[First of our SPECIAL GUEST posts by friends of Rock, Paper, Shotgun. This time it's world-traveler and local-bemuser Quintin Smith, who I once spurred into hitting on girls in the manner of an Oblivion conversation. No, really.]
There's a degree of masochism involved in playing roguelikes. As well as choosing to suffer through hideous tile-based graphics and razor-sharp difficulty spikes you have to deal with the total loss of progress with each death. But you know what? It's just so hard to find the freedom and unpredictibility they offer anywhere else.
So that's my excuse as to why, after swearing them off as a genre following a long hot summer where I was having my heart broken by Zangband on a nightly basis, I've started again. I'm playing Iter Vehemens ad Necem this time, which is a little less polished and forgoes races and classes but manages to squeeze in a plot and gets nice and specific with regards to body parts. Limbs can be lost (and replaced with poor-quality substitutes), heads can be struck (causing blackouts and brain damage) and groins can be melted away.
It is, naturally, just as rat hellbastard hard as all the others. The very first thing you'll want to do is kill the pet dog you start the game with, because while it'll help out in combat it'll also chow down on any and all bodies you leave behind, contract leprosy from a zombie corpse and silently infect you. You'll find out you've got leprosy when one of your limbs abruptly falls off. This happened to me. It happened during combat. And it happened to the arm I was carrying my sword with.
Not one to be easily licked, I proceeded to kick the kobold I was fighting with to death, which I managed in the nick of time because my legs fell off directly afterwards. Recovering my sword and boots from the pile of rotting flesh I left behind, I rolled around thoughtfully for a while before remembering I had found the holy book of the goddess of healing. I sent up a prayer and lo and behold, she cured me and granted me new limbs!
These worked out better than you'd think, right up to my encounter with a Dwarven suicide bomber. I might have been okay if the explosion had just shattered my limbs, but it broke all my potion bottles too. And so it was that Sir Quinns XIV bled to death trying to roll out of a room full of broken glass.
There are lots of lessons to be learnt from roguelikes, and not just 'Buy cans of banana flesh from the starting village, eat the contents and put your potions inside them'. I'd like to see more games use the one-life structure. For something that can conjure up enough horror, tension and elation to leave you punch-drunk developers seem so damn scared of using it.