Influential games sometimes get genres named after them. However, such genre names tend to be unclear. Which feature of the influential game are you referring to? We have “metroidvania” that is sometimes misinterpreted, we had a genre of “Doom clones”, but now they are called with a more descriptive term “first-person shooters”.
Given how unique and influential Rogue and early roguelikes were — unique in at least four aspects, and having influenced about six major genres of games (depending on how you count) — it is not a surprise that everyone defines “roguelike” differently.
There is one thing that I have realized while thinking about what “metroidvania” means. For me, a game is a “metroidvania” if it features a large map to explore, and where new abilities let you open new routes in previously explored areas. You may not agree with this definition, but hopefully you agree that it is a distinct feature that does deserve a name. This idea works great in a platformer, a bit worse in a non-platformer action game, and could work well in a turn-based game too. To me, it makes sense to call it “metroidvania” whether it is a platformer or not, although some players will require metroidvanias to be platformers, or at least action games. Because it makes sense for me to have this word refer only to the “structural/big picture” gameplay mechanics, while completely ignoring the short-term details. Looking from the point of view, it is easy to understand why some people call any permadeath procedurally generated game a “roguelike”, why other people hate this, and why they hate each other — Rogue has a cool structure and even more unique short-term gameplay, but rather than inventing separate words for these two aspects, people keep using the same word “roguelike” for both.
Actually, it is not just these two aspects — Rogue and early roguelikes were quite unique in the following four aspects:
- Short-term gameplay. Rogue is a stepping game (a kind of turn-based grid-based game with single character control). Other short-term gameplay genres include “platformer” and “first-person shooter”. Short-term gameplay genres such as “stepping game” or “platformer” are hard to define.
- Gameplay structure. Rogue is a run-based game, that is, one designed to be played in many runs. Other structural genre is “metroidvania” as defined above.
- Visuals. Rogue is an ASCII game. Other graphics genres include “pixel art” and “photorealistic”.
- Development model. Being free and portable. Roguelikes have a strong culture of being “free software”; I do not know any other genre where free games are actually great, and where the best examples are free.
It is also a dungeon crawler and RPG, but that is less unique. While games often have strong themes, Rogue is quite bland in this aspect.
Do not say these words
It seems that roguelike fans (whatever “roguelikes” they are fans of) are extremely bad at genre naming, sticking to those bad names, and not explaining what they mean well. Here are some words which should be avoided.
Roguelike. The problem is that it is not clear what aspect of Rogue you are referring to. Interestingly, the earliest roguelike definitions said they were free and portable ASCII games, but that definition is no longer used. It is popular to call any run-based game a roguelike — in this case, why not just say run-based instead (just like we no longer call first-person shooters Doom clones)? In the roguelike communities which maintain continuity from the 90’s, it is generally assumed that a roguelike is a run-based stepping game. While it makes more sense than “run-based”, why should we exclude Legerdemain (roguelike except that it is not run-based) or Unexplored (roguelike except that it is an action game)? If you mean a run-based stepping game, probably it is still better to learn the terms “run-based” and “stepping game” and just say “run-based stepping game”.
Roguelite. Sometimes it means “a run-based game with metaprogression” (is it really a genre-defining difference)? Sometimes it means “a game having some, but not all, features of roguelike” (but WHICH ones? usually one would mean specific features, otherwise this is kind of useless, and why should we specifically include games which have ALL the intended features?). Other major problems with this term are that it sounds derisive, and too similar to “roguelike”.
Traditional Roguelike. Suggested by some members of the OG roguelike community as a replacement for “roguelike”. It is still a name based only on a name of a game which says nothing specific; people have been already using “traditional roguelike” for games like Spelunky or Binding of Isaac before the term was coined. Another problem is: the OG roguelike community tends to consider puzzle roguelikes to be roguelikes, but are they really traditional? I do not feel so, and the definition in r/TraditionalRoguelikes agrees with this. This term also gives a negative impression of a genre that shuns innovation.
Turn-Based Roguelike. Long-time roguelike fans say “this is not a roguelike because it is not turn-based!” which is unconvincing (why would a structural genre require turn-based?) and not what we really mean (Slay the Spire and Darkest Dungeon are turn-based, why are you still not satisfied?) Saying “turn-based roguelike” is bad for the same reason. We really mean (usually) a stepping game.
