Roguelike: a meta-genre of video games

The name “roguelike” originates from the 1980 game “Rogue” which inspired the whole thing. There is an ongoing debate on the difference between “roguelite” and “roguelike” - I’m going to use the term “roguelike” because it’s more widespread and in certain contexts serves as an umbrella term for both.

Roguelike is technically a genre, but it’s kind of orthogonal to the standard labels such as RTS or RPG. I like to think of it as a “meta-genre”; you can take any existing genre and make it into a roguelike by adding these three conditions:

  1. Permadeath: Every time you die, that’s it. You start from the beginning. You are usually allowed to save your progress and continue from that point next time, allowing you to take a break, but you can’t redo anything by loading an earlier save or a checkpoint.
  2. RNG: Short from “Random Number Generator”. Every run is randomly generated. This can mean different things in different games, but usually involves the level layout and everything you encounter there. Variations are possible depending on the game (e.g. enemy types might be pre-determined for each level, but their placement is randomized). The main point is to give a completely different and unique playthrough every time.
  3. Gradual progress: Without this, you could claim that Minesweeper and Tetris are roguelikes. There needs to be a concept of getting stronger throughout the run, often backed by the RNG. We will get back to this.

As long as these three basic mechanics are present, the rest of the game can be literally anything. It might essentially behave and look like a 2D platformer, a first-person shooter, a turn-based strategy game, or a card deck builder. All it needs to be a roguelike is to conform to the three rules above.

roguelike

You get better and better with every failed run, acquiring skills and developing strategies until you eventually win. And once you do, RNG makes you want to play more, because no two runs are the same. You keep playing and continue getting better and better, constantly facing new challenges and further developing skills and tactics with every attempt. Similar to how chess players usually don’t stop playing after their first victory or after reaching some desired rating. And if replaying single-player-mode after beating the game doesn’t sound exciting, many roguelikes either offer some kind of multiplayer support, or “online daily challenge” mode that you can attempt only once per day and compete against other players on a public leaderboard.

This is why roguelikes have big replayability, and those who fall in love with a roguelike game often keep returning to it.

I said I’d get back to “gradual progress”: during your run, you will usually make various choices and trade-offs which customize your currently ongoing character build. Should you expand your health, or upgrade your weapon? Which one from the several offered abilities should you acquire? Some games might present you with completely randomized choices (e.g. choose between two random items), others have predefined dilemmas and then randomly assign some of them to your current run. Either way, you will need to make decisions based on logic, intuition, and experience, adapting each playthrough to its unique characteristics (caused by the RNG).

This is fundamentally different from e.g. speed-runners who seem to be “experts at Super Mario”. They base their skills on muscle memory and knowing the level layout by heart. Roguelike players, on the other hand, base their skills on truly understanding the game and its mechanics (often referred to as “meta”), which makes them capable of overcoming any new unique situation they find themselves in. There are some very motorics-based and reflex-based roguelikes out there that can be very difficult in the beginning. But the learning process is significantly faster, because unlike Super Mario where half of the getting-better process is learning the level layout, here you are presented with a totally different layout each time. So you are forced to improve in a more general and flexible way, learning to adapt to every situation, rather than just replaying the game until you can finish it blindfolded. Good examples of such roguelikes are Dead Cells and Spelunky (especially the sequel).

Some games allow you to gain permanent upgrades - for example, you might be acquiring some currency as you go, which can then be spent between runs on some benefits that hold permanently for each subsequent run. Other games won’t let you do that, and you can only rely on one thing as a permanent upgrade - your own skills and knowledge. There are also various hybrids, e.g. you might not be able to upgrade your character in any way, but you can unlock additional items that get permanently added to the item pool, or additional playable characters, and so on.

Perhaps I should now mention what “roguelike vs roguelite” controversy is all about:

  • One group claims that “roguelike” definition requires zero meta progression, otherwise it’s a “roguelite”. This philosophy is often used in various gaming articles.
  • Another group claims that “roguelike” has some additional required characteristics, such as being turn-based, because that makes it closer to its Rogue ancestor from 1980. This philosophy is used in places like Reddit, where r/roguelikes only contains retro-looking (often ascii-style) turn-based games that have a very similar gameplay to Rogue. By this definition, everything I talked about being a meta-genre would apply only to “roguelite”, since in that case “roguelike” is very specific in how it looks & feels.

Terminology quirks aside, I really like that there’s a subset of video games that are not defined by their visuals, controls, perspective, gameplay, etc., but only by their common underlying principle: you progress through a randomized world until you die, learn from your mistakes, and try again. If you do this enough times, you will also occasionally win.

Here are some of my personal favorites:

  • Dead Cells
  • Slay the Spire
  • The Binding of Isaac
  • FTL: Faster Than Light
  • Into the Breach
  • Hades
  • Spelunky (2)
  • Nuclear Throne
  • Neon Abyss
  • Fury Unleashed

Here are some more great games in the genre:

  • Risk of Rain (2)
  • Enter the Gungeon
  • Noita
  • Rogue Legacy (2)
  • Skul: The Hero Slayer
  • Darkest Dungeon
  • Streets of Rogue
  • ScourgeBringer
  • One Step From Eden
  • Brotato

Obviously, these are not well-defined or exhaustive lists (I wrote them intuitively on the spot). I’m omitting plenty of other great games, and several that I dislike. But this should be a good start for any newcomer, ready to dive head-first into this rabbit hole.

Written on December 13, 2023