Friday, June 26, 2009

Death is Forever

I've played a good number of roguelikes over the last two decades. While NetHack was probably before my time, I was fascinated by Rogue's randomly generated dungeons and I played a large amount of Moria, which, with a town over the dungeon that you could return to, would provide pretty much an exact ASCII template for Diablo. I've completed ADOM twice. What I hadn't done, at least not for a long time, was play these games the way they were originally designed to be played.

In pretty much every roguelike, death is supposed to be final. While you can usually save your game in order to return to it at a later stage, loading the save game deletes it, so you can't go back to it later. If you die, your character is gone forever. That was the idea, at least - due to the simple nature of the games, if you were smart enough to be able to change directories in DOS, you were probably smart enough to figure out how to create a backup of your save game so that you could restore it if your character met an untimely end.

Hobgoblins with clubs are cheap

Recently, I've been playing a version of Dungeon Crawl, a simple roguelike, that uses graphic tiles, making it far easier on the eye if you're old like me and your imagination doesn't work as well as it used to. It has far too many races and classes, but it otherwise adheres fairly close to the classic Rogue template. So, a while back I decided to see how far I could get without the luxury of a backed-up save.

The most obvious observation is that a lot of your characters die on the first level, before they've managed to find any useful equipment or level up enough to gain a reasonable quantity of hitpoints. In fact, they die so often that I soon abandoned my original idea of giving each new character a unique name, and the leaderboard soon started to fill up with doppelgangers (including one amusing case where a character was killed by the ghost of a previous version of himself).

Named goblins are cheap

These first level, five minute deaths aren't a problem, though, you just fire up the game again and hope for a little better luck next time. What really hurts are the losses of characters who have managed to get to level 4 or 5, find a half-decent weapon and discover what a healing potion and remove curse scroll looks like. Death still comes very quickly to these characters, if you get caught in an open area, encounter a tough monster you cannot run away from or just take an unlucky critical hit. I'm still not sure whether the game is unfairly difficult because of the lack of balancing that comes with random layouts, or whether players like myself have just become so conditioned to expect game balancing that we feel we should be able to wade into anything the game throws at us and emerge victorious. Either way, the loss of half and hour or more's play with nothing more than a line on the leaderboard to show for it is a frustrating experience, and usually enough to put you off trying again immediately.

Anyone with a runed scythe is cheap

Eventually, one of my characters, a human fighter, did manage to survive past the first few levels, acquiring a hard-hitting magical sword and a suit of +1 plate mail which drastically increased his survivability. Despite a few scares with a named wizard and an ogre (thank heavens for teleport scrolls), he managed to survive all the way to level 8, and to the first few levels of the Orcish mines, an area I didn't even know existed. At this point, however, I became curious as to what was further on in the game, and very nervous at the thought of losing the only character in the last 30 or so attempts to survive past level 5. After another narrow escape from a swarm of killer bees, I couldn't take the pressure any more and backed-up up my save.

Regenerating hydras are... well, you get the point

Bolstered by the ability to retry an situation until I succeeded, I managed to descend through the Orcish mines, all the way through the Elven Halls and into the Lair of Beasts before I started to tire of the simplicity of the character I was playing. After you find a decent weapon and set of armour, you often end up going long stretches of the game without wanting to change equipment, and as a warrior I was unable to read any of the spell books I was finding. Magic users seem to be far more interesting to play in the later game, but it is far more difficult to keep them alive when starting.

What did I learn from this little experience? Well, the unforgiving nature of most roguelikes is a bit of a two-edged sword. With save backups making the game far more forgiving, the games tend to feel too simple once the novelty of finding some decent items and killing some tougher monsters wears off. On the other hand, with death being the end of your character, they can be far too frustrating for modern gamers to take. Still, if you haven't played one in a while, I recommend giving one a go again, and try playing them the way they were intended to be played. It's an interesting experience, if not a particularly long lasting one.

So here's the question for you: what is the furthest you've ever managed to get in a roguelike without having to save-cheat?


  1. It has occurred to be that a good compromise can be giving the character 3 lives. There is still finality in death, but at least you can afford to be unlucky 3 times.

  2. Well in Dungeon Crawl furthest I can get so far is level 5. Though it doesn't seem to have the addiction factor that ADOM used to. Maybe it's just the fancy graphics though ruining the base gameplay.

    Anyway, can't remember the furtherest I've got, but think it was at least the teens with ADOM.

  3. Well, Kenneth, I think the *furthest* (furtherest isn't really a word, you know) I've ever been was in the 40's in Rogue I think? I can't really remember, I just tried this strategy of running down the stairs whenever I found them. I think I was about level 8 or so and made the 40th level of the dungeon, or something... I once proudly completed ROGUE, but that was a cheat :)

  4. I think I made it as far as 12th level on Adom, with a bard. He had charmed a wolf or something to take the damage for him, so he survived quite well. He ended up dying on the undead level, where those capital V vampires ended his career. Energy drains are cheap!