What “Roguelike” Meant

Several recently released games have rekindled the old discussions on the meaning of the word “roguelike”. This post is an attempt to document how the meaning of this term has changed historically.

Roguelikes have evolved separately from mainstream video games: while mainstream games focused on features that sell well, roguelikes were made by skilled programmers who wanted to create games interesting for themselves, and share them with other people with similar tastes. The term was never defined well, with every player using it according to their own feelings; for this reason, I have decided to make this quite subjective. Also, much of the emphasis is put on the community — since the roguelikes tend to be ignored by mainstream media, the fans gathered in online communities, which have been crucial for the evolution of the genre.


The Beginnings (1993)


Early Years (1994)

(1) free —partially: Valhalla was a commercial release of Ragnarok, which was shareware

(2) dungeon crawl — partially: the first major part of the game took part in a forest, although dungeons were prominent too

(3) character display — no: it had simple graphics (although you still can see some letter notation in the map above)

(4) permadeath — partially: while in a roguelike you typically you could not reload your older savefile when something bad happens, and start a new game if defeated, Valhalla featured an “expert mode” with very resticted saving, and a “beginner mode” where you could create a reloadable save every 200 turns. Still, the game was balanced for permadeath.

Yet, the Roguelike FAQ still considered it a roguelike. As it should — the actual gameplay was very similar to NetHack. It was

  • turn-based (played in turns, like Chess)
  • grid-based (played on squares, like Chess, positioning matters)
  • non-modal (battles took part during exploration, rather than in a separate screen)
  • the details of its world were randomly generated
  • and it had quite a lot of other minor similarities.

It had some weird conventions, like you could press the ‘!’ key to see all your potions (this was weird for me, but for roguelike fans it should be obvious — ‘!’ looks like a bottle, and was a typical potion symbol in ASCII roguelikes). I wanted to create my own game like Valhalla. Many minor roguelikes have been created around that time, such as Alphaman, a 1995 game set in the post-apocalyptic future when Donald Trump became the president. The Roguelike FAQ also includes Crossfire which probably would not be called a roguelike now, although I guess that the definition is loosened for multiplayer games.

Diablo (1997)

Reviewers did recognize it as a great game, and that it required a new classification — the light story, focus on combat, and randomness made it quite different from typical RPGs. If they recognized that these traits were taken directly from roguelikes, “action roguelike” would probably mean a game similar to Diablo nowadays; however, they did not, so the new genre was called “action RPG”.

More Roguelikes (1998–2001)

Some roguelike definitions from around 1999–2001 could be found on the ADOM website and on Petri Kuittinen’s site.

On Darren Hebden’s site, a list of over 100 roguelikes could be found. There are some omissions that I consider very interesting:

  • Beneath Apple Manor, a 1978 game. It came out before Rogue, but it had all the roguelike gameplay elements, invented independently.
  • Castle of the Winds, a shareware game published in 1993. It was quite popular. if somebody remembered they played some roguelike in the 90’s, the answer was usually Castle of the Winds.
  • Mission Thunderbolt, developed in 1986 on mainframe computers, and released commercially for Windows and Mac in 1992. I have played it around 2010 and it was a really great roguelike, with quite good graphics for its time, great innovative ideas, and optional permadeath. It is sad how unknown this game is.

Soon I have started participating a bit in the roguelike communities, for example here I have created a list of features which are typical to roguelikes, but are rare in other games. It was noticed that my list was slanted towards “hacklikes”; I am not a fan of Nethack itself, but a big fan of ADOM and Valhalla. People recognized that roguelikes are difficult to define. Some games started to appear which were a bit difficult to classify: Decker is a cyberpunk game that I did not consider a roguelike because it had completely different tactics.

DRL (2002)

RogueBasin (2005)

7DRL (2005)

Dwarf Fortress (2006)

Temple of the Roguelike (2007)

IRDC and Berlin Interpretation (2009)

(1) they only knew the games existing at that time, and some features were given too much or not enough weight (just like the original 1993 definition which cared about being free, portable and character display). Soon after, new innovations were created, bringing lots of confusion.

(2) the feeling of being a roguelike is quite elusive, it is more like I know it when I see it rather than some specific list of features.

Spelunky (2009)

Desktop Dungeons (2011)

IRLDb (2011)

Around 2011 the roguelike community has started shifting from the web forums (such as RogueTemple) to the roguelike subeddit. While the RogueBasin is still updated, the IRLDb ratings mostly show the state around 2011. Most roguelike fans have tried Angband and NetHack, but they are not considered to be that good by modern roguelike players. They prefer newer major roguelikes, such as ADOM (very popular and rated quite highly) or DCSS (even more popular and more highly rated). Spelunky is also rated very highly. Cogmind and Caves of Qud have already existed by then, but they are (almost) not rated yet. They are extremely popular today.

Faster Than Light (2012)

Rogue Legacy (2013)

It does not make too much sense from the point of view of traditional roguelike communities. Most roguelike players seem to see the lack of meta-progression as an advantage — winning DCSS for the first time after playing it for half a year was a great feeling, that could not be achieved in a meta-progression game, where it is never sure whether you win because you have mastered the game, or because the game let you. However, NetHack (and other hacklikes) had the “bones” feature, where you could find the remains of a previous adventurer, with all their equiment, which also could make the further games easier. Sproggiwood, ToME, or One Way Heroics have meta-progression, and they still do feel like roguelikes to us.

Risk of Rain (2013)

Darkest Dungeon (2016)

I have not played Darkest Dungeon myself, but I have seen its roguelike, or even roguelite, nature challenged because it does not really have permadeath in roguelike sense. Your characters die, but they are more of expendable resources, your run does not end, you will win your first run. Furthermore, according to the complaints, the game is very repetitive, which the randomness of roguelikes aims to avoid.