Procedural Death Labirynth. A procedurally generated permadeath game. While it is descriptive, it never caught on, because it is too long and just does not sound good.
Action Roguelike. Some people say “let’s just call these games which are called roguelikes but which we do not consider roguelikes action roguelikes” and are happy, but not all of these are action games. Also, should we really call any run-based action game an action roguelike? It would be better to keep this for games which are “roguelike except action”, such as Diablo or Unexplored.
It still makes sense to call a game roguelike if all important features are still there, just because nobody will say “free run-based stepping ASCII dungeon-crawl RPG”. For example, DRL (previously called Doom the Roguelike) has all these features (and replaces Rogue’s bland theme with the demon-fighting-marine theme from DOOM). DRL is an awesome game, combining an awesome genre, awesome theme, and some innovation too. When it was created, its name made it obvious what it was, which was great. Today, a similar name would be just confusing.
It also still makes sense to call a game roguelike if most of the important features are still there — but then you need to explicitly mention which important feature is replaced. Like “puzzle roguelike” for HyperRogue (has all features except that it is not an RPG), “roguelike platformer” for Spelunky, “action roguelike” for Unexplored (we cannot expect action games to be ASCII, and free is not that important), and so on. Some people claim that “action roguelike” is an oxymoron, but this is not how language really works — even in mathematics, where sticking to formal definitions is especially important, we have the red herring principle. Just remember to mention that missing feature — action roguelikes are not roguelikes just like toy guns are not guns.
So here are the meanings of the descriptive terms used. They are generally meant to be descriptive (not prescriptive), and fuzzy cases are allowed.
Run-based game. A game designed for infinite replayability: to be played in multiple runs, and where you get better and better in subsequent runs. The game is different every run.
- Most run-based games have permadeath. But let’s focus on the positive aspect!
- Multi-player games are almost always run-based. In effect, saying “run-based” is redundant for them. I would like to single out the original deckbuilder Dominion, though, which is an especially good run-based game because it is also procedurally generated.
- Run-based games include Tetris and Minesweeper.
- Traditional roguelikes are run-based, but not all do it well. For example, ADOM has a relatively big number of fixed elements, which make it less fun to play in the run-based way for some people. So it would be a somewhat borderline case.
- There are games where you get better and better by memorizing the levels (most old arcade games, e.g. Pacman, shmups, or Guitar Hero are like this), but these do not count as run-based, because you are always playing the same game.
- The effect of “different game every run” is usually achieved using procedural generation, making “procedural generation” somewhat redundant for run-based games. However, it can be also achieved by having an immense number of human-designed levels (Sudoku), lots of customization options (Risk of Rain), etc.
- Tanya X. Short’s article Never Say Roguelike suggests other possible terms with similar meaning. Some of them sound fine, but they did not seem to catch on. I have taken “run-based” from discussions in the roguelike subreddit.
Procgen (procedurally generated). Technically, this means that the game is generated using a formal procedure, rather than by human input.
- Sometimes this term is used as an euphemism for “randomly generated”. I do not like this trend, especially when people claim that “randomly generated only if it is bad, procedurally generated only if it is good”, but it is not really wrong (random generation is a type of procedural generation), and there is a clear advantage — “randomly generated” sounds like “luck-based” or “chaotic” to some people.
- Single-player run-based games are almost always procgen. In effect, saying “procedurally generated” is usually redundant for them. Risk of Rain is a run-based game with a relatively low level of procgen.
- The procedure need not be executed on a computer — for example, Dominion is procedurally generated (in the basic form, the procedure is simple (you pick 10 random cards from all cards available) but expansions introduce more complex procedures).
- Games like Chess and Go are not procgen. Every game will be different, but this is still a result of human input.
Stepping game. A game where the player controls a single character who moves in discrete steps on a discrete board, and where the environment reacts immediately to your steps. The layout of the board is important to the gameplay.
- Stepping games are (roughly) a subgenre of turn-based games, just like platformers are (roughly) a subgenre of action games. That is a good comparison, because both platformers and stepping games are difficult to define, and in both cases, one could argue whether they are really a subgenre. While to newcomers, stepping games look simple compared to other turn-based games, they reveal their complexity with experience, and fans prefer them to other turn-based games due to their fast-paced nature.
