Why Play Roguelikes?


In the past I’ve written about video games as an important experience for people who value art. In honor of junethack, a month-long NetHack tournament, I want to defend roguelike games in general, and NetHack in particular, as a means of providing an experience that is difficult to get from most art.

I should first tell you what a roguelike game is. Roughly speaking it is a game that reproduces a few of the key innovations from Rogue, a game that released in 1980! There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes a roguelike game, but that is besides the point of this post. For us, there are two main ideas.

The first is that the levels are randomly generated. This means that every time you play you will have no idea what the levels will look like. This makes the process of discovery fun even after playing it 100 times. In fact, your character is often randomly generated along with items, weapons, and so on. This means that no matter how many times you play, you will have to think on your feet for how best to deal with the situations you are given (this will come up later).

The other main, and arguably the most important, feature is so-called “permadeath,” which stands for permanent death. This means that if your character dies, then the game is over. You must start all over again from scratch. You can’t save and restart from where you made that mistake. You don’t have multiple lives. This feature is probably what turns most modern gamers off of the style. It is brutal and unforgiving. One small mistake made while you zoned out for a few seconds can cost you hours or even days of work.

Despite the seemingly unfair nature of these games (randomness + permadeath can mean something totally out of your control ends hours of work), they still seem to thrive. People in my circles enjoy modern indie roguelikes such as The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, and FTL (Faster than Light). Every year there is the 7 Day Roguelike Challenge where you create a roguelike in 7 days. There are even cash prize tournaments such as this recent one for Isaac.

This brings me to the current NetHack tournament (which is just for fun). NetHack is one of the earliest roguelikes. It was released in 1987, yet it’s difficulty and complexity make it widely played to this day. I wouldn’t put its artistic merit in the same camp as those earlier posts which focus on traditional aspects like story, music, and visuals. Don’t get me wrong. You better be familiar with classic literature and mythology if you play this. This ranges from basic things like don’t look at Medusa or you’ll be turned to stone to more obscure things like don’t touch that cockatrice or you will turn to stone. Overall, the internal story is not its strong point though.

I think the reason to play roguelikes in general and NetHack in particular is what it teaches you about the impermanence of all things. This is such an important life lesson that many Eastern religions make this a focal point. For example, take Tibetan Buddhists. They have a ritual where they painstakingly craft an incredibly detailed sand mandala. The work takes days. Then they destroy it.

Many modern roguelikes downplay the pain of permadeath by making the game fairly short. If you die, then you lose 20-40 minutes of work in a worst-case scenario. NetHack embraces the philosophy of permadeath. You can put in 12 hours or more carefully crafting a character. You are extremely careful to be fully mindful at all moments. You’ve thought about all 40,000 keystrokes that you’ve made to this point.

Then maybe you get impatient and press left one too many times and die. Maybe you stop paying careful attention for just a tiny moment. Maybe you just didn’t realize that a sea creature could grab you and pull you in. Maybe it is completely out of your control and a black dragon spawns due to pure randomness and blasts you with disintegration. All your work is gone forever.

Maybe I just think about stuff too much, but when this happens to me it really forces me to confront the idea of impermanence. All of the scenarios I just listed have corresponding counterparts in real life. Maybe you are a really careful driver, but in a moment of impatience you don’t look both ways and you are in a serious accident. It only took that tiny moment. Maybe you didn’t realize that the intersection gave the other person the right of way. Maybe you were careful, and randomness put you in a position where the other person was drunk.

The point is that your actions and choices have consequences that are sometimes irreversible. Randomness has consequences that are sometimes irreversible. Just as the Buddhist ritual teaches you this lesson and let’s you think about it before the consequences are real, NetHack also teaches you this lesson. This may seem silly to people who haven’t experienced putting a whole day of effort into something that gets lost forever, but it really makes you think about these issues and which of your choices led you there.

I know. It’s just a game. But that is my case for why you should play roguelikes; especially long and involved ones like NetHack. They force you to confront the consequences of risky decisions. They force you to encounter impermanence. They teach you about regretting what happens when you are careful for hours and then you impatiently slip up. They teach you what type of person you are when these things happen. This is their artistic value, and it is a type of experience that is hard to find in more traditional art forms.

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