I’ve spoken before about the super-geeky genre of games known as ‘roguelikes’. I predicted they were about to go mainstream (at least on the internet) and it still seems to be going that way, though slower than I expected. The recent release of FTL, an independent game inspired heavily by roguelike mechanics, introduced a huge number of people to the joy of turn-based, randomized action – and the frustration of difficulty spikes that the randomization inevitably entails.
So what’s a roguelike, and why am I recommending DoomRL as a free game you should totally try?
The argument over which features a game must contain in order to be officially considered a roguelike is a matter of surprising controversy. It’s a genre born in an indie scene long before most people knew what a computer is, and there have been very few roguelikes that were released as a commercial product. Most are the work of hobbyists, computer whizzes who are fond of number generators, and as such the vast majority of these games are free.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll keep the definition somewhat simple while still trying to give you a flavour of this curious subgenre. The term ‘roguelike’ generally describes “any game that resembles Rogue“, a game developed in 1980 to be played on primitive UNIX terminals. The gameplay resembled an action board game of sorts, turn-based (each action counting as a single turn), with the dice rolls and calculations being handled by the computer. You play a single character who ventures down increasingly difficult levels of a dungeon, encountering enemies and power-ups. Your success is largely determined by how well you can plan ahead, and your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t – much like a board game. Perhaps most importantly, once your character dies, that’s it: you must start again from the beginning, a mechanic known as ‘permadeath’.
Since they couldn’t render what we would now describe as graphics, the game world was represented using letters, numbers, punctuation and simple blocks of colour. In short, Rogue looked like this:
Thankfully, even for this most perennial genre, things do move on. Gameplay mechanics have been changed slightly over time, even as the core essence of the roguelike remains hard-to-define. You can now play DoomRL, which looks like this:
Not exactly Avatar, but it’ll do.
Based on the infamous and wildly popular 90s first-person shooter Doom, DoomRL puts you in the shoes of a nameless marine on the Mars moon Phobos who witnesses the opening of a portal to Hell and must survive the onslaught of demons.
The game contains all the hallmarks of the genre – loads of keyboard commands to learn, constantly increasing difficulty, permadeath – but has a very fast-paced, modern feel that allows it to be dipped in and out of at leisure. It’s been described as a ‘coffee break roguelike’, and while it may seem intimidating to the newcomer, it’s still a good introduction to the genre.
You’ll never play anything quite like a roguelike, and DoomRL is a solid choice for your first if you bear in mind that it’ll require a bit of effort on your part. I recommend it not for its entertainment value (though it’s still a very fun and involving game), but because playing a roguelike is like playing a very strange, very niche part of gaming history. Though it’s based on a somewhat-modern IP and is far more user-friendly than the games they played on those old terminals, the gameplay itself hasn’t changed a great deal. Yet, somehow, it remains as compelling as it was 30 years ago.
DoomRL is available as a free download for PC, Mac and Linux. Sadly, the Mac installation is a little fiddly, but hey, if you’re going to learn how to play a roguelike, you might as well go the whole hog and learn how to use the Mac Terminal.
I love Mighty Jill Off. Absolutely love it.
The phrase “charming retro platformer” usually translates to “cutesy animals and rainbows with chirpy soundtrack”. In other words, mostly nauseating. It was refreshing to play a NES-style platformer that charmed the fuck out of me with nary a fluffy cloud in sight. This game is about punishment, domination and spikes. Plus, it’s called Mighty Jill Off, with a secret hard mode called Jill Off Harder, with a one-handed spin-off called, well, Jill Off With One Hand. Puerile humour and BDSM, what’s not to like?
You play Jill, who lives in a tower with the Queen. One day, after being too forward with her adulation, the Queen declares “you have to earn that!” and throws her to the bottom of the tower. Luckily for the player, Jill is a mighty jumper, and it’s up to you to guide her to the top again to prove her devotion.
When people say a game requires pixel-perfect positioning, it’s usually hyperbolic – after all, pixels are generally too small to discern – but not in Mighty Jill Off’s case. Big chunky pixels are the order of the day, and you’d best pay attention to them if you want to survive. It’s an appropriately punishing game. I found I had more success when I trusted my instincts and tried to go as fast as possible. If I hesitated, I’d usually mistime a jump, just like in real life.
Were the enemies and platforms placed haphazardly, the game might be less compelling, but the challenge is designed with care. Several times, I found myself staring at a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, only to discover that I was more than capable of overcoming it. It’s this kind of awareness of what the player sees, and how they proceed, that leads to a satisfying experience.
Jill is pretty adorable, so I felt sorry for her initially, but then I remembered she’s a submissive and she really digs the pain she’s going through. I’d make a terrible dominant. On the other hand, having put myself through the repeated frustration of trying to get to the top of that goddamn tower just to beat the game and get my reward of the ending scene, I think I’d make a pretty good submissive.
The game was made by Anna Anthropy, voted the 90th Hottest Queer Woman in the Galaxy by Autostraddle, which strikes me as a remarkable achievement, since I doubt many other videogame designers have made a “Top 100 Hottest” list. She’s made a whole mess of games I’m eager to try out (Encyclopedia Fuckme and the Case of the Vanishing Entree is particularly intriguing), and has written a book called Rise of the Videogame Zinesters which seems like my kind of bag. I’m hugely thankful people like her are making games, because even when it comes to something as straightforward as a retro platformer, I’ll take sadomasochism over those cutesy animals any day.
Mighty Jill Off is available as a free download for PC and Mac.
Do you remember accessing bulletin board systems on the Amiga and Commodore 64? No, I don’t either. I’m a bit too young for that sort of thing. I wonder if it’s possible to feel nostalgic for something you never experienced.
Digital: A Love Story concerns itself with fictional hacker culture, the Neuromancer-influenced kind you see in The Matrix, but with a dash of childhood excitement and discovery. The entire game plays out in a fake desktop environment, and all you are tasked to do is read e-mails, message people and memorise phone numbers to access message boards. That’s all. The narrative is revealed as you explore. It can, admittedly, get a little tedious, but Christine Love’s knack for creating atmosphere with ropey visuals and sound, and allowing the story to unfold kept me intrigued enough to see it to the end. I won’t spoil it for you, since this is one of those things you really need to experience with no preconceptions.
When I wrote about Super Crate Box, I mentioned the current argument over what a game is. Digital: A Love Story sits on the other side of the fence. There’s very little ‘game’ to play, no skill to improve or intriguing mechanics to speak of. It’s essentially a fairly linear narrative that you click through, but unlike an illustrated e-book, it takes advantage of its medium’s unique qualities. When people seriously argue that games should be considered art – not the kid playing Gears of War using the games-as-art argument to justify spending an unhealthy amount of time on his Xbox – this is what they’re talking about. Whether or not any current video game can be considered great art is a separate question, but Digital: A Love Story at least demonstrates that the medium can produce experiences that simply do not (and never will) exist in any other. That’s pretty exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas independent developers will present through their work when they leave behind old-fashioned notions of what a game ‘should’ be and embrace what they could be.
You won’t find it exciting or visceral, but if you fancy seeing what games are capable of besides explosions and conflict, check it out.
Digital: A Love Story is available as a free download for PC, Mac and Linux.