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Streets Of Rogue's creator on how he stuffed a tiny city with ideas

How to use a shrink ray on the immersive sim

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Streets Of Rogue is a tiny Deus Ex about being stupid. It’s good. If you haven’t heard us shouting about this teeny-yet-turbulent roguelite, then you haven’t been paying attention. To add to the cacophony, I spoke to its creator, Matt Dabrowski, about troublesome bodysnatchers, rampaging giants, vague sequel plans, and how he went about brute-forcing as many silly ideas as possible into a tiny toy city.

“If I have a cool idea,” he says, “I’m going to try to find some way to get it in there.”

To sum it up, Streets Of Rogue is an immersive sim trapped in the body of a top-down roguelite. You get missions to complete in a procedurally generated city, and must use odd character skills or wacky equipment to get the job done. Maybe you’re a scientist and you need a briefcase of documents in an office block, so you pump a load of cyanide into an air vent and step over the corpses once inside. Or maybe you’re a hacker, so you hack the turrets to attack the patrolling gangsters. Or maybe you just burst in as a soldier and shoot everyone.

“I couldn’t really think of many other games that allow for that kind of thing, especially not roguelites,” says Dabrowski, who works on the game mostly alone. “So because this thing didn’t exist, and I thought I’d like to play this thing, and probably a lot of other people would like to play it, that’s sort of how it originally came about.”

The range of its antics is what makes it special. You can hack fridges, tell jokes, suck blood, borrow money. Game designers like to harp on about “verbs”. Streets Of Rogue has more verbs than a Spanish phrasebook. A lot of those suggestions came from players, from feedback Dabrowski would see online, stuff he simply thought was funny or interesting.

“There was no big design document” he says. “It was kind of just me adding things to big lists over time.”

The characters change how you go about those missions, assassinating drug dealers and stealing blueprints. Some of them caused Dabrowski more trouble than others. There is a zombie, for example, who was fun to program, even if it causes apocalyptic chaos for the player.

“The Zombie was always pretty interesting,” he says. “Just to see all the repercussions and things that happen when things get out of control with the zombies, it was pretty fun to see that for the first time.”

But another character, the body-snatching Shapeshifter, was a programming nightmare, simply due to the amount of bugs it caused to implement. Not to mention the complications that arise from introducing a tiny naked ghoul who can slurp up the backsides of other characters and control them.

“What if you enter, like, a gangster’s body,” says Dabrowski, giving an example, “and then you tell another gangster to join you, and then you leave the first gangster’s body. Does the other gangster say: ‘Oh, you were in my friend’s body! Now you’re bad.’ Or does he just stay in your party or something?”

Dabrowski pauses.

“I’m not sure if I’ve fixed that one yet, actually…”

I ask him if there were any characters who didn’t make it into the final build of the game. But he thinks all the rascals he put down on paper eventually made it onto these digi-streets in some form or another.

“If I come up with a cool idea for the game, I’m probably going to try to fit it in, in some way,” he says. “It might not be super balanced at first, but I’m going to find a way to make it work.”

Those ideas aren’t limited to characters. There are also dangerous random events that happen every few levels, big hoo-hahs that throw an extra challenge into the level. Sometimes that means there’ll be a radiation blast every 20 seconds, forcing you to repeatedly take cover in houses. Sometimes, there is a robot assassin hunting you down. If you’re lucky, the level is simply a warzone. I ask if there was ever an event so unwieldy It never made the cut.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “Actually, hold on a second, let me check my disasters list.”

The creator of Streets Of Rogue has a ‘disasters list’. Of course. Dabrowski summons this document and begins to check through it for unfinished ideas.

“Here’s one that’s interesting: a blind monster follows you and you have to distract it with noises.”

Naturally.

“That’d be really complicated to implement I think,” he admits. “I’ve had ideas for, like, giants throughout the city that are terrorising you, maybe like a King Kong-type character. Again, I think they might be more beneficial to the player than anything else, because they’d just be running around destroying things and… all the enemies would be so focused on these things that you could probably just do whatever you wanted.”

An endless fight between legally distinct King Kong and bargain bin Godzilla would fit this game of mischief and mayhem perfectly. It’s a joking game, never taking itself seriously, even the flavour text for items and characters are written in jest. But there have been times when that resulted in some questionable humour. A joke about deaf actor Marlee Matlin was flagged by another game maker (Tom Francis of Heat Signature) as being insensitive. Dabrowski changed the text and apologised quickly. But I want to know if feedback like that is something that frustrates him or if he’s happy to take note?

“I’m certainly very happy to take note of it,” he says, “I wish it didn’t come in the form of somebody blasting something out on Twitter to tens of thousands of people. I think there’s probably a better way to communicate this. When that … happened, I wasn’t even aware that it had happened until several days later…

“When you’re writing a bunch of dialogue for the game, sometimes… you get a certain tone in your head, and you have this idea that everyone will be on board with this tone and then you realise things, taken out of context, are kind of: ‘Oh god, what does that look like!? That looks terrible, how is that going to read to people?’

“Honestly, that particular line, I don’t know what I was thinking with that… But I do appreciate people pointing this stuff out… Sometimes when you’re just in a bubble writing stuff to yourself, you can’t get a big picture on this stuff. It’s something I’m trying to be more careful of in the future anyways.”

And what about that future? Streets Of Rogue was in early access for years, with consistent small updates, so it seems demanding to ask if he will keep adding to it now that it’s fully released. But that’s my job, so that’s what I ask.

“I’m definitely going to keep adding to it,” says Dabrowski. “There’s plenty more content in my big lists of things.”

He doesn’t want to promise anything, but he’s hoping to add support for Steam workshop, and has been working on a map editor for his own internal use that might get spruced up and released if we’re lucky. “It’s not Mario Maker,” he says, but it might make some tiny rioters happy. Beyond that, there are even bubbling thoughts of a sequel in the future.

“Because there’s a lot of ideas that just wouldn’t have ever made the cut for this game, or were just too big and broad.”

Nothing has been decided yet. But he talks about vehicles, he mentions animals, he talks about multi-story buildings, a bigger world, shinier art.

“That’s all the kind of stuff I want to add [to a sequel]… Working off the base of this current game [it’s] in such solid shape right now… Knock wood, I might have an easier time doing a sequel. But who knows, maybe I’m just being stupid.”

I’ve spent too many hours being whacked in the head by police truncheons in this game of cartoon anarchy to judge anyone for being reckless. This is a game where you can hoard chicken nuggets and swap them for a hologram of bigfoot and a bottle of cologne. A game where you can throw a shuriken at a policeman, turn to run away, and immediately step in your own bear trap. If designing a sequel to this micro-mishaps sim is stupid, I’m not telling that to Dabrowski. Streets Of Rogue is all about being stupid.

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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