Slay The Spire (2017–2019)

From my point of view, the name “roguelike deckbuilder” does not make much sense. The event-based structure is an innovation from FTL, which goes against the traditional roguelike style of being non-modal. The combat system feels more like a jRPG; when playing jRPGs, I felt that the combat system (and its modality) was the major thing which separated them from roguelikes. Slay the Spire is run-based, but this is not an innovation, as all deckbuilders are! At least, every game of Dominion you play will be completely different. Something like “dungeon crawl deckbuilder” (Dominion is not a dungeon crawl) would make more sense.

The War is Over? (2020)

While it is hard to fight the language change, I will exhibit some problems with the popular conventions.

  • For some people, any game with permadeath and procedural generation is a “roguelike”. But it is not clear to me why these people even need this term. It is not a cool word: it was originally chosen as “the least of all available evils”. The main thing that all games called “roguelike” share is that they are run-based: the game is designed so that you play it many times. Randomness is a good way to make this interesting, but it is not necessary —in Risk of Rain, randomness is limited, and it is still fun. For some time, we had a “doom clone” genre, which was eventually renamed to the more descriptive “first-person shooter”, and I think we should similarly refer to run-based games as “run-based”. This would include games like Tetris, but it does not seem to be a problem, because these games are fun for the same reason as roguelikes are. Roguelike-like and roguelite did not catch, because they are too vague, and too similar to “roguelike”. Especially that there are like five significantly different meanings of “roguelike” commonly used, so why not just say exactly what you mean if you can.
  • On the other hand, we need a word for a “roguelike” in the traditional meaning. There are people who want to play a game in this particular style, and game developers who create such games and want to quickly tell what it is. When “Doom the Roguelike” was released, the name made it perfectly clear what it was (as long as you have played any roguelike and Doom). HyperRogue is a roguelike taking place in non-Euclidean geometry; since roguelikes share their classic chess-like gameplay, they also share some basic strategies, and the change of geometry brings a new twist on them. It is annoying that such things would not be clear anymore. The original word was already bad, the least of all available evils, and run-based people have stolen it, even though they did not need it.
  • Also, it seems that being run-based, while important, is not the most important quality of traditional roguelikes — commercial traditional roguelikes usually dropped it, others are still fun if you were cheating permadeath.
  • It is not clear whether so-called “roguelikes” are actually a genre. Slay the Spire, Darkest Dungeon, Spelunky, FTL are very different games. Why should they be a genre while, say, “games where you can pet a dog” are not?
  • It is suggested that “Traditional roguelike” should be used for the original meaning. There are some issues with this idea. Some people started calling Spelunky a “traditional roguelike” even before this term was coined. Furthermore, “traditional” suggests lack of innovation; I would not call HyperRogue, or mostly any other puzzle roguelike, “traditional”. Some people do not consider puzzle roguelikes to be roguelikes; I am fine with this, but it appears that the majority of the community does. The alternative for “traditional roguelike” is “action roguelike”, which would not include turn-based games which are not traditional roguelikes, and also does not include Diablo for some reason, even though it is more similar to the tradition.
  • It seems that most roguelike fans accept using “roguelike“ as an adjective, for example “roguelike platformer” or “roguelike first-person shooter”. While slightly confusing, this makes sense: a game is a combination of two genres, it has all the properties of the genre appearing as a noun, and the compatible properties of the genre appearing as an adjective. We can also have “first-person shooter roguelike” (DRL) or “platformer roguelike” (a grid-based turn-based game where the structure of the level is similar to that of a platformer, e.g. Fuel or Bump). Although some people do this incorrectly (e.g. “deckbuilding roguelike” is wrong, “roguelike deckbuilder” is better).
  • It appears that the people who argue that roguelike means something different now have never (or almost never) played a roguelike in traditional sense. They think it is a tiny thing, or its rules are too specific to be a genre (there is about a thousand of games satisfying the criteria, and there are several subgenres, like hacklikes, puzzle roguelikes and broughlikes), very niche one (I know lots of people who play them — they are just not represented in more mainstream game media; while the part of the gaming audience who pays the most money would not be likely to enjoy them, you don’t need to be some kind of ultra-nerd either), less influential than classics such as Spelunky (roguelikes inspired three major genres, Spelunky inspired just one). There is no rational reason not to try a roguelike, especially if you want to be an expert on game design! Roguelikes would not inspire that many great games if they were not great games themselves. The best ones are free, they respect the player’s time, and players who try them are often amazed. DRL and DCSS are quite approachable. Since roguelikes are not based on state-of-the-art graphics, older roguelikes are still great, although the design of NetHack or Angband may feel too old today.
  • It is argued that traditional roguelike fans do not recognize that the language changes. We do: the 90’s definition, Berlin Interpretation and the current meaning are very different. If you went to the roguelike subeddit and said “Haque is not a roguelike because it is not free and has no character display”, you would probably be downvoted, just like if you said that Binding of Isaac is a roguelike.
  • On the other hand, while it is good that the current definitions does not include things like “free” and “character display”, these things are an important part of the roguelike culture. Roguelikes were not made for money, they were often made because the dev was not satisfied by any games “on the market”, and created a game for themselves; no graphics were made, because they were irrelevant. If your tastes were similar, you would also find these games much better than anything on the market. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to be paid for your work, this approach has made things possible that were not possible commercially: traditional roguelikes were extremely complex games, which would not be possible if the devs had to create graphics for everything. While the original Spelunky is also free, almost no further run-based games are. It is sad to see the term originally created for free games evolve into an essentially meaningless marketing term.

Mathematics, game development, art, roguelikes, hyperbolic geometry. Sometimes all at once.

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