History of Roguelikes

In the Beginning, there was Rogue

It is difficult to truly discuss what a roguelike is without covering the progenitor, Rogue. Rogue was a freeware computer game released around 1980 by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichmann for unix based systems. The game is comprised of a dungeon crawl descending through various levels in order to reach the Amulet of Yendor. Along the way, the player must fight various monsters and obtain loot which will help them descend further into the dungeon. The game is heavily inspired by text-based computer games of the day, as well as gaming systems like Dungeons & Dragons. The dungeons themselves are procedurally generated, and a major goal of the project was to design a game that the creators could have fun playing, while still being challenged. A large part of this challenge comes from the unforgiving difficulty, as well as the permanent death that requires a player to start each attempt from scratch.

Rogue quickly became popular among programmers and university students. These fans soon began programming games of their own in order to improve upon or alter the gameplay of Rogue. These new games came to be known as games that were “like rogue” or “roguelike.” Soon, there were over one dozen descendants of Rogue, and at this point some developers decided to sit down and attempt to define the genre. This led to what is known as the “Berlin Interpretation.”


The Berlin Interpretation

A screenshot from the original Rogue, one of the first games to use “graphical” presentation instead of text.

The Berlin Interpretation was created at the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008, hosted in Berlin. Participants at the conference attempted to assemble a list of high and low value factors that could be used to evaluate whether a game was a roguelike or not.

The High Value Factors of the Berlin Interpretation are as follows:

  • Random Environment Generation – The game environment is different each time.
  • Permadeath – Death is permanent, and the player must begin each run from scratch.
  • Turn Based – The game is played in turns, and the player has unlimited time to make decisions.
  • Grid Based – All action takes place on a grid.
  • Non-Modal – All action takes place in the same “mode,” and there is no switch between combat and exploration.
  • Complexity – Multiple solutions to situations. Various interactions between players, items, and monsters.
  • Resource Management – The player must manage food/consumables, and work with what they find.
  • Hack ‘n’ Slash – Slaying monsters should feature prominently.
  • Exploration and Discovery – Dungeons must be explored, and items identified each play through.

In addition, the Berlin interpretation also suggested low value factors such as use of ASCII visuals, monsters that are similar in ability to players, dungeon environments, and single player-characters.

Criticism of the Berlin Interpretation

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, a modern roguelike with an active community.

Over the nearly ten years since the Berlin Interpretation was developed, criticisms of it have emerged among the community. Many players and designers have raised the issue that defining a genre is, in itself, limiting.  Programmers are more likely to adhere to the formula in order to gain approval from the community than to attempt to push the boundaries of the definition. Additionally, many critics fear that fans wield the definition as a cudgel with which to enforce sameness, which will in turn stifle creativity. Further, the idea of following a definition or blueprint so closely seems inherently at odds with a community that annually holds events such as the Seven Day Roguelike Challenge (or 7DRL) in order to promote new and innovative design and gameplay.

The definition has been further criticized because of the priority it places on design elements such as ASCII visuals, the necessity of dungeon aesthetics in a genre that prioritized gameplay, and even core concepts such as turn-based gameplay and hack ‘n’ slash focus.

Indeed, over the last ten years most major roguelike titles have adopted the use of graphical tiles in order to communicate information, with optional ASCII aesthetics, many are set in wilderness or science fiction settings, and some modern titles actively discourage combat in favour of exploration or stealth. These facts are cited by critics of the interpretation as evidence that the definition has already changed, and will continue to do so.

The Berlin Interpretation also predates the major rise in the so-called “roguelite” genre, with titles such as The Binding of Isaac, and FTL: Faster Than Light being released years after the Berlin Interpretation was compiled. It has been accused of being an incomplete or misguided project, or of being an outdated and obsolete definition of a genre that continues to flourish and evolve.

Teaching the Controversy

It is important to remember that the definition of “roguelike” is a subject that is still very much in debate by the community. Proposals for a “precise” definition have been made, but there is so far no single definition that is universally agreed upon. This is not to be taken negatively, as great discussion can only come from differing opinions, so long as passion is tempered with patience and understanding.

About the Writer

symbol-representing-authorAlexander Ashpool is a pop-culture enthusiast and writer. Interested primarily in games, books, and film, he has served as a consultant, contributor, and tester for various projects and publications. When he isn’t writing for Living Roguelike, he can be found at https://ashpoolwrites.wordpress.com/ or on twitter @weeknightwizard .