“When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.”A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
War, War Never Changes
Hiroo Onoda joined the Imperial Japanese Army at age 18, about a year after the outbreak of World War II. Before leaving his family, he stole his father’s bamboo incense pipe because he thought it might later remind him of home. His mother handed him a cherished family dagger and told him to commit suicide in case he was captured.
Onoda was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines in December 1944. Allied forces took the island only a couple months later, but Onoda was trained in guerilla warfare and was able to hide in the mountains while also launching attacks of his own.
Onoda found a leaflet in October 1945 claiming that Japan had surrendered in August. But of course he knew that was propaganda. Japan surrender? Inconceivable. Another set of leaflets came later that year that claimed to be from a Japanese general. More propaganda. Letters purporting to be from family members arrived in 1952. Fake letters of course.
In 1974 Norio Suzuki, a young Japanese adventurer, tracked down and befriended Onoda, but he still refused to believe the war was over. It was only after Onoda’s old commanding officer flew out to him and directly ordered him to stand down that he realized the war had actually ended 29 years ago.
Can we learn a lesson from Onoda’s struggle? Probably not but here goes…
An Wyrre of Woords
This blog post is an open letter (against my better judgment) to the roguelike community and specifically to the r/roguelikes subreddit. And on this subreddit, a war rages constantly. A war of words. Here’s how it typically goes:
Step 1: A fan of roguelite games (e.g. Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, Darkest Dungeon, Slay the Spire) wants to discuss these games with the community.
Step 2: Since “roguelike” is the word they use and have always used to describe the above types of games, they search that term and stumble upon r/roguelikes. On this subreddit however “roguelike” strictly means a turn-based, grid-based dungeon crawler (e.g. NetHack, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Caves of Qud) and nothing else.
Step 3: This poor soul, not having the first fucking clue about the decade long debate over the word roguelike, innocently shares their love for “roguelikes” and asks for recommendations.
Step 4: A battalion of grognards rushes to defend the honor of the word “roguelike”. “THOSE ARE NOT ROGUELIKES!” they exclaim in unison. “ACTION ROGUELIKE IS AN OXYMORON” they say smugly. A round of congratulatory high fives are had.
Step 5: A flamewar erupts. Every confused comment from the OP makes things worse and they are downvoted into oblivion (true story: I was once downvoted for simply asking for a link in one of these discussions). They are screamed at, called names, told to leave, and they usually do.
The above scenario has been happening for YEARS and the reason it keeps happening is because the gaming world at large has no idea that there is a difference between a roguelike and a roguelite. These flamewars that try to settle the issue definitively simply do not reach a wider audience because, of course, roguelite games are orders of magnitude more popular than traditional roguelikes (I would guess at least 50 times more popular based on active player counts and sales data of respective games). There’s an endless supply of gamers that either don’t know or don’t care about the difference.
What really grinds my gears is that the traditonal roguelike community thinks mainstream gamers are privy to these debates that occur within a niche within a niche and that, since the 40 year history of roguelikes must be common knowledge to everyone, anyone who doesn’t understand it is deserving of a biting insult and a swift kick out the door.
Let me walk you through the myriad* problems with this kind of gatekeeping.
*Sorry, I misspoke since myriad meant exactly 10,000 in the 16th century. Woops!
Zzz (A Zombie Horse and Two Zruties Walk Into a Bar)
The obvious problem with discussions about roguelike vs roguelite is that they’re UTTERLY BORING. There’s nothing new to say but we’ve been treading the same ground for literally years. It’s beyond beating a dead horse. It’s beating a zombie horse. Can we just… stop?
Much like the 50th person in a reply-all fiasco replying all to beg everyone to stop replying all, I have to shoulder some responsibility here. But once I get this post off my chest, I promise I’m done talking about the topic.
Talking down to people that have a limited understanding of these (truly obscure) issues is pedantic and it reeks of snobbery. It’s not a good look for any community.
At this point, you probably hate my guts. So let’s see where we can agree. I will grant you quite a few things.
You had the term “roguelike” first
And “roguelike” meant that a game was turn-based/grid-based games for 15 years
You might argue longer, but the genre had no name between 1980 and 1992. Between 1993 and 2008, basically everyone could agree what it meant.
And it was clueless gamers, lazy streamers, and unscrupulous developers that contributed to the dilution of the word
And that dilution made it harder to find the games you like
That truly sucks. It does.
But Here’s The Thing
None of that matters.
What matters is that “roguelike” does not mean the same thing in 2020 as it did in 1993. Full stop.
You will of course argue about the origin of the word and link me to a certain interpretation of what the word meant in 2008. You will say: the word has not changed. It cannot change. Words changing? Inconceivable! Why should we have to change? We were here first!
But that’s not how language works. That’s not any of this works.
