The Greatest Crawl of All
When a friend of mine showed me a prototype for a rogue-like he was working on, a good old fashioned rogue-like, with ASCII symbols in place of graphics, I remember being sufficiently impressed by his prowess and acumen, and utterly unimpressed by the format itself. His computations were complex and well out of my reach (he has since put childish things aside and gone on to master philosophy, physics, and the philosophy of physics in the academic arena), and there was no arguing with the fact that his game worked. But, and I am now somewhat ashamed to admit this, I simply failed to understand the appeal.
The archaic visuals, if you could call them visuals, seemed senseless (why not something a bit more showy, like on my spanking new Playstation 2), but I understood why he’d employed them, and why others continued to do so for years to come. Custom assets, even for someone with proper training, are a pain in the butt. Just as I was a layperson when it came to science and mathematics, he was a layperson when it came to visual art. This limitation, I could forgive. The rogue-like favored the programmer over the artist. Very few people can be both.
The slow pace of exploration and the deliberately inflicted sense of disempowerment were, on the other hand, truly beyond my understanding. I loved my role playing games, of course, but I loved them partly because I could build up my characters in the way that I wanted to, and partly because they did provide me with a fantasy of power and, more importantly, of progress. I got to advance the story, and I got to keep my avatars. They’d wait for me, strange, magical costumes that I could slip into after school, costumes through which I could be someone and somewhere else. Rogue-likes, while ostensibly RPGs by every true criterion, seemed to purposefully exclude the very aspects of the genre that I was drawn to the most.
I was, in my defense, in high school at the time, and this was well before the indie revolution, well before a game’s perceived quality became (at least in the eyes of serious critics) mostly divorced from its position on the generational time-line (yesterday was fine, but today is better, and tomorrow will be the best). I was also dealing with my first major bout with depression (or at least the first one that I recognized as such). I had an inkling even then, as I know now, that a depressive needs to be careful about what they consume, what they come in contact with. The flat blackness of a dungeon I couldn’t even see didn’t seem like a welcoming place for someone who had just begun a lifelong, or so it would seem, struggle with darkness, blindness, the sense of being hopelessly weighed down and boxed in. And, to be fair, I was right. At least at the time, it was easier, safer, to retreat to fantasies of power, of saving the world (or destroying it), of being, mostly, okay.
A bit over a decade later, however, and I’m on something of rogue-like kick. I can’t seem to get enough of dungeons and dungeon crawls. While depression remains an issue, there is just something so compelling, powerful, evocative about the concept. Something draws me in, perhaps in spite of myself. Down, down, down I go. And although I can’t quite hack Nethack (the advent of the rogue-lite, of more eye catching graphics, of more readable and user friendly interfaces, had a lot to do with my conversion), I do, indeed, “get it” now. I see the light, or maybe the darkness. I see what the fuss was about. It’s an acquired taste, I suppose, like coffee, or cigarettes, or beer (I still don’t, and probably never will, “get” beer). And that’s okay. Sometimes it just takes time, and growth, and experience. Sometimes it takes a tougher shell, the understanding that virtual things can’t, or at least shouldn’t, cause real pain. Ten years have passed, and I can finally understand that challenge can be its own reward, that defeat can be the best teacher, and so on and so forth. I can understand the joys and terrors of getting lost, the thrill of a record run, the wonder of discovering a new world every single time (there are chambers and passageways that the neither I nor anyone will ever see again). Plus, rogue-likes go well with podcasts. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. Comedy, mostly, especially when things get tough. So I’ve been playing a lot of rogue-likes.
I’ve also been playing a lot of indie games. As a budding, no-name games critic, I’ve been making a point of delving further, and deeper, into the independent scene than I have before, of investigating (or attempting to) the true grass roots of the form. And it is by virtue of this confluence that I discovered, and played, Daniel Linssen’s Roguelight. It seemed a perfect point of intersection: two birds, one stone.