- All classic roguelikes (Rogue, NetHack, ADOM, Angband, DCSS) are stepping games. While puzzle roguelikes (such as Hoplite and broughlikes) focus on stepping more than the ones with focus more on the RPG element, and some pure puzzle games focus on stepping even more, stepping is crucial in all of them.
- HyperRogue is still a stepping game —the map does not need to be a square grid.
- Deadly Rooms of Death is a great example of a stepping game which is not a roguelike.
- Desktop Dungeons is not a stepping game because the map does not really matter (in the way typical to stepping games).
- Slay the Spire is not a stepping game, it is a digital card game.
- Invisible Inc is not a stepping game — even if you play a single character, there is an action point mechanics rather than immediate reaction.
- Darkest Dungeon is not a stepping game. I call its combat style “jRPG-style”, but that is not really a good name, since it has nothing to do with Japan, so a better game would be welcome.
- Turn-based usually means that you can think for as long as you want, but Crypt of the NecroDancer is still a stepping game.
- Sokoban is only borderline stepping, because the environment does not really react to your moves. While very similar to Sokoban, Helltaker is a better example because of its focus on step counting mechanics.
- Stepping game fans enjoy them for their potential of being played as fast as they want. For this reason, good stepping games tend to feature no animation, clear but simple graphics (up to ASCII), and automatization features. Automatization is from “repeat the last move” command from DROD, to auto-explore and auto-play in Brogue and stash travel in DCSS (although some prefer games designed so that automatization is not necessary).
- I have learned the term “stepping game” from Erik Hermansen, the author of DROD (see also here). I have recognized the need for such a term independently —basically, the lack of such a term was the major factor contributing to the roguelike confusion (why traditional roguelike enthusiasts cannot really explain what they mean and why they are annoyed by others calling wild games “roguelikes”). While his motivation is different, it appears that his understanding of “stepping game” is almost exactly the same as what we need. Before finding this, I have thought that “grid-bump” would be cool, but using an already existing term is probably better.
Dungeon Crawl. A game where you explore a labyrinthine environment, fight monsters and collect loot.
- All classic roguelikes are dungeon crawlers. Most games referred to “roguelike” get it right too, because they are also dungeon crawlers.
- The environment does not need to be an actual dungeon, so FTL still counts.
- Slay the Spire is a dungeon crawl. It does not seem to share other features with roguelikes (the original Dominion is already a better run-based game than Slay the Spire), so it makes more sense to call it a dungeon crawl deckbuilder, than roguelike deckbuilder.
ASCII game. A game where the map is drawn using ASCII symbols (letters, #, etc.). This unique style is extremely easy to create for the developers, lets the player use their imagination, or to easily analyze the situation. While technically ASCII is a very limited set of characters (52 English letters, 10 digits, 32 other symbols), using various “extended ASCII” sets is still allowed.
- All classic roguelikes are ASCII games. More modern ones tend to be graphical, but many still have ASCII modes.
- ZZT or ASCII Portal are ASCII games which are not roguelikes.
Permadeath. A game where things have permanent consequences: you have to deal with the consequences of your actions, instead of reloading a saved game or pressing an “undo” button. This is called permadeath because one possible consequence is losing the game (usually “death”).
- I would argue that this should not be a genre classification, but rather the player’s choice. Permadeath scares players away. Most commercial roguelikes make permadeath optional and that is a good thing. If you like the game well enough that you want to master it, you play it as permadeath.
- Still, it is quite important if a game is designed to be fun when played as permadeath. For example, ADOM is designed for permadeath, but is still fun without it (and IMO non-permadeath is a good choice for your first games). On the other hand, games not designed for permadeath (e.g., most non-roguelike RPGs) would be typically too frustrating.
- The “innovation” in early run-based games, like Spelunky, is making the permadeath fun (as in, the game makes lots of sense with permadeath and not much sense without it). Of course not really an innovation because Rogue and some other roguelikes also make permadeath fun, although I would argue that permadeath in the most popular older roguelikes, such as ADOM/NetHack/Angband, is fun only for expert players.