This article was first published on Game Lens. Game Lens is a personal project by Nicholas Mamo that offers game developers a platform to explain the rationale that goes into making video games. At the same time, it shows players a side of video games that they seldom get to see.
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This article discusses Roguemance, a game by Lucas Molina, and may contain minor spoilers.
"Battles in Roguemance are kinda weird."
The very first line in Roguemance's tutorial does not sufficiently prepare you for what is to come. Battles on the Heartipelago are indeed not what you would expect.
In Roguemance, the cute graphics, the romantic theme and the simple mechanisms are but a thin veil, masking an unexpectedly strategic video game that commingles risk, luck and party management.
Roguemance takes you to a love-crazed archipelago where dating takes the form of turn-based battles. Though not explicitly recounted, bad tidings have befallen the conveniently-named Heartipelago, and the heart-shaped group of islands is now misshapen and broken. Fixing it is possible, but not easy.
Your travels across the myriad of procedurally-generated levels take you through some iconic scenes like, you know, That Beach. Along the way, players have to make calculated risks, look for love and go on deadly dates, periodically being brought face to face with some interesting opponents, such as the infamous Blue Balls.
The roguelite indie game is the solo project of Lucas Molina, who explained how the most difficult aspect of development was to stay motivated, trudging along week after week, where "except for the last day, you are not finishing the game." These are the problems of any solo developer, but Roguemance is a demonstration of what anyone can achieve with the right support from friends and loved ones.
Whereas it is easy to let yourself be fooled by the game's light-hearted nature and happy-go-lucky playlist, Roguemance's depth is equally inescapable. The game forces you to cohabit with risk and luck, striking a balance between the two while maintaining healthy relationships with your love interests. Game Lens delved into Roguemance with Lucas Molina, diving headfirst into an experience that is a roguelite not only for you, but also the ones whom you cherish and love.
In more ways than one, Roguemance is an allegory for love. The romantic theme of Lucas Molina's creation goes beyond a simple gimmick, but worms its way into the game's essence, influencing and dictating the core mechanisms. Central to Roguemance is the idea of party-management or more thematically, relationships.
The game takes a very liberal view of relationships; as the protagonist you can have as many love interests as you want, and they can be whoever you want. Like your own personas, the potential lovers do not exhibit obvious gender traits. Perhaps that is for the better because the game avoids adding another layer of decision-making, but make no mistake - Roguemance is chock-full of decisions.
"In Roguemance, I tried to balance out randomness by giving the player choices," explained Lucas Molina to Game Lens, and it shows. Players never really find themselves with their hands tied, but it does mean that they have to be constantly on the watch, making strategic decisions as they go along to counteract luck. How do players fall in love in Roguemance?
On the Heartipelago, love starts in a bar. Scattered randomly across levels, bars permit you to choose any one of three lovers to accompany you on your journey, or none at all. In the lack of pixel-lust, decisions are based on personalities and skill-sets. Like most of the rest of Roguemance, players find little help to reach a conclusion. In fact, the game echoes A Robot Named Fight, with exploration and experimentation taking the place of informed decisions.
"In Roguemance, I tried to balance out randomness by giving the player choices. So you meet partners who are randomly generated, but you can always choose between three of them. Or choose none and find another three." - Lucas Molina
Happiness is important in any relationship, and as complicated as it sounds, Roguemance's relationships are no exception. Contentment is an interesting mechanism that spreads its roots and settles organically into every part of the game, from battles to choosing paths. Keeping yourself and your partners happy does not only mean that they stick around, but also that their levels go up, in the process increasing hit points. It is an area that, as infuriating as it can be, shines with brilliance in Roguemance.
Happiness itself is driven by a multitude of decisions. At each crossroads, each of your lovers have a preference on which path to take, and in each fight, partners do not take too kindly to being left out. All of these minor, intermediate decisions define whether happiness goes up, or resentment sets in. Managing your relationships' satisfaction boils down to a litany of choices, so much so that you would be forgiven if you end up feeling overburdened.
Decisions are replaced with strategy in Roguemance's battles, or dates with your significant others. The fight loops are pretty easy to understand, but often require meticulous planning. At each turn, players have to choose one action, fully aware of what enemies will do next. In fact, everyone's skill-sets are visible at all times, and with the exception of the player's own actions, they all rotate in order, giving players a strategic edge. Nonetheless, although players can see everyone and everything else's next moves, they usually have control only over their own.
