Here’s an obvious fact for you – dying in video games isn’t fun. That slow, sinking feeling as you watch the last of your health being whittled away, knowing that your last save point was about two hours ago or that you’ve just cost your team the match, is generally something to be avoided. Well, not always. Because there’s a little genre out there called the roguelike, and to my great surprise I’ve found that death can be the greatest joy of them all.
Let me explain – I’ve been playing a lot of two specific titles over the past few weeks, those being FTL: Faster than Light and Spelunky. And while these aren’t the most perfect examples of the roguelike that are out there (With that award going to stuff like Nethack and Dwarf Fortress, which both terrify me), they still maintain the key aspects of randomised gameplay and brutally hard difficulty that define the genre. They have also maintained my attention for far longer than they should have, considering I’m sort of a perfectionist where even the slightest hint of failure rather gets me down. So why have these games gripped me so much? To me, it comes down to three simple points; excellent design, unintentional hilarity, and the greatest sense of reward there could ever be.
Let’s start with the first point by talking about Call of Duty. No, wait! Bear with me! You see, anyone who has played a Call of Duty game online will attest to the fact the many deaths you will encounter can be pretty damn annoying. But it’s often not the deaths themselves that infuriate – it’s the circumstance. You run round a corner away from fire, and then fall over dead due to lag compensation. The spawn system decides against your will that under an incoming missile is the perfect place to spawn you. And so on. You catch my meaning?
Well, that sort of stuff never happens in roguelikes. The controls and design of them are so perfectly done nearly every death comes down to your own fault, in such a way that you’re more likely to accept your fate with a hearty chuckle at your own stupidity than with an angry toss of your joypad at the nearest wall. It’s not the game’s fault you didn’t plan ahead and buy more fuel for your ship, nor is it the game’s fault that you didn’t check for spikes before flinging yourself down the nearest pit. It’s yours, and that’s strangely pleasing when more and more games seem to shift the parameters of victory further away from your total control. Yet maybe sometimes something incredibly random pops up and kills you in a way you’d never predict. That’s not exactly fair, but it’s also a perfect example of my next point…
…That these games can result in the most hilarious of scenarios that lead to your untimely demise. An example for you – I was doing well for myself on FTL one time, with a ship packed with a good crew and plenty of supplies. I was on for the best run I’d ever had on the game – and then I jump into a new sector, containing a massive enemy ship packed with so many weapons it tore me into tissue paper in less than 30 seconds flat. Unfair? Perhaps, yes, but the sheer and utter devestation that happened in those 30 seconds was hard not to laugh at. My crew were wildly running round in a panic, fires were starting in pretty much every room, and there were blinking warning lights everywhere – it was the perfect example of a beautiful disaster, one that was a joy to look at in a perverse sort of way. Spelunky pulls off similar feats – for instance, an explosion off-screen once set off a chain of events that saw several shopkeepers ruthlessly attack me while I frantically tossed bombs like a madman, subsequently blowing up half the level while leaving me grinning madly. It’s stuff like this that means you will tell stories of your deaths to your friends, not with a frown on your face, but with a smile. And that’s a truly awesome thing.
Then, finally, comes the rare times neither of the above happens. You’re not a moron, and the random number gods smile upon you. And then the roguelike throws up yet another kind of fun, as you beat level after level with ease, laughing merrily away as you know the game tries more and more desperately to brutally kill you. The sense of reward in doing well in these games is far, far higher than most others, which generally give you stacks of ammo in one corner and a checkpoint every five seconds. The tantalising allure of getting all the way and beating that final challenge is also another glimmer of joyful hope that flickers every time you hit the restart button for just one more go, a fact I both love and hate, generally because it means I often end up going to bed far later than I should playing the damn things.
So, in essence, it’s these three elements combined that I consider define my enjoyment of the roguelike. It’s not a genre I’d ever exclusively play or single out, mainly because I would actually still like to win from time to time, but it has made death fun to me… And that’s something I would have never thought truly possible.