Rogue-Lite Life Lessons

I finally beat Nuclear Throne last night.  It's in my current favorite genre which could be called Action Rogue-Lite.  These are games very loosely in the linage of a very old game called Rogue from 1980, that was a turn-based, procedurally generated (That means the levels are randomly (not ACTUALLY RAMDOM) created each time you play) dungeon crawler.  Besides the random levels, the other thing that made Rogue special was that you had ONE chance to beat the game.  I mean... once you die you have to start over.  Unlike most games where you can save and load your saved state if you die, or where you have a bunch of lives and continues, Rogue was Hardcore Mode before such a thing existed.  Throughout the years a smattering of games tried to preserve this mechanic but it mostly faded from the game design zeitgeist for a couple decades.  Most people just don't find the emotional toll of starting completely over when you die to be fun.  As videogames matured as a medium, the market was guiding developers towards more streamlined and easy experiences.  As hardware evolved we were able to provide lush visual/audio aesthetics that replaced the brutal early years of skill-building games.  But happily, about a decade ago, a new branch of game development came into its own.  Indie games, like indie film and music and writing, etc. is a scaled back, bare bones, experimental scene.  As game creation tools became more accessible, the possibility of thousands of tiny dev projects became a reality and a lot of the old material and ideas –like Rogue- were being mined.
I’m still trying to understand HOW, exactly, the hardcore element of perma-death resurfaced and became popular in this community.  I suppose it’s counter-cultural to the dominant corporate game design ethos, and as with any monolithic movement, it inevitably leaves a lot of itches to be scratched by the opposite of whatever that monolith encompasses.  So I’m guessing that’s where the fuel that feeds this genre comes from.  Though, as usual, I’m about to read some philosophical depth into it.  My apologies to the hundred other people who have surely already written on the topic, I simply haven’t found your writings yet.  The closest I could find was this design analysis ( ) which contains the following statement that I find to be very wrong.

Platformers for example, at their core, test the players input precision, mastery, reaction time and their memorization. These stand in direct opposition to the roguelike elements as variance in either of them would make the tests arbitrary, denying the player mastery over them. If Mario jumped slightly differently every time the game resets the test would become unfair and mastering the core mechanics impossible.”

The Platform (and other real-time action-oriented) games with rogue-like elements do NOT arbitrarily change the fundamental mechanics.  To me, the whole POINT of the exercise is that I, as a player, am learning to master the mechanical system, NOT the map or enemy layout.  It strikes me as rather arbitrary to include memorization as a foundational element of the Platform game genre.  Just as arbitrary as insisting that being turn-based is a necessary foundational element of the rogue-like.  (Also, I’m using the distinction “rogue-lite” to differentiate games that have meta-progress that you gain from multiple play-thoughs, as opposed to “rogue-like” where there is nothing carried over but the skills and knowledge the player takes with them.) But I honestly don’t care about semantics and genre definitions.  I just wanted to comment on this one statement as a springboard to talk about how the action-rogue-lite genre speaks to me.  I believe that these are four interrelated ideas that create a value-package for my emotional maturity.

1.       Embracing the unknown.  A large part of my gaming psyche profile is the Explorer motivation.  And that’s exactly what Rogue and its descendants excel at.  Because every session mixes the terrain up, you can never rely on brute memorization to succeed.  Instead you can only lean on luck (which is usually a bad bet) and mastering the game mechanics.  Instead of learning that in the second level on the forth jump you have to immediately duck when you land or take a bullet to the face, you learn real tactical thinking.  You see a particular configuration of enemies that each have different attributes, and that combination produces emergent properties that you have to deal with given the particular weapons and powers you currently have.  
Because there are so many factors involved, the tactical moment-to-moment experience never gets stale.  These tactical skills coalesce into strategies that apply across the whole arc of the run.  And even meta-strategies, such as deciding that every time you encounter a certain powerup or enemy type you will abandon the goal of beating the game, and instead focus on learning everything you can about that element through experimentation.  These are all skills that are super valuable in real life.  The core mechanics of Life are set.  But the chaotic nature of ever-evolving actors means that we never truly encounter the same situation twice.  This upsets the applecart of our heuristic shortcuts.  The ones that tell us that guys who wear X have Y personality, or that people from X country have Y strengths and weaknesses.  I think rogue-lite games are training me to take a moment to evaluate every situation on a case by case basis.  To understand that every encounter is new terrain, no matter how much my biases want to interpret it in a familiar way.  And most importantly, to find positive VALUE in that novelty.  Am I losing time by re-evaluating my stereotypes so frequently?  Yes.  But I’m gaining insight, compassion, and the joy of exploration.   I bumped into Rami Ismail (approximately half the development team of Nuclear Throne) at GDC several months ago, and asked him for advice concerning the game.  He said something along the lines of: “Push yourself harder than you think you should.” I’ve learned that this is truly the heart of the experience they crafted, and applies to most rogue-lites.  Embracing the chaos and pushing your skills beyond their current limits is how you grow and excel.     

