I’ve seen needlessly heated arguments over the definition of a rogue-like. As the name suggests, one would presume it something kind of like the game Rogue from the 1980’s. Elements associated with this have been procedural level generation and permanent death for the player’s character. Over time though, the elements associated with this genre have become so varied in their presentation that they feel substantially different from Rogue, yet still contain a checklist of similarities. For my own personal use, such genre labels have become inadequate, as I’ve previously expressed with the horror umbrella term. Using conventional means to define games has left me stumped, so nowadays I create my own little genre labels to convey the overall feel of a game. Replacing the rogue-variants in my Steam library is what I call the David Bowie.
Coke. Diet Coke. Diet Coke with no Caffeine. Coke Zero. Vanilla Coke Zero…
As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I use the term “David Bowie” to refer to games often called rogue-likes or rogue-lites. Many games use game play elements in a similar fashion to Rogue, maybe most famously with The Binding of Isaac. Some say such games are “not rogue enough” and thus label it as a “rogue-lite.” Furthermore I’ve seen many people have different interpretations as for what the exact credentials for a rogue-like would be. Some say that perma-death is mandatory. Others say there must be a form of character progression. A high fantasy setting is also a frequent tag thrown in. As the genre grows and becomes less and less like Rogue, I came to feel the need for another term to describe the overall experience I get from these types of games. In the end I felt there were three broad elements that they have in common: a labyrinth, a theme of unfairness, and of course a sweet soundtrack. Who of course embodies all of those things better than David Bowie in Labyrinth?
Sometimes the way forward is the way back.
A key feature I feel that all these games have in common that hearkens back to Rogue is the idea of a labyrinth of some sorts to explore. Some games make them more randomized than others. Some are fixed or preset rooms that are mixed around. You may have a rough idea of what to expect in them, but even then the game’s exploration will present you with something new on each run through. Sunless Sea is a game that features a fixed map to explore, but the encounters the player can expect are sometimes akin to drawing a card. A passenger you take may pay you handsomely upon arrival or might unexpectedly poof into dust. Upon death, the player must begin with a new captain and may or may not have been able to pass on an inheritance over to them. The map is physically the same, but what lurks out there can’t always be certain. Whether the play-field is always the same shape or shuffled around, the player should go in with a sense of uncertainty.
Frequently a David Bowie induces the player to say, “Awwww! What the ****?!” The first time your killed off and start over seems a bit unfair after we’ve grown accustomed to checkpoints and saves. Usually when the player dies, they lose everything they worked for and have to start at the beginning. Though not entirely. Some games have means of unlocking other characters such was with The Binding of Isaac that may better suit a persons play style. Other games may have a means of obtaining resources that could be used on the next play-through, making you better prepared such as with the town hub in A Wizard’s Lizard. The unfairness of a David Bowie is however an illusion. It merely has a set of rules that are initially obfuscated. But no matter how many times we are sent back to the entrance, just like Jennifer Connolly, our wits have been upgraded to better prepare us for whatever obstacles are thrown in our path.
Dance Magic Dance
This element I feel may be a bit subjective, but I’ve yet to find a David Bowie game that didn’t come with a sweet soundtrack. The soundtrack when used properly should have a similar tempo with the pace of the game. In Isaac the tunes usually start of eerie and mellow, later incorporating rock rifts that work well with the progressively frantic nature of the bullet hell battles. Crypt of the Necrodancer, which is currently still in Early Access mode, places great emphasis on this element by basing its game mechanics around the idea of rhythm and music. Sunless Sea contains melodies that hard to shake off, usually quite melancholy for the slow cautious pace of exploring the sea. The notes induce an immersive sensation where you can just imagine your sailors going, “Yar! Land ahoy!” Though ideally every game has an appropriate soundtrack, for these to truly create the David Bowie experience, the music must have that rare certain something of grandiose whimsy.
It’s probably not a convention that will work for most folks, but it suites me just fine. The genre lines continue to blur together and ultimately browsing for similar games using tag systems is more helpful to the consumer, rather than slapping on a vague label like “Indie” or “Strategy” that may mean different things to different people. Ultimately I feel the overall experience is what makes games share a niche together, as opposed to nitpicking a checklist.