Friday, February 29, 2008

Hey, Let's Talk Roguelikes!

Now that I've completely alienated the Roguelike community with a post about Uru, I thought it would be a great time to talk about Roguelikes. After all, they're not reading me any more, so it's clear sailing! ;)

When I was young, I loved Roguelikes and their surprisingly close sister: the MUD. But as I got older, I stopped liking them. Why?

This is actually a very complicated topic, because I still like RPGs. In fact, I like RPGs that are very close to Roguelikes in their UI and rules. Which means there is something outside of UI and rules that matters.

The only thing I can think of is the "narrative", for lack of a better word.

The dialog, the plot events, the way characters join and leave your party. The progression through these things.

I don't want to call it a "narrative", because I don't actually think that I care that it's a narrative. I think that - and this is going to be fuzzy - I think that it's about externality.

In a Roguelike, what you get is what you get. Although each play-through is different, the overall experience is fundamentally the same. I don't mean the UI, I mean the way you feel as you play it.

However, an RPG's content is usually more carefully arrayed.

This is the part that I think some Roguelike fans are going to misunderstand.

There is a... kind of theme to any given RPG. There are people sitting behind it and building cool shit. Someone says, "oh, and if the bad guy saves him now, it'll be cooler when he has to fight him later." Someone says, "to make it feel like a tropical island, let's make all the villagers very relaxed." Someone says "this would be a great time to kick his mage out of the party and let him sweat for a bit."

Now, each time you replay the RPG, it's the same. But that's why most people don't replay RPGs much. Instead, a new RPG is made and they buy it.

This isn't a group of consumerists addled by ads and woefully unaware of Angband. It's a group of people who want a deeper, fundamentally more coherent experience than continually replaying a Roguelike provides. And the only way to get that is to consume a work of art. To EAT it until it provides NO FURTHER SUSTENANCE. It's about exploring someone's brain, not simply a stack of rules.

In theory, it may be that you can simulate this and create infinite deeper, more coherent experiences with a single piece of software. In the same way that, in theory, it may be possible to travel to Alpha Centauri.

Now, if they're still reading, some of the Roguelike audience might be feeling wroth right now. A lot of them probably think that what I want is stupid or pointless, in which case we're talking pots and kettles.

On the other hand, it may be that they think such a thing can be generated.



Far be it from me to dissuade anyone who wants to try. Hell, if you succeed, I'll sign right up.

But... more realistically, other approaches are more plausible. Other approaches such as the one I discussed earlier and caught flak for.

That approach is attempting to get around this difficulty. It is not made out of ignorance. It is made out of a full understanding that this has never even been remotely near something vaguely resembling success, even though literally hundreds of people try.

So... I hope that was clear. I don't like Roguelikes because I'm a zombie.

I must eat brains.

How about you?


Ryan said...

As a rogue-like liker, I find that I tend to generate a narrative in my head while I play. However, these aren't super-complicated narratives, nor very consistent. For instance, if I manage to find a particularly good weapon, my character's personality may change to reflect my new killing power. Or, if I happen to learn Identify I tend to turn into a treasure hunter.

The thing about self-generated narratives is that they can get pretty complex, and interesting, with a little bit of interpolation. For example, the Dwarf Fortress development log had a very interesting story about the developer's characters on Feb. 15. That story will probably never happen again.

What you described as making an RPG just sounds, to me, like some people writing a story. The fact that it will be stretched over a game engine and called an RPG is irrelevant because the same conversation could be about an episode of an anime.

Craig Perko said...

No, you see, that's what I thought people would think. I'm getting very tired, but let's see if I can clarify.

The fact that it's a narrative is wholly unimportant. It's the fact that it's exploring something infinitely more dense and interesting than a rule set.

You're doing the same thing, except that (with the assistance of the game) you're exploring your own brain rather than someone else's. I don't really feel a need for a game to do that, so I have no interest in these pseudo-freeform stories. I didn't like The Sims, either: if I wanted to write a story with the help of a game, I'd rather create the rules, content, and so forth myself. That way the story can be focused however I like.

This leads to my other half: in games where you build something that interacts with the world - such as base construction in Evil Genius - the same basic thing happens. Except it's not a narrative written by some other person, and it's not a narrative written by you. It's a very complex object you are responsible for interacting with the world (rules, etc) someone else has created. The same kind of sensation happens if you build a game world and run a tabletop RPG in that setting.