Roguelight is a small game, a modest game, a simple game. It was developed for the recently concluded GBjam3 (Game Boy Jam Three) and, as is the case with the very best jam games, it uses its limitations as its primary building blocks.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a jam, it is, quite simply, a time limited, community-powered game development challenge, similar to National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo), but for video games. Unlike NaNoWriMo, jams happen all the time, and vary widely in length and ruleset. Some, like the One Game a Month jam, have a very loose set of guidelines. One Game a Month runs continually, and while there’s a new optional theme every month, the only real rule is that there are no rules, and the core of the challenge is simply to release a new game, of whatever length or quality, every month.
The Game Boy Jam is a great deal more limited, a great deal more specific. It is also a great deal shorter. As the name implies, participating entrants must make an original game in the style and format of the Game Boy. That means a limited resolution(160 x 144 pixels), and, perhaps most importantly, a limited color scheme. It also means, or at least strongly implies, pixel art (which I personally rather love in general). GBjam3 ran from August 1st to August 10th. All assets used in eligible games had to have been made during that ten day period.
Alone in the Dark
Daniel Linssen’s entry is not the only notable or impressive game in this year’s crop. In fact, the amount of talent, artistry, and ingenuity on display is heartening. If the majority of the entries are representative of what individuals and small teams can do in just over a week, the future of the medium looks bright indeed. Small, simple, and modest though it may be, there is no question that Roguelight is exceptionally well crafted, with striking pixel art that truly makes a strength out of the four color limitation, decently responsive controls, and clean, professional looking animations. But that’s not why I felt compelled to single it out and dedicate an article to it. There is a wealth of gems out there, all of them worth a discussion. It’s just that Roguelight, as a game, as a simple, interactive work of art, as an experience in its own right, well outside of the festive jam context, managed to strike me on a very visceral, very personal level.
In part, this game is compelling in precisely the way that a good game should be. Its narrative and its mechanics are tightly, inextricably bound. It is a perfect coupling. One cannot exist without the other. And the result of that coupling, in this particular case, got me (as a very specific individual) right where it hurt, mostly in a good way. It is, in a sense, one of the most interesting games I’ve played in a very long while, and one of the most elegantly affecting. Roguelight isn’t the first game to utilize, and investigate, lighting as a core mechanic, and it certainly isn’t the first procedurally generated game set in an archetypal dungeon. But it is the first rogue-like (or rogue-lite) that’s actually made me feel, and understand, the very concept of “the dungeon,” of what it is, what it means, what it represents.
I enjoy Rogue Legacy and Spelunky quite a bit (like the game in question, they are both side-view platformers with procedurally generated levels), but they have, for the most part, been welcome, pulpy distractions. Roguelight on the other hand, is a harrowing, emotionally challenging journey through oppressive darkness. The weight and depth of the dungeon is palpable, and it is suffocating.
On a formal level, it is clear that Linssen has not merely embraced but mastered the restrictions of the challenge. There is a sort of alchemy at work here, a subtle transmutation. In a work of art, every component has its own read, independent from the whole. At least that’s what I’d been taught. Sometimes the artist seeks harmony, and sometimes the artist seeks dissonance. Just about every artist has had the experience of seeking one and stumbling onto the other, whether for good or for ill. In the case of Roguelight, every component, from the pervasive darkness, to the elegantly stylized blocks and character sprites (the protagonist oddly innocent, doomed, determined, the enemies alien and mindless), to the core mechanics themselves (shoot flaming arrows both to kill enemies and illuminate a small area, collect more arrows when possible, negotiate the shadows, try not to die, find the pit that leads you to the next level…deeper down), serves to reinforce a singular, powerful effect. The only externally imposed limit that doesn’t quite serve the piece is, I suppose, the lack of a full screen option. But even with my desktop and browser in full view, the bleak atmosphere of the game’s world seemed to smother and overwhelm me.
