Pondering RogueliKes, RogueliTes, and Procedural Death Labyrinths

It’s been forever and a day since I posted anything here. In addition to fall being busy in general for me as a JET ALT who is very involved with her schools, I was working on and releasing my first finished video game, Ultra Hat Dimension (which was a great, if stressful experience; check the game out and look for a postmortem in the near future).

Now that that is finished, I have finally begun making videos besides my critical/reminiscent long-form FFX let’s play! My first one is about the terms “roguelike”, “roguelite”, and “procedural death labyrinths” — both how the terms came about and how I use them. It’s a lead in to a series of one-offs about games that I’ll be doing. The video script is below the embed.

Hello, everyone. Crowbeak here. I’m getting ready to start up a series of one-off videos called Let’s Talk About [Game] in which I will discuss interesting aspects of games I play.

In the course of deciding what games I want to talk about, I’ve realized that there are some terms I’ll be using a lot but which are poorly defined in common parlance. Chief among these are “roguelike” with a K, “roguelite” with a T, and “procedural death labyrinth”. This video is meant to be both a discussion of those terms and a reference for anyone who comes to my channel so that the meanings of these terms as I use them will be clear.

The term roguelike with a K is a pretty literal description of the genre’s roots. There was a game called Rogue (which, it should be noted, I have not played) and the term rogulike was originally coined to describe games that were like it. Some of the key characteristics of Rogue are:

  • ASCII art, which is more important to some people than others
  • Procedurally generated environments
  • A robust item system with
    • more items than a player would see on one run
    • randomized potions and scrolls whose effects on a given playthrough could only be discerned through experimentation
    • non-randomized items whose effects the player could learn over the course of multiple runs
  • Monsters whose behaviors were predictable and could be learned over the course of multiple runs
  • Permanent character death

Rogue and its close successors are all strategic games which reward repeated play and mastery of systems with endless replayability and emergent narratives spiced by the knowledge that the character really had only one life to live. Players were given a different situation every time, but they lived or died by their wits.

Although the genre is older than I am and has undoubtedly been influencing the development of games for a long time, I think most modern gamers were largely unaware of it until a wave of indie developers started using procedural generation and permadeath. For indies, those two elements in particular give them a resource-efficient means of providing players with good bang for their buck.

Developers and players alike used the term roguelike for this new wave of games even though they took little from Rogue and played very differently from those games traditionally called roguelikes. Most of them were action-oriented, not strategic, a trend that continues to this day. This led to use of terms such as the ungainly roguelike-like and eventually roguelite with a T.

However, as use of procedural and permadeath elements increased, people started calling for new terminology. Tanya X. Short called for developers to stop using the term roguelike to describe their games, arguing that no one calls platformers mariolikes and that more accurate descriptions of specific game elements would be more useful to everyone. Lars Doucet, inspired by her arguments, wrote a piece suggesting the term procedural death labyrinth as a catch all that could describe the entire spectrum of Rogue-inspired games. (Links to both of these are in the video description.)

This brings me, finally, to how I use all of the terms roguelike with a K, roguelite with a T, and procedural death labyrinth. Although I, too, have no definite boundaries for the differences between them — and don’t feel bad about that at all because even the definition of “game” has nebulous boundaries — I generally choose which term to use based on how closely a game resembles my understanding of Rogue and that characteristics which define it.

When I say roguelike with a K, I mean games like Dungeonmans, NetHack, and Tales of Maj’Eyal, all of which are turn-based, strategic, and otherwise closely related to the game Rogue. Sometimes I refer to these kinds of games as “true roguelikes” or “traditional roguelikes” because the genre has been around for such a long time. One game I would argue belongs in this category but is a definite edge case is Crypt of the Necrodancer.

When I say roguelite with a T, I mean games which are a bit farther removed from Rogue than those. Titles I place in this category cover a wider range of experiences and include The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, Coin Crypt, and Ziggurat. Although most of the games I would place in this category are action-oriented, when I make a Let’s Talk About Nova-111 video, I will argue that it belongs in this category as well. Faster Than Light also goes in this category.

Procedural death labyrinth, then, is the category that I use as a catch-all for everything else that has inspirational roots in Rogue but which are so far removed that even roguelite with a T feels inappropriate. Games I place in this category include Death Skid Marks, Fate Techtonics, Guild of Dungeoneering, Hand of Fate, One way Heroics, and Sunless Sea.

That’s all for this video, then. I hope you find it good food for thought and/or useful in understanding my future videos. If you like it, please consider liking and sharing the video or subscribing to my channel.

One thought on “Pondering RogueliKes, RogueliTes, and Procedural Death Labyrinths

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