As I survey yet another evening in which I’ve tried and failed to get into what has become a time-honored staple of computer RPGs, I’m forced to admit a conclusion: I don’t like roguelikes.
I’ve tried. Really, I’ve tried, time and again. I tried with Diablo. I tried with Torchlight. I tried with Moria, I tried with countless games that I can’t recall the name of, and most recently I tried with Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. And I’m almost certainly going to try again, because this is a big part of computer roleplaying games, part of the tradition that’s given birth to some of the best games out there. But every single time I wind up losing interest really fast, no matter how intently I’m trying to keep myself focused on the relentless process of killing random monsters to get shinies in a randomly-crafted dungeon.
Actually, I think that’s the part that gets me. The games are nothing but meat.
See, let’s imagine you go out to get a burger at any halfway competent burger place. Most likely you walk away with fries, a soda, and a burger. The fries are minigames – nice and fun for a bit, but not what you really came for. The soda is haggling with merchants, traveling from place to place, and so forth – the palate cleanser between the real meat. And of course, that burger is what you really want, the meat of the situation. Just having one immense burger sounds nice enough in moderation, right?
Except that while there’s meat in there, you’ll note that a good burger has more than that. Of course it has a bun, but it also has ketchup, cheese, relish, onions, maybe even some bacon if you’re lucky. Sure, the meat is the dominant flavor, but there’s so much more on there that contributes to making the experience pleasant. Roguelikes aren’t just a nice big burger – they’re an enormous slab of beef served with a glass of water, in which you take a faceless protagonist into a dungeon and start slaughtering things for no reason whatsoever. In some games you’re given an ostensible quest to provide yourself with an endpoint, but other times you’re just thrown in and expected to keep crawling through random dungeons forever.
Dungeon crawling can be fun, no doubt about it. I can think of three games off the top of my head which featured random dungeons that I absolutely love (Recettear and the two PS2 Persona installments). But in each of those games, the dungeon crawling was bookended by a lot of story and rationale behind why your characters were in a given dungeon. Yes, you could take a sharp left turn and spend some time rampaging through dungeons for loot, but that wasn’t the whole point. In roguelikes, that is the point. You’re there because you’re there, a tautology of hack-and-slashery.
And yes, I’m aware that the Diablo games and Torchlight have a story to explain why you’re heading into the dungeons. That doesn’t change the fact that you’re discouraged from identifying your character as a person. At best, your character is a class. At worst, your character is a repository for gear and skills. You have no motivation given for why you should care about whatever is going on, nor does anyone interact with your character beyond instructing you to go do something. Even MMOs, which can frequently resemble this at the worst time, give players more options for customization and identification than roguelikes do.
But I could do without motivation if the actual gameplay itself were fun. Sadly, this seems to be one of those places where the developers and fans like something that’s completely incompatible with my own tastes. I’ve got nothing against challenge, but I don’t find death waiting around every corner to be inherently fun; similarly, I like to win battles based on tactics and skill rather than raw power levels. Roguelikes, for the most part, have battle systems that consist of “mash your most powerful stuff until you run out of resources,” with some slight exceptions made for a handful of skills that set up more powerful approaches later. Enemies will kill you because they’re more powerful than you are, and you succeed largely by just having more raw power and a large stock of appropriate potions.
I want to reiterate – I am well aware there are people out there who really like this style of play, and more power to them. But it’s the opposite of how I like to play. Dragon Age II nicely encapsulated it – if I’m tearing through encounters without stopping, it should be because I’ve built my party well and know what I’m doing, not because I’ve just leveled past everything. And when I run into challenges, I want them to be overcome with tactics, though, and careful play, not resetting and farming up better gear or spells.
Add to that the basic tedium that’s baked in from an early level (has anyone ever really enjoyed identifying every random item? I guess someone must have), commands that are either over-ornate or over-simplified, and the frequently agonizing amount of replaying necessary to even be able to win several games, and you wind up served a pretty specific steak. Which is great if you want steak, but I generally prefer a nice burger, even though it’s nigh-inevitable that I’ll forget this when I try one of these games again in a few months.