Monday, May 8, 2017

Editorial: Why I Love Rogue-Likes

While I may have been a little late to the rogue-like party in the PC gaming space once I finally got a taste of it, thanks to incredible indie titles like Rogue Legacy, Nuclear Throne, and of course The Binding Of Isaac, I found I couldn't get enough! Perhaps it is the old-school arcade gamer in me but I both thoroughly enjoy and even cherish the "put your quarter in, do your best, lose, and try again" experience. There are certainly modern games in that vein that aren't rogue-likes, my favorite probably being Geometry Wars, but where games like that merely replicate the old arcade experience I think that rogue-likes pretty well perfect it.

Before we delve into what the essential elements of the spirit of something being a rogue-like are, we should clarify something they most definitely aren't. Where people mostly like to think about games in terms of genre, here we're dealing more with a game "type" that could blend with pretty well any genre. Let's call it a catalyst for challenge and fun, transforming what could be somewhat ordinary into something more. Moving past that distinction we'll get to the core of what distinguishes a rogue-like from games that are just hard and "make you start over".

First, it is a given that the general layout of your game space will be different in some way every time you play. There can't be a static level design, you can't be allowed to get into comfortable assumed patterns (at least not too much), and where you'll find enemies and/or power-ups is going to be a toss-up. Looking at the 3 on the Switch you have Isaac and Has-Been Heroes with their random map layouts and Tumbleseed where the way the levels are composed is completely different every time. The emphasis here is on forcing people to be a bit off-balance by things every time, to only have a general idea of what they'll face but not a great one, and to keep them on their toes.

Second, on top of the level designs being varied and unpredictable what you'll be given to work with on any given run will also get changed up. Rogue-likes have a tendency to sport a wide variety of potential powers and when you go through them you'll be asked to make lemonade out of whatever ingredients you've been given. Sometimes you'll get things that work well together and suit your style, other times you'll simply know that the RNG (Random Number Generator) gods simply hate you and want to you die like the pathetic loser you are. Most of the time you'll thankfully end up somewhere in the middle, but you will have your peaks and valleys. Such is the way of the rogue-like and all 3 titles on the platform fill this line item handily.

The third thing that rogue-likes employ in some way is a very strong (sometimes more than people can take) sense of trying to balance risk versus reward. You will be tempted and whenever your run ends you will inevitably debate what would or could have happened if you'd only make a different decision when X happened. Should you lose the heart (or 2 or 3) and take the deal with the devil in Isaac? When you get to one of the handful of shrine types in Has-Been Heroes will you get something good or bad? Will you at least get something good enough to offset the bad that will likely come with it or should you just pass? In Tumbleseed, even though you know the Bouncy Friend is an unpredictable ball of pain that will somehow manage to run into you at the worst possible moment almost every single game will you hold out faith that the few enemies it will take out make it worth the trouble? These are decisions you'll make every game and likely many times in every game in rogue-likes and that's part of the reason they're often perceived as being "too hard" because making the wrong decisions in these moments can sometimes cripple your entire run. If you enjoy them you've merely accepted that the RNG gods are fickle and move on, weathering the storm and perhaps deciding to then double down with your next decision in the hopes it will turn around... though often it only gets worse.

Now that we're through defining what a rogue-like is and should always be I suppose all that's left is covering why I find them so appealing, especially on the Switch. A big piece of the puzzle is absolutely that the portable capabilities of the Switch lend themselves very well to the shorter-form play times that rogue-likes often have. Even if the run itself could be a bit lengthy they tend to be broken into chunks, typically lasting just a few minutes with an opportunity for a break in between, making for a convenient place to pause and come back to later. This quality also makes them well-suited to people who are pretty distracted and want to play something that isn't taxing them with story or complications. Get in, get a challenge, move on a bit refreshed... it can be satisfying if you don't get hung up on the fact you usually have failed to win in some way.

Another way that rogue-likes really appeal to me is that with their difficulty I find their sometimes infrequent rewards to be far more meaningful. If you're able to clear a run and be even somewhat successful, despite all of of the obstacles that have been thrown in your way, it is far more exhilarating to me because I've really had to earn it. That's not to say that games you've invested time in and complete can't be similarly rewarding but I've also completed my fair share of titles where the end was a bit ho-hum because the journey hadn't made me invest much to get there. I can't think of any rogue-like I've beaten where I wasn't on pins and needles the whole time. Even among the games I've never finished or rarely finish that tension as you inch closer and closer builds and, for me, even losing there is a thrill I don't often get in other "normal" games.

At the end of the day, I suppose, you're inevitably going to either "get" rogue-likes and love them or they'll likely be seen as nothing but horrible aggravation factories put on this planet to punish you. They're a type of game that is, no doubt, a lot more stick than carrot but when you're wired to rise to challenges put in front of you rather than shy away they can be very appealing. That said, as much as I enjoy rogue-like not all of them appeal to me. Spelunky, as much as it is revered, for whatever reason didn't click for me, so even if you have tried one or two games in this vein that doesn't mean that none of them will appeal to you. I'm just hoping by putting this together I've helped to inform a few folks and to convince them that perhaps rogue-likes are worth giving a try. A little bit (well, or sometimes a hell of a lot) of challenge can do you some good!

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