2.       Life is unfair.  I’m sure this is shocking news to many of you. ;)  But it’s true.  Videogames have become a bastion of leveling the field.  Being unfair is the hallmark of bad design.  The most lauded games (such as the Soul’s series) are touted as “difficult-but-fair”.  This fairness, so foreign to the real world, reminds me of the romantic take on sex, violence, and other tropes we see in movies and read in books.  They are the way our culture WANTS the world to be.  So when a game subverts the foundational design ideal of fairness, it’s like the gritty, realistic movies and books that don’t pull punches; that expose the inaccuracies of common tropes by pointing more directly at reality.  When I have a ‘bad run’ in a rogue-lite I need to be able to emotionally cope with that.  Or I could rage quit and start a new game.  But every time I persevere I’m teaching my brain a good thing.  I’m learning to cope, in some small way, with the unfairness of life.  I’m teaching myself to make the best out of a bad situation.  And that skill is applicable to the larger issues that life throws at you.

3.       Privilege is a real thing.  Without invoking Obama’s infamous “you didn’t build that” speech, I will just say that as I’ve looked into the concept of societal privilege and power dynamics, I’ve learned to be more compassionate and understanding of those who have “failed at life.”  And what a stark lesson it is when you start your rogue-lite game and get one bad-luck roll after another.  (The WORST powerup, then the WORST level layout, and the WORST configuration of enemies given the level layout and your lame powerup.) This can be a metaphor for any number of real life bad-luck rolls.  Being born into a poor family.  Suffering child abuse.  Being an underprivileged minority.  Being schooled in a methodology that doesn’t suite your learning needs.  Being handicapped with any sort of physical  and/or psychological abnormality.  The list goes on and on.  There are SO many ways that you can start your life with disadvantages.  If you play two games of the same rogue-lite; in one run getting all the worst rolls, and in the next getting all the best… I can’t imagine a better illustration of how privilege and power dynamics operate.  You are the same person, bringing to bear all the same skills, determination and decision making power, and yet, your outcomes will probably be very different.  To me, this smashes the argument that everybody can just pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  That everyone has it hard sometimes, but if you just work hard and save you can become a success in life.  For the record, I understand the importance of those messages in a psychological context, creating possibility space in the minds of the underprivileged is massively important for their chances to make the most of their situations.  (As it is in an unlucky rogue-lite run.)  But to promote the positive message at the expense of the reality that there are different AMOUNTS of difficulty that must be overcome, and then to make a character judgement about a person (or group) who fails to meet your arbitrary threshold for working hard enough… that’s a sickness that is unhelpful to everyone, and I think this genre of games could help.

4.       Grit. My definition of grit is: The determination to learn from failure rather than rage-quitting. This is all about perspective and interpretation.  And this is something I’ve developed over time.  Had I lived a life where the majority of risks I’ve taken ended badly, I’m betting I would not have leveled up my Grit as much as I have.  In fact, I probably would have stopped taking the risks necessary to excel in life.  Difficult games have helped me to learn to develop grit.  I had a paradigm flip several years ago when I decided that, for continuing education in my field of game design, I had to experience the process of beating an old platform game.  This wasn’t a new thing to me.  I beat a LOT of NES games as a kid, but as I grew, had kids of my own, and focused on developing my career, the point of banging my head against these kinds of games became unclear.  That was compounded by the earlier-mentioned fact that the industry has been softening the difficulty curves of their games over the years.  But several years ago I was leading a team to develop a retro game that was intended to evoke the difficulty of those classis NES platform games.  So I found myself researching them, and realized I HAD to experience the process as an adult.  I chose Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts because I only vaguely remembered it, but knew it had the reputation as a fairly difficult game, and it had an aesthetic I enjoyed.  The first hour of flailing and failing on the first level had me VERY frustrated.  Years of easy games had softened my tolerance for repetitious failure.  But because I started this as an educational experience I was in a different frame of mind, and something clicked for me after I pushed through that hour of failure.  Instead of interpreting the process as a test that I was continually failing, I envisioned it like a jigsaw puzzle.  The process of putting together a puzzle is one of repetitious ‘failure’.  You try a piece, see it doesn’t fit, try another one, see it doesn’t fit, but eventually you build up successes, and the more you succeed, the smaller the pool of failures you have to draw from.  This gives you some momentum.  Unlike jigsaw puzzles, platform games adjust the difficulty curve by upping the mastery requirements as you progress.  But the key insight to me was to interpret every death by the hand of a zombie or skeleton fish as a puzzle piece tried, and rejected.  I taught myself to mentally talk through what I learned from that death.  Except when I was alone; in which case I verbally talked myself through it.   A habit I now maintain when my son is watching me play Dark Souls games.  I’m hoping that I’m teaching him this skill by example.  So once I approached SG’NG this way it went from a torturous experience to an almost zen-like one.  I honestly felt like I was developing emotionally, mentally and spiritually as I played.  Since I discovered action rogue-lites I’ve found that I can develop that same sense in bite sized sessions, which fit my lifestyle much better.
At the beginning I said I ‘beat’ Nuclear Throne.  This is actually fairly retro lingo.  For most video games it makes more sense to say “I finished that game.”  This is because the dominant paradigm for videogames is a one-time experience with a  beginning middle and end, generally draped over the framework of a linear edited narrative.  (along with all those lush audio visuals I referenced above.)   But a really well-tuned, high quality action rogue-lite such as Nuclear Throne is never ‘finished’.  Any more than the game of Chess or Go is ‘finished’.  You may ‘beat’ your opponent, but the game system remains evergreen.  This is why I still play Spelunky 5 years later.  And it’s why I predict I’ll still be playing Nuclear Throne in 5 years.  Not because they are fun.  (Though they most certainly ARE) But because they are fun AND are making me a better person.  

Here’s a nice list of the great features of Nuclear Throne if you haven’t been sold on it yet.


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