The following is English. Can you read it?
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum
I doubt you can. That’s the first 4 lines of Beowulf written in Old English.
It should be plainly evident that language evolves. Even our most common words have changed meanings. Awful, silly, nice, fantastic, terrible. These words all have had drastically different meanings over time. Arguing that we should all stick to the archaic usages of words is like fighting a war that’s ended decades ago…
The war for “roguelike” was over the moment gamers started carelessly misapplying it to other genres. If you search back, you’ll find this was happening as early as 2009. Spelunky changed everything. Things have only gotten worse every year since then.
All Words Are Made Up. Some Are Just More Made Up Than Others
The terms we invented to classify the newer games never caught on.
Roguelikelike is ugly and almost no one uses it anymore.
Roguelite is less obviously terrible, but still bad. As far as I can tell it was invented by the Rogue Legacy developers. It’s a marketing term. Traditional roguelike players love the word because it’s a subtle jab at all those “lite” games. It’s like making fun of lite beer or diet soda. The real problem is it’s only one character off from roguelike, which means you have to be extra careful to enunciate rogueLITE, often leading to a 30 second tangent on podcasts and videos, or you type out rogue-lite. That’s just gross.
Other terms like Procedural Death Labyrinth as clever as they are never got close to taking off. The path of least resistance was to use the least bad option; thus the definition of roguelike was expanded.
Why are we ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, like Hiroo Onoda did? At least Onoda had a good reason to keep fighting. He was raised and trained his entire life to never surrender no matter the circumstances. After all, he was fighting for a living god.
What are we fighting for? Some posts on a Usenet newsgroup circa 1993?
The proper way forward is to admit reality and distinguish traditional roguelikes in a different way, just like that in fact. Traditional roguelike. There’s now an official Steam tag for this genre and practically speaking it seems easier than ever to find turn-based/grid-based games by using it.
Read The Rules
Now, I have long thought the roguelikes subreddit should allow roguelite discussion. If for no other reason than we are using an archaic meaning of a word and then naming our community based on that word. I realize this is a minority opinion among the most vocal posters, despite the subreddit description itself allowing such discussion..
Censoring roguelite discussion prevents a lot of people from finding amazing games and it also leads to a stagnation of the genre. These games, love em or hate em, share a lot in common with traditional roguelikes. The developers have to figure out ways to make permadeath interesting, to make procedural generation less boring, to innovate on all manner of mechanics. And many have succeeded!
[D]efinitions are about excluding things. They ultimately draw a line in the sand and say “if you stray beyond, you are forgotten”. This is terrible from a design point of view, as it limits creative potential. It’s awful from a community point of view because it pushes people out. The Berlin Interpretation tried to be wishy-washy with its “you don’t need every rule” but people don’t read it like that. Descriptors like “turn-based” get used as clubs to beat other games out, even games that do innovative things with the time system like FTL.Darren Grey on Screw The Berlin Interpretation
We should be studying the relic system of Slay the Spire. Or the magic system of Noita. One of the most common requests in the community is for a roguelike with an interesting spell system. Well here you go.
“Noita is the greatest single player game of all time”Jason Rohrer
“Noita [is my] favorite game since Dark Souls, I have about 110 hours in this one. It fuses two of my favorite genres (physics games and roguelikes) taking the best elements of both.”Bennett Foddy
Did Noita get discussed on r/roguelikes? Nope. This is easily one of the most remarkable games of the last decade and the two times I saw it come up, the discussion immediately ended with the classic comment “not a roguelike.”
I’m Fighting A Losing Battle Myself
I have probably convinced absolutely no one, but I’m begging you to consider this last point. Even if you think the community should stick to discussing traditional roguelikes, we still need to be more welcoming to clueless outsiders.
Those outsiders might not know the first thing about say Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, but it might turn out to be their favorite game if they were properly introduced to it. I was gently introduced to DCSS by a friend in college; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Not all roguelite players will cross over, but many will. They all like permadeath, procedural generation, sometimes even turn based games. Remember, this is a group that’s 50 times larger than ours! We need them more than they need us. The same people that we laugh at and kick out and call trolls today might be our best bet of saving the community tomorrow. And if you don’t care about community, why the hell are you posting in one?
If nothing else, remember the number one rule on r/roguelikes:
“It’s ok to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it.”
Wait Until You See My Rogue-style
In Slashie’s fascinating retelling On the Historical Origin of the “Roguelike” Term, he mentions that there were a few alternatives to roguelike proposed in 1993:
We might do well to remember that the word roguelike is an accident of history, as are all words. In that spirit, I present to you: r/rogueish, a welcoming place to discuss roguelikes or roguelites or roguelikelikes or whatever the hell you call them.
I hope to delete this subreddit in the near future. When there’s no need for it.