Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ramblings: Die, Succeed, Die Again, Repeat

On the allure of roguelikes and difficult games
Imagine for a moment, trying to explain the concept of the roguelike to a casual gamer or non-gamer...

"So this is called a roguelike. Basically you try to survive as long as you can, with limited supplies and health."
"Oh, that sounds cool."
 "Death can come at any moment. And you only have one life."
"So what happens when you die?"
"You start from the beginning."
"The game doesn't save? What about checkpoints?"
"Nope. You just lose all your hard-earned progress. And all your powerful weapons. And your gear. Back to square one. Sounds fun, right?"

Yes, yes it does. It's very fun. The roguelike may have once been niche, but today it seems like you can't go another day without a new title flaunting its roguelike elements. From the platformers like Spelunky and Towerclimb and the shooters such as Tower of Guns and Fancy Skulls to the action roguelikes and more traditional turn-based one, if anything it seems like the roguelike is in vogue today. And it's not just rogues or games with roguelike elements; across IOS, PC, console, high difficulty games are thriving. Super Meat Boy and Demons' Souls are probably the poster children for white-knuckle, ass-kicking, break-your-controller/keyboard/tablet experiences, and dozens of games have followed in their footsteps, such as Super Hexagon, Hotline Miami, and dozens and dozens of twitchy reflex-testing IOS games. But why? Why do gamers enjoy so many forms of digital torture?

I can't speak for all gamers, but I can speak for myself. For the longest time, I hated difficult games. Perhaps it was my introduction to the more demanding nature of stealth games that began my change in opinion, but the turning point that I'm certain of was Demons' Souls. Getting Demons' Souls was a leap of faith in several aspects. At the time, I didn't really enjoy fantasy games that much, I didn't really like hard games, I had never been a fan of RPGs. But the compelling and intense stories I had read across the internet drove me to give Demons' Souls a change. And I'm glad I did.

Now Demons' Souls is not a roguelike, but I consider it a gateway to the genre, an introduction to the basic elements and mindset needed to enjoy the roguelike genre and perhaps hard games in general. Death is quick, and sudden, and lurking around every corner. You need to be careful and cautious. Recklessness gets you killed. You need to accept that a wrong decision, a lapse in judgement, could make you lose hours of progress. Your life in Demons' Souls is precious and playing foolishly will only mean a quick death.

I think that's perhaps the most critical reason behind the appeal in these games. Life has meaning, death has consequence. The setback is more than a quick load to the last checkpoint. The games demand more from a player. They demand that you improve your skills, actually become a better player. They demand that you play on a knife's edge, where a simple mistake could equal death and failure. It's that slim margin for error, that gives these games true tension, not the manufactured atmospheres of Outlast or Dead Space, but tension that derives from your skills or lack of skills, from the fear of what lies around the next corner or the darkness ahead.

That's roguelikes. In the case of twitch games like Super Hexagon and Hotline Miami or platformers like Super Meat Boy, difficulty breeds a different kind of appeal. The appeal of perfection. Just like roguelikes demand the player's utmost focus and skills, so do these high difficult twitch games. But instead of fear and dread of the unknown, it's the thrill and adrenaline rush of clearing a challenge that defeated you dozens of times before, where each failure hones your skills that much more until you could achieve that white-knuckle perfection. It's seeing your best attempt increase in increments of mere seconds or maybe just fractions of a second. 

Since I played Demons' Souls, I've embraced difficult and challenging games, from myriad precison platformers and reflex games on IOS and PC to a wide variety of roguelikes, rogue-lites, and games with rogue elements. The punishing lessons of defeat and the thrill of victory, of overcoming that overwhelming challenge, is an addictive appeal that few other games or genres can match.

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