I stumbled across Rogue in its MS-DOS incarnation when I bought an original Compaq portable back in the 1980s. Spawned originally on the Unix, the MS-DOS version I played added color sprites, but still rendered levels, monsters, and characters in ASCII. I spent endless hours creating new characters, pushing further into the dungeon, losing them, and starting over.
Maybe that’s why the current craze for rogue-like games holds little appeal for me.
Rogue-like games span a variety of genres today. Invisible, Inc., is a turn-based, tactical spy thriller game, in which your team infiltrates enemy strongholds in the name of loot, new personnel, information, or story clues. Sunless Sea puts you into the role of a seagoing explorer in a weird, underground ocean full of strange creatures and even stranger inhabitants. Even the standard dungeon crawl has evolved — Darkest Dungeon puts your party to the test mentally as well as physically, where moody environments and horrifying encounters wear them down and give them odd quirks.
In a rogue-like game, your characters die repeatedly. The supposed charm lies in advancing the story or leveling up your abilities in the next incarnation of your character or party. Some add additional layers, such as growing the hamlet in Darkest Dungeon. In fact, some fans of Darkest Dungeon don’t believe “rogue-like” applies to Darkest Dungeon, since you have a growing stable of characters who change over time. Having had to start over multiple times due to party wipes, I’m not sure I agree.
I also obsessed over Sunless Sea, a wonderfully atmospheric rogue-like in which you take your ship and crew into a strange, underground ocean populated by nightmarish creatures, enchanted islands, and mysterious characters. The atmosphere alone kept me playing for weeks, but the inability to progress after a series of restarts took the shine off. Sunless Sea combines a mix of Victoriana and Lovecraft (Lovecraftian Victoriana?), including some lovely mini-stories along the way, as when you mediate the war between the Cavies and Rats on Pigmote Island, or tackling the mystery of the Sisters on Hunter’s Keep. But eventually, the tedium of having to do it all over again wore on me.
People who know me know how much I enjoy tactical, turn-based combat games that include good stories. I’ve played Jagged Alliance 2 numerous times, loved the recent Shadorun games from Harebrained Schemes, and am currently clocked in at over 100 hours on XCOM 2. So when Invisible, Inc. first came out, it seemed like exactly my cup of tea. After wrapping up the story in about three hours, I realize the point of the game is to ratchet up the difficulty and play again. And again. And… well, no thanks. The tactical combat engine in Invisible, Inc. features a tight, elegant design that’s a blast to play, but I need more chrome in my stories.
In the end, I’m still not completely sure why I find this style of game off-putting. Does the chrome of the XCOM 2 story really matter when I play it the second time around? Or maybe it’s the necessity to play through that beginning part over and over again that grates on me. So while I can appreciate a rogue-like game’s atmosphere, gameplay mechanics, and other features, there’s something about the general structure of these games which offer limited appeal for me. More power to people who love and play these games, but I’m giving up. I just can’t start over again.