The division between rules and "story" and so forth is utter bullshit anyway. A narrative, such as it is, is not simply a story draped over a game engine. Rather, it can be, but then it sucks.

It is a story that resonates with the game engine: a story built on, around, in, and with the rules and the content. It wouldn't be the same seen on TV, because the depth would be missing.

It would be like the difference between seeing a dance and looking at a still frame of a single moment of a dance. To someone who has never seen people dance, how would you explain that the difference has a significant emotional impact?

I don't know how to make this any clearer.

Andrew Doull said...

Craig: I think you're going to lose this argument because you're under estimating the ability of people to take a whole lot of random events and put them together in their own head as a meaningful narrative.

I mean, it's basically what the conscious mind does for a living...

Chewing on brains will get you further.

Craig Perko said...

What argument?

If people want to play Roguelikes, I've got no problem with that. But I prefer to see what's in other people's heads.

It may also be a matter of how much is left for the player to fill in. I don't think that's the case with me, as I can and do like unique Roguelikes for quite a few plays. I liked Liberal Crime Squad, for example... until I grew tired of the dynamic and the inherent limitations in playing with the same system, the same content, the same way.

JohnH said...

I refute your argument thusly:

You say that exploring a world is more interesting than a ruleset. But a premade world IS a ruleset -- in fact, it's a much more strict one than that of a random dungeon game. A hard-coded RPG world not only has the system rules (attack damage, hit points, character growth, etc), but also a bunch of set situations. A situation that could happen in the engine, but never does, is basically not part of the game -- that's what I mean.

Random dungeon games can provide many different kinds of interesting situations, but hardcoded world games, only the ones the developer included count in the tally.

Nick said...

OK, now I get it. You say "It's about exploring someone's brain, not simply a stack of rules." Whereas I would rather explore the consequences of a stack of rules, not simply someone's brain.

So, in the spirit of your post, I guess I like Roguelikes because I'm a robot.

Andrew Doull said...

Nick: So you're saying that the fact Nick and Borg both have the same number of letters in their names is not a coincidence? Who was it I met in Canberra then?

Nick said...

Andrew: that was my meat avatar.

Craig: sorry for infecting your nice blog with disease-ridden tributaries of my stream of consciousness...

Craig Perko said...


The argument I am making is that the more "arbitrary, restrictive" rules that a normal RPG has are the ones I want to explore, because they define a landscape that has more meaning to me. (Except that's not true, because it's too limited. Even a unique Roguelike defines an interesting landscape, I just find I've explored it sufficiently after a few hours.)

I specifically said that RPGs have much less replay value than Roguelikes, but that simply doesn't matter.

I'm not sure exactly why you're trying to refute me: Roguelikes are extremely niche, so it's pretty clear they don't appeal to a wide variety of gamers. Therefore, they must be missing something that DOES.

For some people, that's probably graphics. For others, like me, it's probably the limited, "arbitrary" progression that someone has chosen.

Look at it like this: You're looking for something to hang on your wall. So you buy Rorschach's mask. Always changing, always interesting.

I'm not looking for something to hang on my wall: I'm looking for something that I like to look at for a while. So look into paintings of sunsets and city streets and so forth. Each painting, the Rorschach-buyer argues, is just a collection of blobs like his Rorscach mask. But his Rorschach mask is obviously better, because it moves and changes.

But his Rorschach mask doesn't show sunsets or city streets.


I'm really confused as to why people are trying to "refute" this.

Scott W said...

I think I get what's going on here...

I think the roguelikers here are trying to say that their programs can automatically assemble things that resemble your pictures, so your point doesn't make sense.

You're trying to say that you're looking at the ideas behind whatever you're facing in-game, and that Generators can't really make ideas. Sure, if you break all of your ideas down into little modular components and then feed those components into a generator, you can get something interesting out, but there isn't an idea behind it. It's just an interesting collection of parts. It might even resemble an idea, but that's still pretty clearly just random chance--the most interesting parts are still the idea bits that have been broken down the least.


Craig Perko said...

Well, yes, but the Roguelikes do contain ideas of the same type. They just don't contain UNLIMITED ideas.

Mark Hughes said...

Nothing contains "UNLIMITED" ideas. Every game is, by nature of having to be small enough to be conceived, written, illustrated, etc. by a person or team of people, and small enough to fit into a computer, limited to a great degree.

