Roguelikes as a genre are very poorly defined. So, before we get into things, let’s get specific about exactly what the term means.
To qualify as a roguelike, a game must include most, if not all, of the following features:
- Progression that carries across multiple runs.
- Procedurally generated maps, item placements, and enemy configurations.
- Resource management, even if it’s something as simple as gold and health.
- A dungeon-esque setting.
- An overworld/hub for upgrades and inventory management.
Any game mentioned here meets at least four of those specifications, qualifying it as a roguelike in my book. Hopefully, that should clear up the usual petty semantics that plague the genre. So, let’s get into things properly.
The Role of Narrative in Roguelikes
Narrative plays a particularly unique and rather small role in roguelike games. In a title like The Wolf Among Us, the story is the entire reason to keep playing. It’s what everything else is predicated upon. However, in the average roguelike title the narrative exists simply to give context to the gameplay.
But they do have stories. The Binding of Isaac is the tale of a religious mother attempting to kill her son at God’s behest. Enter the Gungeon is the story of four remorseful souls attempting to find a time-altering bullet that will allow them to correct their past mistakes.
It’s hardly the reason you play these games. The fun is in what you’re doing, not why you’re doing it. Roguelikes keep people hooked on a delicate balance of enjoyable but uncomplex gameplay and the progression of both the player’s arsenal and experience, as well as the enemies and challenges the game offers.
Throughout that cycle, the narrative isn’t brought up once. It’s generally only mentioned at the beginning of the game and expanded (slightly) upon the completion of a successful run.
Player Driven Narrative in Roguelikes
The simple fact of the matter is that while context is important, roguelikes don’t need any narrative beyond that. Not because it would detract from the experience, but because players create their own stories within it.
Anyone who’s played The Binding of Isaac has their story about that one awesome run where they filled the entire screen with rainbow lasers. Anyone who’s played Darkest Dungeon has their stories about the characters they dragged through hell and back. And anyone who’s played Slay the Spire has their story about the time they built a deck that killed a boss on their first turn.
It’s a genre where every run is different from the one that preceded it and the one you’ll play after it. That means everyone’s going to have their own experiences and their own tales to tell of it. The game’s own story is made superfluous by the ones we as players create.
When Roguelikes Do Tell Stories
It’s a complex task for a roguelike to build a compelling narrative. With its gameplay being so frequently interrupted or reset by death and the occasional completion, there’s no space to tell a traditional story. As such, good narratives in roguelike games are few and far between.
Those that do it well are rarely told conventionally. As such, we’re going to talk about three different titles and the ways in which they handle their stories.
Ancient Domains of Mystery
First, and oldest, is Ancient Domains of Mystery. A 1994 title that tells the story of the world of Ancardia, threatened by the forces of chaos. You play one of many heroes seeking to realise the prophecy of a champion putting an end to the threat. A fairly conventional story and most importantly, one that accounts for play death. But what ADoM does well is how it handles the narrative conclusion. It offers multiple endings depending on how you complete it. You may end up a simple champion, an avatar, or a god of chaos.
This approach is perfectly suited to roguelikes, as it links narrative directly to gameplay and doesn’t undermine the approach a player takes to complete the game. I’m surprised it hasn’t been copied more.
Tales of Maj’Eyal
Tales of Maj’Eyal is a 2012 roguelike that again has a fairly conventional and unremarkable main questline. What stands out about ToME is its lore. The game is littered with the same notes and letters that occupy most open world games these days but handled far more intuitively.
In the earlier dungeons, they tell the tales of adventurers that were jar too bold and perished, which serves as a warning that the game requires a more cautious style of play. They give backstory to the world, the zones, and the races, allowing your knowledge of the world itself to grow with each run, just as your experience does. This means that instead of having a concrete narrative unfold from the beginning to the end of a run, it unfolds alongside you across multiple runs. Another approach that suits the genre.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon (Explorers of Time/Darkness)
Surprisingly enough, these two games (because of course they still made two of the same game) boast the best narrative I’ve ever experienced in a roguelike. Now, granted, there’s a reason for this. And that’s because they don’t bother with the perma-death. That may sound like cheating, but they still meet the requisite 66% to qualify as roguelike.
So, with that aside, I must shamefully admit that a DS Pokémon spin-off has the most compelling linear narrative in the entire genre. It tells the story of a human transformed into a Pokémon trying to save the world as time itself begins to stop. For a Pokémon game, it’s surprisingly (and delightfully) dark.
The dungeon runs themselves are woven in as mystery dungeons. Dangerous and ever-changing places filled with crazed Pokémon. Both story missions and optional jobs take place here, where the roguelike gameplay unfolds. The rest of the story takes place in Wigglytuff’s Guild, the hub world. While it breaks up gameplay far more than the standard roguelike, it serves as an example that a more traditional narrative is accomplishable within rogue constraints. The only drawback is that you’ll have to abandon permadeath.
That’s a big constraint however, as it’s one of the elements that define the genre and its core gameplay. I would never want to see it as a widespread practice. But in a few odd, one-off games like this, it works perfectly fine.
No matter whether great stories are possible, roguelikes will never need them. That’s a simple fact of the genre itself. Their focus above all else should be mastering the loop that keeps people hooked for hundreds of hours and telling their own stories about the game.
Narrative snippets and character moments can be fun and they’re a welcome addition, but they don’t really matter. When more than half your player base won’t even notice they’re there, it’s fair to say your focus should be elsewhere.
So, for the first time in this series, that means we’ve got a hard no.