For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again,
But the wicked stumble in time of calamity.
Ever heard of the phrase “roguelike”? The whole subgenre gets its name from the 1980 role-playing game Rogue, which defined the dungeon crawler as we know it. A famous genius thief must make his way to the bottom of the dungeon, find the treasure, and get out. Along the way, he fights monsters and traps, careful to avoid everything lest one false move or step end the journey prematurely. In our modern game culture, we generally refer to anything with procedurally generated random content as a “roguelike”, but this isn’t the case. According to the International Roguelike Development Conference‘s (which is actually a thing and it exists) Berlin Interpretation (no, this does not sound pretentious at all), roguelikes consist in these essential elements:
Roguelike games randomly generate dungeon levels, though they may include static levels as well. Generated layouts typically incorporate rooms connected by corridors, some of which may be preset to a degree (e.g., monster lairs or treasuries). Open areas or natural features, like rivers, may also occur.
Again, this remains the defining element of the roguelike; it means that every playthrough is different, and that each floor and room may throw different obstacles at you in completely different order. Usually as a rule, the difficulty scale according to your depth in any particular “dungeon”, but obviously some roguelikes throw hilariously difficult puzzles at you right from the beginning.
The identity of magical items varies across games. Newly-discovered objects only offer a vague physical description that is randomized between games, with purposes and capabilities left unstated. For example, a “bubbly” potion might heal wounds one game, then poison the player character in the next. Items are often subject to alteration, acquiring specific traits, such as a curse, or direct player modification.
This is where we diverge from the common notions of role-playing games: you are never guaranteed a good item or “progress” in the purest Rogue-style experience. Each piece of equipment and stat boost varies from game to game, and you may find yourself in an unwinnable situation due to the factor of randomness. Rather than depending on some exterior statistical advantage, you must rely on your knowledge of the game’s systems to find success – even if the game implements those systems in a randomized order. You might start to see the appeal of the roguelike now, I wager: your knowledge and skill actually matter, unlike most RPGs in the modern era. It’s much more akin to a complex arcade game in discovering additional nuances than getting plied with item after useless item.
The combat system is turn-based instead of real-time. Gameplay is usually step-based, where player actions are performed serially and take a variable measure of in-game time to complete. Game processes (e.g., monster movement and interaction, progressive effects such as poisoning or starvation) advance based on the passage of time dictated by these actions.
Here, we find a constraint to the definition that obviously doesn’t fit many roguelikes released in the past few years. The only one I can imagine, off the top of my head, was Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii – it fits this definition to a tee. You could call the “turn-based” nature a restriction, but I suppose we need stricter definitions for some things.
Most are single-player games. On multi-user systems, scoreboards are often shared between players. Some roguelikes allow traces of former player characters to appear in later game sessions in the form of ghosts or grave markings. Some games such as NetHack even have the player’s former characters reappear as enemies within the dungeon. Multi-player derivatives such as TomeNET, MAngband, and Crossfire do exist and are playable online.
This seems like a pretty obvious part of the definition, but obviously makes room for generalization.
Roguelikes traditionally implement permadeath. Once a character dies, the player must begin a new game. A “save game” feature will only provide suspension of gameplay and not a limitlessly recoverable state; the stored session is deleted upon resumption or character death. Players can circumvent this by backing up stored game data (“save scumming”), an act that is usually considered cheating.
And this is where the real problem comes into play with most roguelikes: most implement a recovery system of some kind, thereby immediately destroying any of the tension or interest elements. In effect, by making respawns and permanent progress a part of the game, you remove its “roguelike” elements and introduce something else in its stead. You need to die in order to make it interesting and exciting – otherwise, it’s just a game with bad checkpoints. Of course, you need to design the game around that element, but that’s obvious enough.
So, where does Delver’s Drop fit, other than copying the trappings of the genre? Well, I think it does a pretty good job of copying most elements except for the all-important “turn-based” requirement. Still, I don’t think that’s a problem in the long run. In fact, I want to play Delver’s Drop some more. Not because I didn’t get to play it at PAX (I did) or that the game didn’t look interesting enough before; after all, one of my favorite all-time games plays exactly like it (if the reference wasn’t obvious enough, it’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past). Rather, this isn’t a game that blooms in a short demo format. I literally touched the controller for something like five minutes, if that, and anyone familiar with this style of game knows that one death is merely the beginning of a long and adventurous journey. Substance TV alerted me to its presence, and mere happenstance allowed me to actually find it at the show floor. Still, it’s got a long way to go before it’s ready – not that this is a bad thing!
