Why “roguelike” is becoming shorthand for lazy, indecisive game design

Roguelikes are a growing genre, but their defining characteristics are being used to justify lackluster video game design. We explore how this trend affects the industry as a whole.

Roguelikes, and their less fundamentalist offspring, roguelite, are hitting the video game market hard. A quick look at any credible “best of” list for 2021 should illustrate just how influential this framework has become in modern gaming.

Return, Death Loop, underworld; these aren’t just fantastic examples of what roguelikes are, they’re some of the most innovative and rewarding games in recent memory. However, as I will show later, these games succeed not because they are roguelikes, but because their game mechanics serve the vision of their creators.

Image: Back / Housemarque

The problem that has arisen is that the success of these games has been interpreted as, or reduced to, a consequence of their genre. It seems that the big studios, and those who influence them, have confused correlation with causation; pressuring developers to use shoehorn mechanics they may or may not believe in their latest games.

It’s like when Pokemon became a global phenomenon – each competing company tried to steal a slice of the pie by rushing in on their own collection of mini-monsters and related products. However, as evidenced by their rapid descent into obscurity, success is rarely achieved through mimicry alone.

Why roguelikes are attractive

Roguelikes are an action game subgenre that has a number of common characteristics. First, upon death, the player must be sent back to the start of the game, losing most, if not all, of the progress they had made.

The game world should be procedurally (or at least randomly) generated, which means each playthrough will be a largely unique experience. Finally, there should be some form of character progression so that the player character gets stronger as the game/race goes on. Completing a race will usually result in the player returning to the start of the game, able to start again against more difficult challenges.

Essentially, roguelikes lend themselves to being played over and over again. Once upon a time this would have been considered dangerous by the industry – publishers and developers have historically made their money selling new games.

However, in the age of live-service titles, which often use in-game purchases, a longer lifespan has actually become ideal.

So it’s no surprise that as more studios take a longer-term approach to their games, roguelikes have become more mainstream. Once a hallmark of the indie scene, AAA Studios are now trying to incorporate these design principles into their franchise titles.

…and why they are not

Last week I was tasked with reviewing the Pagan Min DLC for Ubisoft far cry 6, a series not exactly known for its innovation, which tried to incorporate roguelike elements into its long-established formula. Despite some fun challenges and interesting narrative ideas, the game didn’t work, and I’m convinced those roguelike principles were to blame.

A game’s mechanics and design should be informed by what the developers want to achieve. If they want to tell a non-linear story about an immortal Greek god desperately trying to escape the underworld, then maybe, like the dev team behind underworld decided, a roguelike framework makes sense.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to explore the story of a mentally unstable dictator, who happens to be killable, perhaps a simpler approach would be beneficial. I get that Ubisoft was trying to explore Min’s sanity by trapping him in a dream loop, but repeating the same story missions over and over again doesn’t deepen their meaning. It dilutes it.

Perhaps even worse, by labeling a few roguelike mechanics, as Ubisoft did, you can market the game as having far greater longevity than it actually has. In this case, what could have been a solid 4-5 hour experience became bloated and unnecessarily directionless.

But of course, in theory, it has more longevity. I say in theory, because the truth is that this is all a sham. Many of these roguelikes are no more enjoyable to replay than a linear single-player campaign. There are obvious exceptions, but replaying a game is fun because it’s fun. Not because it’s structured like a loop.

The intention problem

Procedurally generated content can create a number of unique problems in video game development. You’re essentially creating building blocks that should feel nice on their own, but cohesive regardless of the order they’re placed in. I will also note that consistent does not necessarily mean optimal.

What often separates a good story from a great one is not the story itself but the way it is told. Clever structure can elevate an otherwise mundane tale. Imagine if you knew that the character of Bruce Willis in The sixth sense had died within the first 10 minutes of the film – that would destroy the mystery and tension that made it such a hit.

What I mean here is that in a roguelike, the game director largely loses editorial power. Depending on a player’s luck and choices, their narrative (my use of narrative here is not specific to the plot, but rather to the entire player experience) will take on a different structure.

death roguelike
Image: Deathloop/Arkane Studios

Some structures will inherently be more enjoyable than others, perhaps because they are more cohesive or have better pacing or a number of reasons.

Part of any creator’s responsibility is to consider how structure informs and interacts with an audience’s response. How would you react to a musician releasing a new album with no planned tracklist? I would say that their album is not complete, that they still have significant work to do.

Structure and sequence are just as important to video games as they are to any other art form. They are tools used to intentionally shape how an audience will experience something, and therefore react.

Roguelikes, because of the very characteristics that define them, leave much of that responsibility to chance. They’re the creative equivalent of a shrug – which explains quite poetically why they so often elicit the same response from me.