I was certain I’d never have any time for roguelites. To clear up confusion about this most ambiguous of genres, by this I mean games that have permanent or mostly permanent death states, where losing means starting again from the beginning, with finite resources, and not necessarily any end goal. In fact, if you’d asked me a few years back, I’d have said this was the antithesis of why I play games.
I play games for the narrative. Well, that’s not true. It’s a big stinking lie. But it’s what I tend to say when asked, usually by people who don’t play games, what it is I get out of them. For me, the easiest answer, the most coherent and truthful I can find that encapsulates the pursuit as a whole, is for narrative experiences. To be a part of being told a story. It’s what half of games were when I first started playing them in the early 80s. (The other half being the arcade games that would probably be called “roguelites” if released today.) Text adventures, proto-RPGs, graphical adventures, RPGs, they were all about a beginning, middle and end. If you died, you reloaded. If you didn’t like the story you were being told, you played a different game.
The reason it’s a lie is because I play games to have fun. Whether that “fun” is being made sad or melancholy, or over-excited by tense action, or distracted by soothing clicking, it really comes down to fun. But if I gave that answer, WHAT WOULD PEOPLE THINK? “Narrative” sounds so much better, so much more likely to make them think, “Huh, maybe there’s more to these video-me-games than I’d realised,” as if I’m the ambassador to video games and need to care about what other people think of them. Still though, it remains a good deal true – being told a story is my favourite way to have fun with games. I just hadn’t realised that I could be told a story by a game that was hellbent on killing me, and making me start again over and over and over.
The first game to break past my NO THIS IS NOT FOR ME barrier was 2011’s Dungeons Of Dredmor. I ignored it for a very long time, put off by this ridiculous idea that I’d want to keep playing the same game from the start again and again. Pah. And then for some reason I tried it. And ho boy, I loved it. There was something compulsive about that desire to see if I could get a few floors deeper, use the smarts I’d gathered previously to outwit the game more, and get out of narrow squeaks with a better understanding of the available tools. And as I repeated and repeated the same few levels of the game, I realised I was being told a story here. Not a story in the right order, or one that had a middle or an end. But a story I was telling myself.
I realised I was completely defeated in any notion of an argument I may once have had when I found myself petitioning that Teleglitch should be in the top spot on our advent calendar in 2013. I am SO bad at Teleglitch. I haven’t even managed to get to the first level that acts as a restart point when you lose. I’ve just died and died in those first few areas so many times that it defies everything about why I loved playing video games for many years. And yet, wow, that game. That scratchy, cruel, frenetic madness, the minimalism combined with the difficulty, the exquisite movement, and the utter glee of pulling off a few good kills and finally – FINALLY – finding some more ammo.
I never thought I’d be this guy. This “one more go!” person. The sort of player who has spent oh-good-grief so many hours playing Pixel Dungeon on his phone. And I bet you have a similar tale.
Maybe it was point and click adventures. Maybe you’d always written them off as hateful fairytale rubbish, and then with the recent resurgence found yourself having a go and meekly realising you were having fun? Or perhaps it’s RTS – all that fiddling and worrying about ore and base building seemed like work, not play, and then somehow you were going to bed at 4am because of fighting off a huge army of, er, Space Ants? (I dunno – I’m still very much not converted here.) Pray, do tell.