On our previous episode, we covered bad controls. I’ve yapped enough about annoying gameplay. Now it’s time to talk about theme. Or more properly the lack thereof.
First, what do I mean by “theme”? It doesn’t have to be a message or even a concept in the same way we view a theme in literature, though video games certainly do tend to have those. I’m not setting the bar that high.
Most of the time when people mention theme in the same sentence as video games, they simply mean setting.
Darkest Dungeon. Care to guess at the theme?
Setting is a huge part of it sure, but there’s also the aesthetic, the music, the lore, the names and descriptions. It’s the consistent application of all those things in a game that comes together as a cohesive whole to make you feel something, especially when that feeling is distinct from what you get in other games.
With that definition in mind, I ask what theme do the classic roguelikes have? The answer is they don’t really have themes at all.
The three cardinal sins of theme
There are three particular ways in which roguelike themes end up being bad or nonexistent.
- High Fantasy is the vanilla ice cream of video game themes
The vast majority of CRPGs and roguelikes in particular have a generic high fantasy theme that throws at you all those familiar, recycled tropes that we know and love. I’m talking elves, orcs, goblins, dwarves, trolls, hobbits, and of course dragons. This is the baseline. The vanilla ice cream of video game themes.
The lineage of all this high fantasy stuff is painfully obvious.
Tolkien -> Dungeons & Dragons -> Adventure -> Rogue -> roguelikes
- Tolkien heavily influenced Dungeons & Dragons
- Tolkien heavily influenced Colossal Cave Adventure
- Tolkien heavily influenced Rogue (by way of the aforementioned)
- Tolkien heavily influenced NetHack
And so on and so on for the next 30 years.
“You Hob-bit my whole shit” – J. R. R. Tolkien (presumably)
Each successor in the chain obviously took a great heap of inspiration from the ones that came before. Some went further by just pilfering the terminology directly.
Dungeons & Dragons had hobbits, ents, and balrogs until it had to change the names. Rogue famously had the rust monster and floating eye, Dungeons and Dragons monsters which had to be replaced with the aquator and ice monster. Some games seemed to have dodged the copyright issues. NetHack retains the rust monster, floating eye, hobbits, nazgul, balrog, and on and on.
Several roguelikes were even named after Tolkien!
- Angband and Zangband
- TOME (originally: Tales of Middle Earth)
- Two games named Moria
And a bunch of games just called “DND”.
I’m not saying Tolkien is bad. Like vanilla ice cream, Tolkien is very good. It’s the monotony that is killing me. Tolkien was inspired by Norse, Germanic, Slavic, and Greek mythologies; religion; classic and modern literature; epic poems; language; opera; personal experience; and the horrors of war. So we took a richly detailed, deeply complex, epic fantasy universe and boiled it down to generic elves, dwarves, and orcs.
Let’s try ripping off somebody else for a change, eh?
Another knock off isn’t going to feel fresh to anyone on the planet. Middle Earth has inspired thousands of games and books. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are some of the top grossing movies of all time and there’s even a TV show in the works. God knows why anyone would want to see more after watching Peter Jackson remake the same movie 6 times. Anyway…
2) The kitchen sink is kind of disgusting
Adding content to the classic ASCII roguelikes was dirt simple. All you needed was to choose a letter. Half the monsters in Rogue don’t even have special abilities! Talk about easy. In time, a huge number of monsters started to become a selling point for roguelikes.
All of Rogue’s monsters
First, Rogue had to have exactly 26 monsters. Hack had over 50. NetHack has hundreds. Slash’EM has thousands of monsters.
Where you going to get all those fantasy creatures? And how are you even going to fill out the rarer letters like Z, X, Q, and J? There’s really not that many distinct monsters to pick from in Tolkien’s universe. So most roguelikes start with high fantasy as the core and then keep piling on a hodgepodge of assorted monsters and myths from wherever they can be found.
The only thing standing between you and the Amulet of Yendor
That’s how you end up with Zombies, Xerocs, Quaggas, and Jabberwocks.
We usually call this “everything but the kitchen sink”, but then again NetHack actually has a kitchen sink too.
Simply put, stuffing everything you can imagine into a game with no rhyme or reason does not make for a consistent theme.
3) No such thing as halfway goofs
When I’m playing a roguelike, I want to feel like I’m going on an epic adventure. Whether playing the hero or (more traditionally) the dastardly rogue, a certain level of seriousness aids the immersion.
Ninety five percent of the time, this is actually pretty well achieved. I get to fight wraiths and giant spiders and orc captains. Even with no graphics, decent enough enemy descriptions let your imagination fill in the void naturally. The pure insanity of classic roguelike difficulty turns the screws until the dungeon itself seems like the oozing, cavernous maw of some giant horror.
And then, because roguelike, you get this bullshit.
A toenail golem? Are you !%$*@# kidding me?
Some roguelikes are more guilty than others on this front. DCSS and NetHack only occasionally wander into goofy territory.
The source for NetHack’s Keystone Kops. It’s an open question if silent, black and white slapstick comedy translates well into ASCII, but here we are.
PRIME has monsters ranging from daleks to chestbursters, green killer tomatoes, cheerleader ninjas, and high ping bastards.
Finally, Slash’EM Extended is the worst:
- xof (that’s fox spelled backwards)
- 50+ kinds of dogs
- “dwarf on crack”
- Parry Hotter
- 9 kinds of “prostitute” enemies
- A bunch of other sexist crap I don’t want to even mention
Yes, I am a humorless killjoy. If you want to do humor, go big. Make the whole game comical like Dungeons of Dredmor. For me, 5% goofy leaves the entire game feeling goofy.
Good examples of theme
Plenty of roguelikes do have fascinating themes and I love it.
- Unreal World: a real world Iron Age setting
- Cogmind: really unique sci fi
- Hieroglyphika: set in Egyptian underworld, completely devoid of text
- Sproggiwood: inspired by Finnish mythology
- Haque: cool glitch fantasy aesthetics and chill vibe
As much as I’ve hated on games based on Tolkien, I’ll admit Sil sounds fascinating because it “dispenses with many generic fantasy tropes” and “stays true to the writings of Tolkien”. And Darkest Dungeon, mentioned early, creates a fantastic theme by doubling down on the dungeon setting and finding what makes it truly interesting.
Even the roguelites I mentioned at the beginning of this series (Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, and Spelunky) all have great themes and consistent aesthetics, which I’m sure contributes to their success in no small part.
I theme, you theme
Lukewarm high fantasy, the kitchen sink, a sprinkling of goofy nonsense? That’s what I’m calling the bog standard dungeon. I think we can do better. Here’s how low the bar is:
You don’t have to make up a whole universe from scratch. There is so much material to work off when choosing a theme for your game. Countless ancient cultures and mythologies, historical settings, public domain books. I think my game, Golden Krone Hotel, has a pretty neat theme. But you better believe I stole a lot from Dracula, Romanian mythology, and vampire lore in general.
I’ve spent a great deal of this article complaining that roguelikes need to stop copying from a particular tabletop fantasy roleplaying game from the 1970s.
You know the roguelike with the coolest theme ever? It’s Caves of Qud of course.
THE CRAZIEST ROGUELIKE EVER IS JUST INSPIRED BY A DIFFERENT TABLETOP FANTASY ROLEPLAYING GAME FROM THE 1970S!
Ok we’re done here
Go make cool roguelikes and go play cool roguelikes.
If you want to check out Golden Krone Hotel, it just had its biggest update and is on sale for 50% off.