I was having an email conversation with a friend who was trying Spelunky and enjoying it but not really getting what the roguelikes are about. The explanation turned into a proper novel and I realised this might be a good thing to turn into a blog post.
This is pretty much the email taken verbatim with a few typos and formatting fixed. Mostly centered around Spelunky since that was the topic of the conversation, but I think this is applicable to rougelikes in general.
Roguelikes are a different thing, culturally. It took me a long time to understand (and Spelunky was a great help because it put the things I knew into a new perspective -- it being a platformer rather than a dungeon crawler).
Problem is, in a lot of games, not being able to save and load your progress whenever you want system is bad design. In a lot of games, high difficulty + harsh punishment is bad design.
In roguelikes, the whole genre is built on top of that and it's literally the defining factor. Unlike most games of other genres, they do it right though.
Here's what pretty much defines a roguelike and every game of the genre has this in one way or another:
A few elements that aren't intrinsic to roguelikes:
(though they're traditional and still quite common, because of the genre's roots: the old Rogue game for Unix ))
These all work together towards a single goal: to provide a feeling of real danger and real accomplishment in the player.
If you take most other games, you rarely feel any danger. A mistake is a reload away (talking single player games of course, I'm sure you get the sense of real danger and real accomplishments in Counter Strike. But roguelikes do this without relying on other humans).
Sometimes you get to a tense situation and it can feel challenging or you might feel you've accomplished something, but that's usually when the game tricks you into believing that it wasn't carefully designed up front for you to get there.
For example in Portal in the last test-chamber level when you're about to be incinerated, you feel a real anguish and then when you find a place where you portal away, you feel like you've cheated the system! You're awesome! Except it wasn't really you. It was a designer who made that whole thing up up front and given you subtle cues so you can figure it out. Everyone who plays it has the exact same experience. It feels great but it's artificial and really hard to do correctly anyway. Portal is a rare exception where this actually works well.
In roguelikes, the everything's wired up so that you do feel real danger (accentuated by the fact that if you die, all your progress is lost) but you can figure things out and beat them. And you can find ingenious solutions that no one ever thought of or are absolutely not obvious. It produces infinite amount of stories to you can tell -- from horrible deaths to epic wins.
Read this encounter in FTL story by Tom Francis.
Even if you've never played FTL, you'll feel the tension, you'll whoop at every victory and you'll oh-shit on every misfortune. All this, completely unscripted. It just falls out of the game systems and the player's interaction with them.
On top of that, you get infinite replayability. Even if you can design these moments and put them into a "normal" game, there will always be a very limited amount of them. But every playthrough of a roguelike is different. You start with a completely new world. Some of the things may be static (the mines/jungle/ice caves/temple level progression in Spelunky) but most of it isn't. You've no idea if you're allowed to spend bombs willy-nilly or if you need to cling to every last one.
And as the Spelunky daily videos illustrate, even the very same level will be experienced wildly differently by different people. Not just because of their skills, but also because of their varying play styles (someone always robs the shops, someone always tries to collect all the treasure while someone else is more cautious with their resources) and just the utterly inocuous choices such as: do you go left or right? Do you look up at the critical moment to notice the jetpack embedded in the rock?
Now of the five elements, I think the first (procedural generation) and third (tactics) are the easier to grasp and accept as good.
Number 5. you'll understand. Magic: The Gathering uses it to a great extent, too: you can kill your own creature in order to play a spell that requires you to do so for a desirable side effect. MTG is built upon the complex interaction between systems and items. It's complex enough that you probably won't be able to see all of the possible combinations at once. Which leads surprises where everything seems fucked up, but you figure out that if you do this and that and you move this over here and play that ability, you'll totally get out of the doom. Roguelikes are the same.
The most controversial I think are the permadeath and the hunger clock.
Hunger clock is a mechanism that always pushes you forward. In the original Rogue it was literally hunger: if you didn't eat regularly, you died. But every level had a limited amount of food so you couldn't afford to explore the whole thing at your leisure, you had to constantly go deeper and deeper to the floors below. FTL has the pursuing fleet -- again, you can't explore every star system on the map. You always have to balance "can I go there and hope to find equipment or money" with "omg they're on my fucking ass". Spelunky has the ghost. All this is there to create tension.
If you could just comfortably explore every single bit of every area and collect every last bit of the treasure, there would be no tension. You'd just always do that. You'd be silly not to! But that means a whole range of decisions would be taken from you: "can I risk going there? The ghost will be here any second now, but there's soooo much good shit there!". This leads to the epic stories of flawless victories, narrow escapes or horrible defeat. Every step of the way you have to balance whether to explore more or go further down. Both have risks and benefits and both can fuck you up.
But roguelikes are by definition not designed to collect every single bit of the treasure. The hunger clock is specifically there to prevent you from doing that -- or at least not without significant risks. E.g. skilled players can avoid the ghost easily and even use it to gain insane amounts of money. But it's still risky and if you make a mistake, you're dead.
