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Rogue co-creator: permadeath was never supposed to be 'about pain'

The creators of Rogue mused over the true meaning of the roguelike genre this weekend, and offered some insight into their permadeath implementation that they feel needs a revamp.

“We were trying to make it more immersive by making things matter, but not to make it more painful. It was really meant to make it more fun: ‘this thing matters, so I’m going to think about this.’”

Rogue co-creator Michael Toy

What defines a roguelike? It’s a somewhat frequently debated question that pops up as more and more games claim the monikor on Steam, each with different variations on procedurally generated gameplay and different takes on permadeath. 

At Roguelike Celebration this weekend, the question was put to the test during a panel that included Rogue co-creators Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold. According to Kotaku’s Tony Carnavale, the three developers mused over the question for a moment, before moving on to a more salient one: are modern roguelikes using permadeath in the way the trio originally intended? 

For context, Wichman first commented that most people remembering Rogue described permadeath as a system that was meant to make the game difficult or painful. “When people talk about permadeath, they talk about us three being mean…[but] permadeath is [just] an example of ‘consequence persistence.’”

As Wichman explained, permadeath wasn’t implemented in Rogue as the ultimate trial of player skill, it was meant to be akin to other, more common decisions in the game that had unchanging, lasting consequences. It wasn’t meant to be a signifier of permanent, painful failure.

“If I can save the game and then drink the potion and—oh, it’s bad—then I restore the game and I don’t drink the potion,” Wichman says, describing a hypothetical game using permadeath. “That entire game mechanic just completely goes away.”

More important to the roguelike genre, Wichman says, is simply the inability to undo decisions that lead to death, rather than permanently stopping someone’s playthrough. He even challenged the audience to think of a new way to describe this system. “Permadeath is not the right name for that, so that’s my homework to all of you: come up with a better name.”

Wichman’s musings about permadeath (and saying it needs to be viewed more in comparison to the ‘good’ decisions a player can make and not undo) are certainly food for thought about designing roguelike games. Be sure to check out Kotaku’s full article on Roguelike Celebration for more thoughts from the developers who spoke at the show. 

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