There’s No Game Like Rogue

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Enemies are represented as capital letters, so I have no idea what this creature even is.

Recently, a version of Rogue was made available on Steam. I downloaded it and gave it a try, and what I found was incredible. The icons used in Rogue, along with its total lack of music and near lack of sound, are so wonderfully charming, and so is the world that is implied by the items found in the Dungeons of Doom. It’s a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy world, the kind where wands can only cast one spell and you have to use magic to “identify” magical items to find out what they do (unless you want to just try them out, but basically any equippable item has a chance of being cursed, meaning you can’t replace it until you find a way to remove the curse).

When playing Rogue, you walk through the dungeon’s randomly generated floors killing monsters and picking up equipment. All you have to do to fight is walk into someone; the game handles everything else. Every step and attack takes a “turn”, and after a set amount of turns, you get hungry and need to eat. Certain effects like spells also have a duration measured in turns. With this system in place, Rogue seamlessly switches from a self-paced exploration game to a (sometimes pretty tense) turn-based RPG. Your goal at the end of these randomized death traps? The Amulet of Yendor, some 26 floors beneath you. Make the journey to the bottom, claim the prize, and fight your way all the way back out of the Dungeons of Doom to win the game and retire to wealth and comfort, free from the dungeon’s dangers. It’s a simple pitch, it’s a simple game. Mostly.

You see, Rogue doesn’t really have a menu. Every action you can take is executed by pressing a specific key on the keyboard; Q for “Quaff a potion” or Z for “Zap a wand.” If you can’t keep them all straight in your head you can use the ? key to see a list of them, but what floored me was the realization that they were case sensitive. Pressing w will allow you to equip a new weapon, but pressing W will open your list of available armors. Of course, you have to use T to “take off armor” first (Not t, that’s for throw an object” like daggers or arrows) before you can equip another set.

The game’s speed is dependent on you. If you mash the buttons, you’ll fly through lines of text and speed through fights in under a second. Sometimes you want that; sometimes, you really really don’t. It’s really fascinating the way the game changes in tone on a dime. One minute you’re wiping the floor with hobgoblins, and the next you’re stepping out of a staircase into a tiny room full of treasure and six enemies, and you just sigh, wondering if there’s a ludicrously specific play you can make that will get your ass out of the room and into the corridors.

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There isn’t.

After playing a few runs of Rogue, I branched out and started looking at some of its immediate descendants, starting with Moria. Moria draws Rogue’s pieces into a new form, taking heavy inspiration from both the writings of JRR Tolkien and the design of Dungeons & Dragons. While the latter was always present in Rogue, Moria brings in explicit mechanics, like the classic six attributes D&D has had since its inception. Also added to this game are races and racial abilities; elves excel at magic and perception, while half-orcs are strong and ugly, and pay higher prices at stores. It’s all what you expect from D&D. You even hit a button to roll for stats until you get what you want to play (or close to it).

I mentioned shops; this might come as a surprise considering what I’ve said about Rogue. Moria adds a surface level on top of the dungeon. A complement of shops allow the selling and buying of items and spells, and no monsters or traps abound. It’s more or less a safe haven to return to and catch your breath…in theory. In actuality, you’ll be accosted by beggars or “idiots” who will steal coin and block your path, meaning you have to either pass turns until they move or simply slaughter them. Sometimes a “veteran” will be present and likely kill you pretty easily, should you cross them. It’s an alien and inconsistent space, and even when you think you’re safe, having avoided the monsters and left the dungeons, you really aren’t.

This setup is also present in Angband, a descendant of Moria’s, but here the town is even more confrontational. Other rogues will wander the area looking to steal from you or worse, and even the “guards” will seemingly attack you over basically anything. Here, the “surface level” is not really separate from the dungeons at all, and everything feels crowded and hostile, rather than empty and dangerous like Rogue.

Both Moria and Angband introduce new layers of complexity to Rogue. Not just the surface level and shops, but Veins of precious metals that must be mined. Rubble that randomly blocks your path. Underneath everything is an intricate web of systems that interact in complex ways; as just one example, locked doors (already an addition to Rogue) can be opened, unlocked, bashed through, burned down, or tunneled around, depending on what means you have at your disposal when you find them. It’s all so much more than just walking through a dungeon and scavenging equipment.

These games have a very different tone. They’re more aggressive, more intentionally dangerous. The original Dungeons of Doom are still a threat, but there’s a layer of obfuscation present in the tone of Rogue. There aren’t other people in the dungeons, there aren’t these shops or roving thieves (though nymphs do tend to steal items sometimes). Every monster in the dungeon acts like a completely alien force. You can’t reason with a slime. Some of the monsters wouldn’t be considered monsters by a modern RPG fan; orcs and hobgoblins are among the first foes you face, and they are as clockwork and violent as a zombie or an aquator (whatever that is). But hey, it’s 1980 (1983 if you’re playing the Steam version). Times change.

Ultimately, though…Rogue is fine as it is. I have enjoyed my time with Moria and Angband, and I really do think they’re more fun than some of the more modern roguelikes I’ve played. But as of right now, nothing has come close to touching the place in my heart that Rogue has carved. Its simplicity is a huge boon; it evokes so many things while leaving you guessing about the details, leaving you with a really fascinating emptiness that I found really easy to immediately project onto.

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The eight words every girl wants to hear.

For the past week or so, I’ve been recording let’s plays of Rogue on the Export Video channel. Most nights, I sit down and record before bed, leaving a calm and sometimes sleepy video of me talking over 3 or 4 runs. It’s been so fulfilling to do this, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. Introducing this structure to the game has made it fill a really specific place for me. It’s a cozy game, where I ramble about movies I’ve seen or whatever bullshit happened to me at work that day. Rogue feels like just the perfect game for that.

Another point to mention: The Steam release is three US dollars. If you’re at all interested in the history of roguelikes, or if you’ve been playing some other roguelike for the past two months, I really cannot recommend trying it out enough. If that version isn’t to your liking, or if you don’t want to pay for it, there are dozens of other versions of Rogue available on the internet for free. I can’t speak to how well they all work or how to run some of the more arcane versions, because I don’t really know how computers work, but they’re out there.

I want to play more roguelikes, old and new alike. I want to see what people have done in the form. I’ve tried a couple already, like one based on Doom that adds perks that you upgrade as you gain levels and an ammunition mechanic that feels like it slots right into the way Rogue plays. There’s so much you can do with Rogue, and I really understand why the genre took off the way it did. It’s a really compelling game, and it’s already become one of my favorite games of all time.

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