Generated worlds (the term "roguelike" has a lot of specific gameplay baggage that's not really relevant to this) are interesting because they take the necessarily small amount of initial input a person or team can provide, and generate infinite variations on that theme. They won't go outside that boundary, sure, but they always provide a surprising new variation on a comfortable setting.

A pre-written story/setting/human brain space is many orders of magnitude smaller and less complex, because it doesn't provide any variation at all on the initial input. The same amount of work in a generated game produces many orders of magnitude more gameplay than in a non-random game. Authors of non-random games rarely play their own games after release, because there's nothing there for them. Authors of generated world games often do.

I suspect a lot of this, though, is simply a lack of experience with any but the simplest generated-worlds games. Have you played ADOM (or Omega, its spiritual predecessor)? They're both plot-heavy, storyline-driven, quest-based games. Have you even looked at Dwarf Fortress? It's full of stories. The Sims 2 uses randomly-selected life goals and personality traits to make very different games for each family you create.

My experience in my own Umbra game is that complex stories can easily emerge from the random world and the AP (artificial personality; they aren't particularly intelligent) NPCs all the time, in particular their ability to "gossip" about your reputation. In one game, I mis-selected my target and shot a child in town; totally by accident, but of course the townsfolk who saw it turned on me, and I fled for my life. Days, weeks passed as I found another town, levelled up, went about my quest. I came back to the first town looking for a class teacher, and got attacked by a townsfolk right outside. I'd forgotten about the child. Dreading the consequences, I went into the school... and got shot in the face. Scumbag child-killer that I was, I deserved it. Justice was served.

As for generating quests, I'm baffled by your insistence that they can't exist; it's like you're claiming that electricity will never power lights, or man will never fly. Random quests have been used in many games for decades. Most of them are in the form of templated tasks, where you collect A from B, then deliver to C, then kill N D's, etc., but they build a randomized story out of pieces nonetheless. Probably the most famous and obvious was Elite, but many since have used the same model.

The current batch of commercial games use generation less than they could, because they already have insane budgets for art, so a few writers don't cost much more, and it's easier to balance hand-written quests in an MMO, in particular. That doesn't make it hard, merely unnecessary for very large commercial games. For an indie developer, of course, the balance is entirely on the side of generation, because it's cheaper to throw computer power at the problem than human resources.

Life is just a series of random, meaningless events, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. There's no big plot being spun for us. We're just a bunch of stupid monkeys pushing buttons all day. And yet we make up stories about the random events we experience, and find them interesting. Why should a game be any different?

Snut said...

I'd like to 'refute' something :)

And the only way to get that is to consume a work of art. To EAT it until it provides NO FURTHER SUSTENANCE.

This bit. No, don't worry, no pointless arguments on the nature of art. It's just the consumption bit that I take issue with.

The problem to my mind is the delicious cranial goop you're busy munching involves two entities, of which only one is static. I can devour a painting, sculpture, story or game and be content. But then I go outside and get gently ravaged and molested by the world, and return to the unchanged object to discover new things. The flavoursome sinocranial treat has regenerated!

In games, perhaps I played something else inspired by (or an obvious inspiration for) the original game. Maybe I read a book relating tangentially or directly to the game content. Maybe I browsed the interweb and found some hints or suggestions for different ways to play. Maybe I just got slightly older, jaded and embittered.

This does cut both ways of course. Experiences with arguable better examples of art/narrative/games might remove the rose-tinted goggles, which can do terrible things to your sense of nostalgia.

Anyway, most narrative in games is complete tosh. But then, I'm an incorrigible simulationist/gamist. I love the discovery and exploration aspect, and happily subsist on a combination of Roguelikes and conventional (multi)linear brain stems from a variety of genres, that I re-consume every so often.

That said, I'm squatting on the fence as to whether generated stories or this external QWAN will become commonplace in games.

Craig Perko said...


I didn't intend to say you can't generate quests. I intended to say you can't generate emotionally involving events - plot points or quests. You can generate something that should be emotionally involving, but after the first few playthroughs, the player just says "oh, hey, the old lady quest again..." Alternately, your game can have emergent narratives that occasionally - at random - may make the character feel an emotion, but that's pretty restricted.

I know that Roguelikes are "more efficient", but what does it matter? Planes are faster than bikes, so they should replace bikes! Or, if you prefer, visa-versa!

Rogue Fortress, Sims 2, and it's ilk are very much the sort of thing I would like to point to when I make these statements. They are both narrative-heavy games with a lot of computer generated stuff in them.