As I played on (and I felt compelled to play on), I found myself both immersed and terrified. It reminded me of a recurring night terror I used to have as a child, wherein I was trapped, sometime in the inscrutable, wild wee hours, on some unknown landing of an endlessly sprawling Moscow tenement (there were no carpeted lobbies in most Moscow tenements, just tile, and cement, and filth encrusted garbage disposal chutes), and no matter what I did, I couldn’t find my way either to my family’s apartment or to the outside world (we lived in building 50, unit 50, an accidental literary in-joke). At one point in the nightmare, I realized that I was deep underground. I remember experiencing a primal fear, not of any particular monster or consequence, but simply of being alone in the dark and the filth, alone with no hope of rescue, no hope of escape. That, I suppose, is what dungeons, real dungeons, outside of the cartoonified and romanticized fantasy paradigm, are like. That’s what dungeons are about.
To advance from one level to the next, Roguelight’s nameless heroine must plunge into a long, dark pit. An oubliette, I realize. Oubliette after oubliette. There was no cutscene to explain my situation. The very fact of my being down there was story enough. It was me against the darkness…and the traps, and the flying skeletons, and the pacing hooded figures, none of whom seemed especially interested in me. There was no indication of how far below the earth I was, or even if I was below the earth at all (I could, perhaps, have been descending a tower). Not since the original Prince of Persia has a video game made me feel quite so claustrophobic, quite so weighted down and oppressed by architecture and infrastructure. The effect was downright brutal, at least in my personal engagement with the game, but it was also powerful, evocative. It didn’t merely speak to my childhood fears. It spoke to the uncertainty and pain of being, or trying to be (to become?) an adult.
Monsters and Mazes
A little while ago, I’d played through Depression Quest (by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler, now available on Steam) and then spent the remainder of my night staring at the ceiling in an agonized stupor. The game was a candid, straight forward, and painfully realistic depiction of depression. I probably shouldn’t have played it. It came with a trigger warning, and the website even suggested that the game was meant primarily for non-sufferers, as an educational tool, as a way to demonstrate a very difficult to convey state of mind. I really appreciate Depression Quest for what it manages to accomplish, which, I think, is just that (assuming the non-sufferer comes to it with an open mind). And I think it was worth the bad memories, the choking fear of long term relapse, the heavy breathing and darkening that sometimes comes with an especially powerful trigger, to experience it. But I’d have to agree with the warning. I don’t think Depression Quest is for people who suffer from depression. Not really. They don’t need the simulation. They have the real thing.
A game like Roguelight, on the other hand – firmly based in fantasy and nightmare as it is, set in that Jungian dream space, that phenomenological memory construct – might be a bit more appropriate. For me, it became a sort of symbolic Depression Quest, a simplified parable that helped me make sense of those troubled, oppressive states of mind, those seemingly impossible slogs through the dark. It was all so familiar: the monsters, the shadows, the limited supply of deployable light sources, the risk of proceeding without illumination, without knowing what’s out there, without knowing if there’s an end to it at all, and whether it’s an end worth reaching in the first place. That’s what dungeons are really like. That’s what dungeons are about. Dungeons are bleak, deep, and all pervasive. Dungeons are about entrapment, about a loss of control.
Sometimes, of course, a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a small, simple, modest game is just a small, simple, modest game. It is possible that I’m reading too much into it. It’s possible that the clearly talented Mr. Linssen had merely set out to do exactly that, to make an engaging, interesting rogue-like platformer in the time available to him and with the resources available to him. He has, of course, succeeded on that account. But it is very unlikely that he didn’t consider the implications of what he was making or had made. Every formal aspect of his creation is simply too well considered, too thoughtfully executed. I strongly suspect that the conceptual aspects of the game received similar consideration. Ultimately, however, the reading takes precedence over authorial intent, each and every time. And I cannot shake, cannot see my way past, my own reading.
Roguelight is a great little game, but it’s also melancholic and, in some ways, punishing. I am not absolutely sure why I kept playing as long as I did. Perhaps it had something to do with games being theoretically winnable. By practicing, by learning its dangers and quirks, I could, and did, do better and better each time. There is hope of beating the darkness, isn’t there? That’s not something that ordinary life, where years of effort could come to nothing, where you might be fine one day and broken the next, can guarantee. Perhaps it had something to do with the dungeon itself, the pitch black, truly stifling, truly frightening dungeon, the dungeon as effective metaphor, the dungeon as the centerpiece of an ever changing artwork, the dungeon as symbol, and the symbol as catharsis.