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Roguelike (sometimes rogue-like) is a genre of RPG characterized by randomly generated environments, grid-based movement, turn-based gameplay and permadeath of the player character. It may also include high fantasy elements, be a highly tactical experience, and/or be a dungeon crawler. The genre is named after Rogue, a 1980 game that ran in terminal and inspired hundreds of similar games due to popularity among college students in the 80s and 90s.
When not trying to defend the somewhat grueling gameplay of roguelikes, which almost by definition require a person to fail multiple times in order to get anywhere, the roguelike community is often plagued with heated discussions about the exact definition of a roguelike and accusations that a game is or isn't a roguelike. This has led to the recent creation of the term rogue-lite to describe games which had some of the elements roguelike players appreciate but not others.
Debate Over Definition
Since the release of Rogue in 1980, there has been a debate over what "makes" a game a roguelike. Broadly speaking, everyone agrees that a roguelike must use gameplay elements popularized by Rogue. Beyond that, however, nobody agrees about much of anything. This has led to frustration from fans of roguelikes, who feel like many people look at rogue-lites and call them roguelikes.
Because gamers, by and large, are members of curative fandom rather than the more widely known transformative fandom, it can be hard for outsiders to understand the way in which the debate over definition affects roguelike fandom. While occasionally this discussion over definitions can be used as a form of gatekeeping ("this game is not a roguelike and it sucks"), the desire for an exact definition of roguelikes is not for want of exclusion but for want of a description of the things roguelike fans love that they can use to find other things they might love too. Regardless of how they're used, attempts to define the genre are in service of understanding what a roguelike is. It is not inherently a form of gatekeeping to argue with someone about what a roguelike is, as it might be construed in transformative fandom.
Slash's "Roguelikeness Factors"
- Random Environment Generation: The game world and its contents are mostly procedurally generated with each game.
- Permafailure (including Permadeath): The character must pay for your mistakes and choices, sometimes at the cost of his life. Restoring games is discouraged and only provided to allow continuing split games.
- Turn Based Interaction: All entities in the game world are queued in an endless loop and get their independent discrete turn to act.
- Single command set: You can access all game commands from any place into the game. There are no artificial restrictions on what actions are available in a given game situation, for example inside or outside battles.
- Freeform: Your advancement is not routed into a linear progression. You get to choose what to do, how and when.
- Discovery mechanics: You must research or find out the nature and usages of the items into the world.
- Single player: You control a single character
- Plenty of content: There are enough monsters types and items to make it worthwhile exploring. This is in contrast to a small set of known item and monster types. (more than 24 monster and item types is a good measure)
- Complex non-trivial world and object interactions: Items have non-trivial usages, you can do some things which may not be obvious for the item nature.
- High ramped difficulty: The game gets hard very quick and you are very unlikely to win until you have acquired enough experience.
- Monsters are players: The nature of the monsters is similar to the player, they can have equipment, player-like stats, artificial intelligence and are subject to the same world rules
- Character-based display: The player interacts with the world via a user interface based on character symbols that represent UI artifacts and entities in the world.
- Hack and Slash: Gameplay involves around killing things to become more powerful and acquiring treasure to buy better equipment and repeat the cycle
The Berlin Interpretation is probably the most widespread definition of what a rogue-like is. Created at the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008 (which took place in Berlin), the Berlin Interpretation is the result of discussion between the conference attendees and was meant as a way to determine how roguelike a game is. Starting from Slash's "roguelikeness factors" at Temple of The Roguelike, attendees defined nine "high value" factors and six "low value" factors that together make up a roguelike.
The eight high value factors in the Berlin Interpretation are as follows:
- The game features random level generation so every playthrough is unique.
- A permadeath mechanic forces players to play the game over from the beginning every time they die.
- Combat is turned-based and each command corresponds to a single action.
- Movement is grid-based so players and monsters take up predictable amounts of space.
- The system is non-modal, meaning that movement, battle, and any other actions take place in the same mode, unlike other RPGs which often have a completely seperate battle system.
- There is enough complexity to the game that players can find more than one solutions to the goal.
- Resource management plays a role in the game, whether through tracking health or limited resources.