But they have no more to say than Street Fighter or Monkey Island. That's why I have been saying - over and over and OVER - that it's not narrative I'm talking about. People will play these games forever because they are happy exploring their own brain. Their own mind sits there and interprets the banal events in the game, polishes them up, and hands them back.

That's simply not what I'm interested in. And I'm certainly not interested in your last paragraph: that kind of nihilism is the most boring kind of idea, and if there was a game based on it, I wouldn't play it.


I think you're overly limiting things here. You can just as easily re-experience a book, painting, etc and find new, meaningful details. In fact, many books and paintings and so forth are designed specifically so that you'll pick up new details every time you look at them.

Getting a new perspective on an existing piece doesn't have anything to do with the media of the piece. Whether it is a game, story, painting, or anything else, it can mean different things to you at different times.

Also, the thing I'm talking about - the ideas, the externality, whatever you want to call it - is not separate from the rules of the game.

A simulation has just as much of it! But... a simulation does not have an infinite amount of it. A generated world (which is not the same as a simulation) simply allows the player to BYOB. I don't need a game for that!

Mark Hughes said...

Craig Perko: "I didn't intend to say you can't generate quests. I intended to say you can't generate emotionally involving events - plot points or quests. You can generate something that should be emotionally involving, but after the first few playthroughs, the player just says "oh, hey, the old lady quest again..." Alternately, your game can have emergent narratives that occasionally - at random - may make the character feel an emotion, but that's pretty restricted."

Perhaps you're just not capable of feeling the emotional involvement you want to feel. It may be a personal problem. The range of stories that can be generated from a set of tasks and world elements is an exponentially large figure, and most people who play games can, in fact, get an interesting experience out of it, feel emotions, and get engrossed in the story, whether there was a fixed story or a generated one.

Structural similarity is inevitable in any story, computer-generated or human-generated. At their base, all stories are of either 3 types (Man vs. Man, Man vs. World, Man vs. Self), or a slightly more detailed set (the "36 plots", plus or minus a few). Humans are extraordinarily bad at making up new story structures, and in 10,000 years of history, have accumulated only a few dozen.

So... You do, in fact, want Shakespeare in a box. You aren't going to get it, and even if you did, you'd be disappointed, because he just recycled the plots of existing plays and added some monologues.

I recommend in that case that you give up on games, and just stick to books and movies and archaic static paintings. They don't change, they don't react, and they always give you the same experience. Games are entirely about interactivity and change.

And I'm not a nihilist, I'm an atomic materialist, like any sane, educated person. Since that's how the universe really is, and we seem to do just fine entertaining ourselves, it's not any kind of obstacle to entertainment.

Mark Hughes said...

Oh, and Monkey Island? That game was brilliant, both as a story and as a game; ask anyone who played it. But it was limited to just one play-through, because the story never changed.

Craig Perko said...


Yaaay, my very own troll.

"Perhaps you're just not capable of feeling the emotional involvement you want to feel. It may be a personal problem."

Listen up: I don't need a game for that, you brain dead prima donna. You're ignoring 90% of my statements just so you can remain within your own limited viewpoint.

It's not about the number of stories. It's about the ideas behind the stories. It's about whether the stories have anything interesting to say. Actually, if you were listening, you would know it's not about the stories at all.

The game's dynamics have something to say. It has nothing to do with the exact story it tells, and everything to do with how the player moves through the gamespace. Through the rules, the content, the maps.

Your attempt to reduce stories to three types is just dumb. See: there is only one kind of story. Man vs Something. See: There are only two kinds of story: Man vs Himself and Man vs Something Else. See: there are only eighty-five kinds of story...

Categories are shit, they mean nothing. Reductionist approaches to storytelling are useless: just exercises in intellectual wankery.

All that matters is what the developer puts into the game. What kind of story it is? Means nothing. What kind of game it is? Means nothing.

So, yes, "Shakespeare in a box" would disappoint me. HE WOULD HAVE NOTHING NEW TO TELL ME.

I don't see what you aren't understanding, here. You seem to be saying that games should all be exercises in random worlds that mean nothing outside of your own tattered imagination. If I claimed that rather than my own position, I have no doubt you would have accused me of wanting to live in a cave somewhere and masturbate.

Lastly, GAMES ARE NOT HOW THE UNIVERSE REALLY IS. That's kind of the whole point.