And so that's what permadeath is there for. If you could just save the game just before making that hard jump where you have to avoid a bat mid-air or right before the ghost comes so you can ghost-mine the level dry, everyone would do that. Again, they'd be silly not to. Then, just like in almost every other game, the death wouldn't be a real punishment for your mistakes or your greed. It would be an annoying setback. It would mean you having to repeat the same section again and again until you succeed or give up.
Which would have two effects:
I stopped playing platformers because of this. I loved jumping around and exploring the world, but every time I failed to make a tricky jump or kill a boss or whatever, I'd just have to repeat the same shitty situation all over until I finally got it right. Not fun at all.
The same thing with the bosses in say Alpha Protocol or The Witcher or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I hated those parts of the games. Because it was completely contrary to my preferred play style (avoid conflicts using stealth and cunning) and they were really hard (I'm clumsy when it comes to precision motor control and quick reaction). And every time I made a mistake, the game punished me for having to do the same part (the most boring and frustrating and un-fun part) fucking again. I love playing RPGs because they give me the choice of dealing with things my way. I don't generally like combat so I prefer non-combat solutions. And then the game forces things I don't like on me and says I have to fucking do them until it's satisfied to let me go further. Fuck everything about that.
And while say Spelunky has all the dangerous monsters and deadly falls and pits and traps and tricky jumps and bats and frogs, if you fail (and you will fail) it will not force you to do the same fucking thing all over again until you do it right. In fact, you can't play the same fucking thing again. Instead, you're dumped into a new world with a completely different layout and items and puzzles. And that world is exactly as fun as the previous one. Only now you know you'll use a fucking rope instead of trying that insane jump. And bomb the shit out of the Tiki trap.
Which is why I'll probably spend months if not years playing Spelunky after I'd given up on all platformers. Because by the mere virtue of being a roguelike, Spelunky fixed everything that was wrong with all the platformers I've ever played.
And it forces you to get better and actually master the game.
You can easilly write a bot that would finish Super Mario. All you need to do is to program it to press the right sequence of keys. Just "hold left for 1 second, jump, wait for 0.3 secs, jump, hold left for 2 seconds, ...". With Spelunky, you can't do that. You have to teach your muscles how to whip a bat so you can do it reliably every time and from every direction even around spikes and idols or when there are two bats coming at you from the opposite directions. So there's a lot of genuine skill you can train and master.
You need to learn the lore of the game: that whipping an idol triggers the boulder. That using a web gun can allow you to climb places without having to use a rope. That every snake pit has a mattock at the bottom. That every undead level has a shotgun under the Ash's grave.
And that bringing the key to the chest will give you the Udjat-Eye that will blink near the Black market entrance burried somewhere in the jungle, where you can buy Ankh for $50k (or try and steal it) and when you bring the Ankh unused (read: without dying) to the 2nd or 3rd level of the ice caves (the one with the massive statue of an Eastern-island-like head) you can kill yourself there to get the Hedjet. And having that, when you then kill the Anubis on the first temple level and bring his sceptre to the golden entrance on the second level, you'll get into the CITY OF FUCKING GOLD where literally the whole level is made of gold and when you find and take the Book of the dead there and kill the Anubis The Second, it will show you an entrance to hell on the Olmec's level and if you kill the Olmec (the boss) at the right place right above the entrance you'll be able to descend into this whole new set of levels that are harder than ANYTHING BEFORE and you'll die 5 seconds in the first time you get there and if you survive THAT and kill the FINAL boss, you'll have really completed the game. Well, discounting the special levels like the Haunted castle or the Worm level.
And then you learn about the Eggplant run which means doing all this but all the while carrying this incredibly rare item (that you get if you sacrifice a present on Kali's altar) that you have to carry in hand (so no shotgun, etc.) and that's incredibly fragile so if you fall from a great height or drop it or do anything at all with it, it will just burst. And that this is something that took literally years for all the gamers in the world to figure out what to even do with it and there's literally one person in the world who has managed to do this so far and he did it in September 2013 which is literally a few months back and it was thought impossible since the whole eggplant thing was designed for the co-op and not even the authors of the game thought it'd be possible to do this in the single player mode.
That's what roguelikes are about.
Now think what restarting when you don't like the seed (which is, like, what? The first level can be utter shit followed by a free jetpack on the level two plus a shotgun and a bomb box) or "save scumming" (where you copy the save over so it doesn't get deleted) does to this whole experience you're supposed to have with these games.
Imagine modding an FPS so that enemies don't hurt you and they die on a single hit. I mean, it's still a game. And it's fun if you're into that kind of thing. But it's a completely different experience than what the game was really supposed to be about.
So that was like ten times longer than I expected to be. I tried my best to explain to you how roguelikes work and why they are the way they are. And you still might not end up liking them that much. I don't think I'll ever warm up to sport games or racing. But there's a good chance you might come to understand and love them for what they are. And they are a very special thing. Just quite different from the way most other games work and it takes a while to truly get that.