Thus, faced with strange foes, players have to consistently employ strategy and maneuver carefully to stay alive. Anything outside that scope could be a fatal risk. These dates are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to decision-making. The actions themselves differ wildly, from healing spells to rapid combos. However, ironically it is in these battles that the player's control over the game's flow slackens, with the protagonists generally being unable to control their lovers' actions. In a twisted way, it all makes sense.
"They [partners] have choices in the crossroads and sometimes they want to fight a battle despite having low HP, for example. So doing what they want is a risk, but your reward is improving your relationship with that partner." - Lucas Molina
Roguemance is not a roguelite only for the players, but also for their partners. Once they perish in battle, or their unhappiness plunges them into dark depths, they leave, never to return. It is an interesting mechanism, but one that adds to a never-ending list of conundrums. Lucas discussed with Game Lens how partners "have choices in the crossroads and sometimes they want to fight a battle despite having low HP, for example." In this way, players are constantly made aware that both happiness and survival are important, but forced to seek out the right balance themselves.
Another delicate equilibrium must also be sought between the player's and their lovers' preferences. Painfully aware that discord among partners are commonplace in Roguemance, players have to learn to prioritize not only their happiness, but also the financial aspects of the game. For example, at the end of each fight, players can choose to either be merciful, or kill their opponents and recoup some hard-earned cash that can be used to buy new skills, among other options. Regardless of this need, however, it is entirely possible that such a choice is contrary to your lovers' wishes.
For a game that presents dates as battles, Roguemance shines in its strategic management of relationships. Indeed, it would not be unusual for players to question their in-game relationships and their partners - are they a means to an end, or a meaningful partnership? In practice, relationships can be somewhat of a necessary evil. In spite of the tedium that they cause, and the stacked layers of planning that comes with them, they are also an undeniable aid.
RISKING IT ALL FOR LOVE
The roguelite genre often relies on randomness to offer a renewed challenge in every playthrough. Luck and risk go hand-in-hand with randomness, and it is in this area that Roguemance's insistence on decision-making takes a more benevolent dimension - a system aimed at toning down the weight of chance.
Lucas Molina confided in Game Lens how luck is not something that he enjoys in particular, but it is necessary to mix things up. When it comes to risk, Roguemance does not diverge much from the core principles of roguelites. The genre manifests itself most notably with the permanent death mechanism and an accented focus on randomness and risk. The latter is evident in the levels, where the crossroads often include paths shrouded in mystery. However, Lucas also discussed how he attempted - successfully, it has to be said - to offset this game of chance with player choices.
Ignoring momentarily the partners' preferences, deciding on which path to follow in a crossroads is often akin to doubling down or opting for the devil you know. Mystery paths are often beneficial, sometimes giving players potions and access to bars for free; normally, players have to pay to enter a bar or to buy a healing potion. Others are less clement, offering random skill changes or possibly more numerous foes.
One theme is consistent throughout, however - choice. In fact, Lucas' aversion to luck is evident in different rooms. Some rooms, for example, offer the gamble of switching one skill in the player's repertoire with a random action. Bars too have a degree of randomness in terms of what characters are generated. In all cases, however, Lucas gives the players the option of exiting without choosing anything. In Lucas' own words, "you get random encounters in the crossroads, but you can choose your path."
"I tried to develop the mechanisms thinking of these emergent narratives. It is not just risk and reward for the sake of it, it is there to tell a love story." - Lucas Molina
The risks mixed with player choices and the occasional lucky break serve to live life on the metaphorical edge. Ultimately, all of these ingredients driven by an abundance of decisions make for an evolving, implicit narrative. Lucas says that this hidden narrative is something developed on purpose, though it may, at times, slip under the radar. In this way, when a risky move pays off, there is a particular feeling of unmatched accomplishment - of a love story born from a calculated gamble.
Notwithstanding the thrills, permadeath is not for everyone. In Roguemance, Lucas added the possibility of disabling permadeath for those players who "just want to go through the game and see everything there is to see without worrying too much." It was an easy addition, according to Lucas, but one that allows players to construct and live a virtual love story just the way that they want to.
Love is risky, and love is compelling. It grips and thugs at hearts, tells a story. Even though Roguemance does not force a narrative, through clever design it lets players craft their own path - their own treacherous, risky love story with their companions.
At least, till death do them part.
This article was made possible thanks to Lucas Molina's collaboration, who discussed the development of Roguemance with Game Lens. The roguelite indie game was released on Steam for Windows on the 14th of February, 2018.