ASCII art + permadeath: The history of roguelike games

Appreciate the game that inspired the genre and its name: Rogue

Roguelike games have grown in popularity over the 40 years the genre has existed, even though they implement ideas that might seem anathema to popular gaming: extreme randomness, ASCII graphics, permadeath, enormous complexity, and more. Yet these days, you can just about sneeze and hit something that’s at least been influenced by roguelikes.

And so, in the spirit of game genre histories past—we’ve done real-time strategy, city builders, first-person shooters, simulation games, graphic adventures, kart racers, and open-world games—let’s take a look back at how we got here and what it all means. We’ll tour the roguelike evolutionary tree, starting from Rogue itself and progressing all the way to modern games with “roguelike elements.”

But first, let’s try to answer one key question.

What is a “roguelike”?

No one quite agrees on the exact definition of the term beyond its literal meaning (“a game like Rogue”). One way to define these games would be to say that roguelikes are randomized dungeon crawls with little or no story, where you’re really fighting the dungeon as much as—if not more so than—the monsters inside it in an endlessly-repeating struggle to master its layouts and contents and the systems that define its nature before you die and it regenerates anew.

But some people have tried to nail down the definition more narrowly. For instance, consider the Berlin Interpretation‘s “high-value factors,” which were agreed on at the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008. (Yes, there’s an annual conference for roguelike developers, as well as another one for players).

This agreement says that a roguelike should have permadeath—meaning that when your character dies, they’re done; no reload possible. It should also have random/procedural level generation, grid- and turn-based movement (that tends to be played at a rapid pace), complex character-object-world interactions, a need to manage finite resources to survive, and a sense of exploration and discovery on every playthrough—where skill and luck, not memorization, get you through. And it should be player vs. environment—that is, a game focused on killing (or fleeing from) monsters rather than making friends with them.

There’s also a clause that states you should be able to use any command at any time or place, but even some “canon” roguelikes violate this rule with their overland maps or shopping screens—so we won’t worry about it too much.

How did we get here? Well, from Rogue, of course—but even that game wasn’t created in a vacuum.

The pre-Rogues

Although they had no direct impact on Rogue‘s creation, Plato dungeon-crawlers Pedit5 (1975, probably) and dnd aka The Game of Dungeons (1975) were the first computer games that attempted to emulate the peril of dungeon crawling in tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons (1974). The former, Pedit5, consisted of 40 or 50 rooms and adjoining corridors—all on a single level—that players tried to explore and plunder without getting killed by a monster along the way. Dnd was much the same, except with multiple dungeon levels (which got progressively harder), traps hidden in the floor, and a boss fight at the end.

Will Crowther and Don Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure (1977) offered none of the mechanical trappings of a roguelike other than permadeath, but this game established the theme and tone to follow. It was an adventure through an underground cave system (“a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”) filled with riches but also with danger lurking around every corner. It had an inventory system, lots of humorous ways to run into trouble or die, and a penchant for encouraging creative solutions to problems. But once you figured out the maze, that was it. With a fixed room layout, there was little reason for winning players to start again.

Beneath Apple Manor (1978) was the first game to pull all the Rogue-y bits together. It had a randomly generated dungeon up to 10 levels deep, rendered in either text or graphical tiles, with customizable difficulty and a “fog of war”-like view (the level reveals itself as you explore further). The core game loop involved moving around exploring rooms, opening doors, collecting items and treasure, and battling monsters using various D&D-esque commands. And it even had a MacGuffin—a Golden Apple, hidden somewhere beneath the manor.

Its only problem was, in essence, that it’s not Rogue. Or to put a finer point on it, Beneath Apple Manor just wasn’t played by the right people. Perhaps this was because of its Apple II exclusivity (until 1983, when it hit IBM-PC and Atari systems), which limited its exposure to the wider world, or maybe it was due to the name or to its marketing or to any number of other variables. It’s impossible to say why, but the game never really caught on.

History is funny like that. New ideas and innovations are only as powerful as their impact and influence, and sometimes something needs to be invented twice (or more times) before it can thrive. This was one of those times. Beneath Apple Manor fell into obscurity, but its concept would be (independently) invented again just a short time later.

Listing image by Angland

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