- Gameplay is hack'n'slash, meaning that players can fight (and destroy) any monster they come across and it's player vs the world of the game.
- The process of exploration and discovery is encouraged. Dungeons must be carefully explored to discover unidentified items and this process must be repeated in every new game.
This definition was led by several general principles, principly that "roguelike" is a genre and not merely "a game like Rogue" and that said genre is represented by its canon. The canon of roguelikes was defined as Ancient Domains of Mystery, Angband, Crawl, NetHack, and Rogue. This collection of games is often referred to as the "major" roguelikes and many definitions focus on the common points between them. Additionally, the purpose of the Berlin Interpretation was considered to be "for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying" rather than as a means of restricting developers or games.
This list can be used to determine how roguelike a game is. Missing some points does not mean the game is not a roguelike. Likewise, possessing some points does not mean the game is a roguelike.
Slash's Roguelike Definitions
After the Berlin Interpretation, which used Slash's previous roguelike definition as a base, Slash came up with a definition for what he termed to be a "classic" roguelike in 2014. Elements of the Berlin Interpretation can be seen in this definition, although it differs from the Berlin Interpretation in that Slash's "classic roguelike" definition requires all 7 of the outlined points to be present. Of this "classic roguelike" definition, Slash says:
The most important perspective for me when considering if a game is a roguelike is its game design features. Note however that my interpretation is not limited to the features of the original “Rogue”, nor am I listing all of its features to be required; this list is derived from my experience over the years on what makes a roguelike, i.e. which features from the good old roguelikes are critical to conserving the spirit of the genre.
So instead of story elements or anything else, a roguelike is defined in this definition purely by gameplay elements. The seven elements that Slash's "classic" definition require are as follows:
- Permanent Failure
- Procedural Environments
- Random conflict outcomes
- Single Playable Character
This definition was replaced by Slash's "What is a Traditional Roguelike" in 2018, which was synthesized from the points Slash made during his talk at the 2017 Roguelike Celebration. While his definition of so-called "classic" roguelikes was based on the era of games surrounding Rogue in the 80s and early 90s, his "traditional" roguelike definition is based on what he calls the "Second Age of Roguelike Development" (1995-2005). Unlike previous definitions, this one only has four factors which can be taken as the "essentials" of what make a roguelike.
- There must be permanent consequences that can't be rolled back by save states. This is to encourage "careful tactical play and long-term strategies and planning."
- Story must be character-centric, which is akin to the previous definition's "single playable character." This is a way to differentiate roguelikes from god-style games such as The Sims while also allowing the player to form strong connections and increase the impact of permanent consequences.
- All levels must be procudurally generated content. A big draw of a roguelike is that no two gameplay experiences will ever be the same, thanks to levels being freshly generated every time you play. This also, according to Slash, helps "prevent the player from being frustrated by the harsh effect of permanent consequences, having to start gameplay session from scratch frequently."
- Gameplay must be turn-based. Since a huge portion of roguelike gameplay is not testing reaction times but more about strategy, the slower nature of turn-based combat and gameplay is important for games that are advertising themselves as a "roguelike."
- Can someone explain the appeal of Rogue-likes/lites to me? Posted 25 Jul 2018. Accessed 30 Mar 2021.
- What is for you a roguelike? on Reddit. Posted 9 Jul 2017. Accessed 30 Mar 2021.
- it even a roguelike? by Russian Sly on Steam. Posted 17 Sept 2016. Accessed 30 Mar 2021.
- Roguelikeness Factors. Accessed 20 Sept 2021.
- Berlin Interpretation. Accessed 30 Mar 2021.
- Thoughts on the Berlin Interpretation by Eric James Michael Ritz. Posted 19 Mar 2014. Accessed 20 Sept 2021.
- Screw the Berlin Interpretation! Posted 14 May 2013. Accessed 20 Sept 2021.
- Roguelike Definition. Accessed 30 Mar 2021.
- What is a Traditional Roguelike. Accessed 20 Sept 2021.
- Santiago Zapata - What is a Roguelike. Posted 23 Dec 2017. Accessed 20 Sept 2021.