The developers at the show told me the game wasn’t even close to a correct tuning difficulty wise, although it seemed fine for a roguelike; I could tell, given that I died so quickly. Perhaps this isn’t the best technique to capture an audience, but it certainly appeals to my supposed “hardcore” sensibilities that see failure as a tangible indicator of skill. Even so, I’m rather impressed overall. As in the old days of the arcade, if it doesn’t entertain me or, in a better sense, give me a whiff of a hidden depth, than I don’t believe your game will enter my collection. Delver’s Drop looks to hook some genre fans, old school gamers who wish for yet another 2D Zelda game, and perhaps roguelike fans with its promises of permadeath (at least as an option for us masochists) and randomness. In the developer’s words:
Delver’s Drop is a 2D Action RPG with fluid physics-based movement, snappy combat, shifting dungeons, and a rogue’s gallery of character classes that can be individually leveled. With an emphasis on mystery and dynamic gameplay experiences, the game features randomization for infinite replay, enigmatic puzzle permutations to unravel, multiple narrative paths, customizable character growth, and layers of secrets to unearth.
These sound less like feature and more like expectations of a finished product. As of now, one only plays as the scrappy (yet undeniably cute) Rogue class, and there’s only the Endless Mode (traditionally, just a set of random rooms that continue to rise in difficulty for each subsequent room until you die). I guess making a reduction of the whole thing would come to “LttP with different physics”. However, unlike LttP, the game does not give you much lenience on the combat front. In the demo, I had three hearts, and those three hearts disappear rather quickly. Add the fact that each room requires something of you to journey to the next, and that it doesn’t actually tell you what that something is, and you’ll find that this game delights in punishing the unaware.
That’s wonderful, but I think the one element that’s “un”roguelike will help this one reach the upper echelons of the gaming consciousness. To be frank, I was never a big fan of the 3D Zelda games. Their mechanics in combat terms, even now, seem overcomplicated and use FAR too many buttons. You’d think Nintendo’s sense of intuitiveness would allow them to make something anybody could pick up, yet I find Skyward Sword’s combat needlessly complex for something so simple. The 2D overhead Zelda games never had this problem – you had one button for attacking, and you were good to go; hold the button and release for the spin strike. The sword itself does multiple things (hit projectiles and reflect them, for one), but you don’t need some hugely complex movement to dodge things or attack horizontal/vertical. In other words, Zelda isn’t a fighting game, nor do I want it to turn into a fighting game.
Delver’s Drop gets this; it has a sword and it has real-time combat in the vein of Zelda, yet these require good reflexes, dodging, and skill to attack correctly. Some enemies explode if you’re too close when they die; some hover above pits and force some quick thinking to kill. The physics nearly require some creative use of blocks, objects, and obstacles to defeat foes and solve puzzles in increasingly unique (and Zelda-like – lantern lighting ahoy!) ways. Even then, you’re never doing anything that you could not do without any items; I imagine it’s theoretically possible to play the game without any upgrades or items (which would make me really happy – listen to me, Pixelscopic) – rather than take the turn-based format, we now have a reflex/action based format with the roguelike shell. I think it’s a good fit for the genre, and it’s a wonder that no one really imagined this before.
You’re still learning in every playthrough, and that’s the important part. Roguelikes, by definition, force you to swallow your pride and let go of your supposed greatness. It takes you to ground level, simply because there’s so much to learn and the randomness makes it a long and difficult journey. If this sounds a bit like life…well, I imagine that was partly the point of the whole genre. Traversing obstacles and trials in life rings true in video games as much as it does in real life, yet we find ourselves with our own hangups and inabilities to learn new things. Pride comes in the subtlest forms, even from our hobbies and our choice of entertainment; thing X is obviously better than thing Y, you say to yourself, when you’re never even seen, heard, or played thing Y at all. It is much easier to close a mind than to open its shutters wide open.
I imagine that’s why so many game try to ply you with tutorials: they’re afraid they might expose your lack of knowledge – henceforth, when the game shows you that you’re actually bad at playing it, the gamer is no longer interested in the product. I appreciate this indie movement to get challenge and difficulty back into games, but there’s a mindset that needs changing before the games can follow suit. People need to open their minds to new experiences, at least in mechanical terms. They shouldn’t be afraid of new things and get rid of our pride. We need to take the advice of Proverbs 11:2
When pride comes, then comes dishonor,
But with the humble is wisdom.
So eat some humble pie and wait patiently for Delver’s Drop; play some other roguelikes in the future, and have yourself a wonderful time learning things!