the experienced player: in NetHack, for example, a player could quite reasonably complete the entire game without ever once seriously engaging with the complex systems around demon summoning, “polymorphing,” or the curiously named “reverse genociding.”

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However, we can see a significant number of differences between classic roguelikes and procedural death labyrinths, not just in the visually obvious move away from ASCII. A major difference is the ideal length—classic roguelikes are always expected to be played over many sessions. In NetHack, for example, the dungeon is around fifty floors deep, and contains a number of other branches, and therefore a reasonable expectation exists of saving and loading between multiple play sessions. Even for a skilled player (so long as that player isn’t going for a speedrun) one would still expect twelve hours or more as a play session for any of the classic roguelikes I listed above. Contrast this with modern procedural death labyrinths: FTL is perhaps two hours, Spelunky also a couple of hours, and The Binding of Isaac perhaps a little over an hour. The original Binding of Isaac didn’t even have the facility to save in the middle of a run and reload later—even the longest run by the most skilled of players aiming to defeat the latest bosses is unlikely to take anything beyond perhaps ninety minutes. By contrast, in any classic roguelike, that would be an incredible (and some cases borderline impossible) speedrun time. Modern roguelikes expect a large number of shorter runs where the pain of death is less, rather than a smaller number of longer runs with the attendant greater player emotional commitment to the survival of their characters.

Length is not the only new development: another major factor is the introduction of a metagame. I’m sure many of you know the drill: there are achievements hidden throughout the game, and you can unlock new things even if you die (and therefore “fail”) on a given playthrough. In Isaac you unlock new items and characters, in FTL you unlock new ships, and so forth. In classic roguelikes there is nothing of this sort: every class, species and religion is unlocked from the start, and the player is free on each playthrough to select any combination they so desire. The potential reasons for this change are many: gating content, offering intermittent outcomes that imply a player gaining mastery by acquiring more unlocks, a sense of progress even after repeated deaths, and potentially maximizing variation of player experience by slowing down the speed at which the player can experience it. I’d suggest that this is best understood as a symptom of the rise of “Achievements” across many game platforms—which is to say, lesser “achievements” (with a small “a”) than the completion of the actual game—which has, at least in part, influenced roguelikes away from adhering to the original concept and towards something where each playthrough does not stand on its own. This obviously ties in closer with shorter individual playthroughs: a long playthrough with a slowly unravelling metagame would be less compelling than many short playthroughs with an ongoing (and rapidly advanced) metagame.

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In the opinion of this roguelike developer, some other factors have been lost in the transition to modern roguelikes. ASCII roguelikes are not just the reticent and uncommunicative infants of the roguelike world that have now been superseded by the fully-graphical adults; they offer two things that modern roguelikes generally shy away from. First, although modern roguelikes do remain highly challenging, most players would agree that classic roguelikes are significantly tougher (in part simply due to the longer expected playthroughs). They treat the player with even more respect than their modern cousins, posing challenges and complexity that might seem unassailable at first; in turn, they don’t offer metagame unlocks, expecting players to be confident enough in their abilities that they don’t need intermittent rewards to remain interested. Secondly, classic roguelikes contain a range of detailed religious systems, where the player is able to interact with various deities, with a “second game” of keeping on the right side of your deity (and using the powers they see fit to give you) overlaid onto the player’s existing trek through the dungeon. In this regard modern roguelikes are, so to speak, slightly more “materialist”—although they add a metagame between playthroughs, they eschew any other factors within a given playthrough beyond the player’s character (or ship).

As you may have noted as we come to the end of this pondering of roguelike history, I’ve used the terms “classic” and “modern” roguelikes in this article, rather than any of the three I listed nearer the start to describe the moderns. I use these terms instead because both of those words are comparatively free of any superior or inferior relative value judgements (since both “modern” and “classic” are often used as terms denoting something positive, desirable or preferable). By contrast, I would argue that roguelite implies something trifling and trivial, roguelikelike implies a lack of purity (and therefore inferiority, or something watered down), whilst procedural death labyrinth (although amusing and strikingly accurate) seems to distance itself somewhat from its own history in Rogue and its descendants, rather than proudly flying the banner of its ASCII ancestors. Speaking as the developer of a new “classic” roguelike—i.e. one which adheres to an ASCII (or in my case, ANSI, but who’s counting?) interface and many of the conventions of older roguelikes, and lacks any kind of inter-playthrough metagame—I prefer this divide instead. Many classic roguelike players (myself included) embrace the widening of our favorite genre to new audiences, but there is a risk of viewing classic roguelikes in a chronological “progress” narrative (i.e. that modern roguelikes are improved and refined versions of the older, cruder games). It is surely much better to see procedural death labyrinths as growth outwards towards greater variety, not as moving forwards towards greater optimization and improvement, and to remind players that the classics have a lot to offer in their own right: and may even yield some unexpected advantages for a player who then returns to the FTL and Isaacs of this world.

Mark R Johnson is a roguelike developer, a
retired professional gamer, a danmaku world champion, and soon to be a
postdoctoral fellow in game studies at the UK’s University of York. Follow him on Twitter @UltimaRegum.