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Rogue Civilization

While most games speak to our desires as individuals, Rogue-likes speak to our desires as members of groups, from groups as small as families, to groups as large as civilizations.

James Youngman, Blogger

February 27, 2015

4 Min Read

Things are very good for lovers of Rogue-likes (or as Lars Doucet calls these modern iterations, Procedural Death Labyrinths). These games are currently the spotlight genre, at least amongst indie developers. As a lover of these games myself, I'm very happy to see them getting more attention, both from developers and players. While the spotlight will eventually move on to other genres, I suspect that, as happened with RPGs in the mid-2000s, mechanics and concepts from Rogue-likes will find their way into the broader game design tool box. Of course, some would say that this has already happened, thus the Procedural Death Labyrinth (PDL) nomenclature.


When and if that happens, I'll find it a bit amusing. After all, that process is pretty similar to the meta-game that is central to the PDL experience itself. You venture out, succeed as best as you can, learning about the world and its rules as you advance, until eventually those rules lead to your defeat. Then you dive back in, emboldened by your superior skill and knowledge, cutting away strategies that failed, doubling down on strategies that worked, and experimenting further and the new frontiers of your knowledge created by your previous runs. This meta-game is hugely important to PDL games. Since each session of the game itself only exists as long as it is being played, progression must happen in between gameplay sessions.


The meta-game-based progression in PDLs is more than just good game design, and more than just a sly bit of foreshadowing of the future of the genre. Part of why PDLs have become so popular, I believe, is that the meta-game progression speaks to our understanding of civilization. Most gamers live in nations that are WEIRD, in the sense that Jonathan Haidt means: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Nations for which this is true tend to treat the individual as the unit of society. Most games take a WEIRD worldview as well: The player character (or party) is the central figure of the game (and frequently its world) and success for that character is success for the player is success for the story.


This is not, however, the only worldview that people can have and that societies can advance. Indeed, Haidt did not choose the acronym “WEIRD” by accident, as societies with this collection of properties are rarer than those without it. In many societies, both modern and historical, the family, not the individual, is the unit of society. This is more in line with how PDLs work. This is illustrated literally in Rogue Legacy.


In Rogue Legacy, the player takes on the role of a family of warriors attempting to beat 5 boss enemies in a dungeon whose layout changes each generation. When the player dies, that individual is gone. The player then selects one of their children to play as in the next run, and use their accumulated resources to buy buffs and equipment which persists between generations. This accumulation of generational wealth makes each generation more powerful than the last, and the accumulation of tribal knowledge (in the form of the players improved knowledge and skill) makes each generation more capable than the last.


This structure should seem very familiar to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of history. The infrastructure built, the resources acquired, the knowledge gained by previous generations allows following generations to have a better quality of life, and to make further advancements that simply were not possible with the state of infrastructure and knowledge that previous generations lived with and, importantly, improved upon.


I think that this is a big part of why PDLs speak to so many of us. Their meta-game-based progression structure reminds us of (a somewhat idealized version of) how civilization advances. Each generation must overcome similar problems, but has the advantages of the knowledge and resources gained by the last. Additionally, they speak to a social order, common throughout human history, but rare in the societies where most gamers and game developers live.


So the next time you enter a Procedural Death Labyrinth, remember that you aren't on the Hero's Journey. You're on Society's Journey.

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