Rogue [1980]

I have always considered the video game RPG in purely negative terms, and I don’t simply mean that I don’t like them. What I mean is that I have mostly perceived them as the phantom of tabletop RPGs, or more accurately, their exorcism. By taking the aspects of tabletop RPGs that computers can easily replicate, they play a key role in the history of TRPGs, subtly inspiring the medium to refocus on the things live improvisational play can do that computers can not. That’s a huge part of the story of how you get from a Dungeons & Dragons [1974] and GURPS [1986] design philosophy to a FATE [2003] or Transmission Burst [2020] design philosophy. But it’s not in any sense the story of video game RPGs in their own right.

Perhaps no game illustrates better, in its raw purity, the essence of what a computer can translate out of tabletop gaming than Rogue [1980]. Firstly, Rogue leaves the camaraderie of meeting with your pals at the door, to create a solitary gaming experience, when even single-player arcade games exist in a physical community of spectators. It literally got its name, Rogue, from the fact that your lonely avatar takes on a dungeon by themselves instead of with a party. Initially, of course, it was another university mainframe game and benefited from a fan community’s shared experience, the fans who propagated it freely and openly from system to system, modifying and creating new games off the scaffolding, just like Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77], but Rogue does not so much demand that type of communal engagement just to progress like CCA does. I believe it finds its ultimate expression on the personal computer. Rogue seems to me to be ideally played casually, languidly and disengaged, while also watching TV and eating. It’s about as easy as either other activity, contrary to the genre’s later reputation for difficulty. It’s more like a stim toy, something to occupy my fidgeting hands and eyes with variety, getting numbers to go up as I clean a map. There is a latent adversarialism though, in that it’s not an open-ended sandbox, but rather you playing against the computer. I frankly prefer to savescum, it’s my best defense.

Secondly, Rogue is utterly bereft of narrative. There is some, in an (academic?) article written by two of the original creators, but this is hardly an essential text distributed along with the game like a manual is. (There was one of those for the non-definitive 1985 commercial release, more on which later.) What is there is only aspiration to a quick premise, an excuse for the bared scaffolding that doesn’t rise above the nod to genre referent you also find in era arcade games. No, Rogue’s design holds the idea of a computerized storytelling in contempt. The very building blocks of language, letters, are literally your enemies. Rogue’s deliberate emphasis on the aspects of D&D that CCA left behind is representative of the way D&D was a folk game, as it could only exist in play through literal oral tradition. And contrary to how video games start from a baseline of a player that can do nothing but what is explicitly allowed, live games start from a baseline of a player who can do anything and then begins placing limits in the forms of rules. So separate table cultures interpreting the same rulebook could develop, that, once translated to video games, became clear as entirely different genres of game with totally different priorities: To oversimplify, if the proper “RPG” (on computers and tabletop) sees the nitty-gritty statistics-based mechanics as supporting a narrative worldbuilding project, then the adventure game sees those mechanics as a nuisance, and Rogue is for the dungeon crawl purists where the narrative is the nuisance. Instead of an authored world to explore, full of bespoke traps and puzzles that pit the ingenuity of player and designer against one another, a computer-generated world of infinite homogeneity — but inexhaustible slight variation that could remain fresh enough to entertain even the developer, in direct contrast to the quite exhaustible CCA. Or perhaps, less oppositionally posed, the difference between CCA and Rogue is the difference between a written D&D module and the source books itself. A sufficiently-motivated player could, theoretically, fill Rogue’s narrative void in the same way that a D&D player augments D&D’s raw mechanics, and for all I know this is how people did & do engage with the game. (Not that Rogue is an adequate computerized Dungeon Master.) I would argue that in both cases, though, if you do that, you are working against the grain of the systemic design — not that it’s wrong to, although in 2020 I would advise you to get your fix for that in almost any other tabletop game system.

Thirdly, and most obviously, Rogue’s systemic design imports the idea of statistical models based on tables full of values and randomization to a computer that can calculate it all much more quickly, invisibly, and painlessly than humans can. The UI of Rogue is nowhere near as bad or impenetrable as its reputation, with the handy guide to what all your keys do available just an F1 away at a moments’ notice, but most boil down to over a dozen different asinine ways to use inventory items that mostly have no overlapping use cases. Pressing “Q” for “quaff” is the amusing Computer RPG Classic of words that do not get used outside of when you need something that corresponds with Q, and it’s quite hard to see why it needs to be specified I am not trying to, say, “Wear” the potion. From a contemporary perspective, though, this is a clear improvement on Colossal Cave Adventure’s fiddly “natural language” parser in the departments of efficiency and, crucially, transparency.

Rogue’s kind of statistics-based design is one I’ve often seen called “crunchy” or “simulationist” in tabletop circles, but on the computer, it quickly becomes obvious how it doesn’t simulate but rather abstract. Things like hit points are inherited in D&D from wargames trying to emulate mass combat on a scale a human can actually work with, and once scaled down to the level of individuals we end up talking about, in Rogue or CCA, the probability of an axe connecting or not. In reality, it either does or doesn’t and it’s not down to luck. In reality, the math of mass combat is a million bullets traveling down their own trajectories and a million neurons twitching muscles out of the way and into position, which is far too time-consuming even for the “wretched excess” of the “super-detailed, intensive simulation specially designed for maximum realism” of The Campaign For North Africa, The Desert War 1940-43 [1979] that asks you to track every individual pilot. Complex, quick military calculations of simulated trajectories and tactics, however, are precisely what computers were designed and used for.

This is why Rogue compares, moment-to-moment, very unfavorably to its peer in top-down games of violent conquest of the randomized, Berzerk [1980]. (It’s perhaps under-acknowledged that Rogue’s famous permadeath and randomization is a natural fit to add a little more replayability and depth to an arcade or arcade-style game.) In Berzerk, you hit or you don’t, and if you die it’s down to your own skill. In Rogue, combat is indicating in what direction you’d like to hit if the dice are okay with that, and you can go over a dozen rounds tediously trading misses with a snake, and die essentially a victim of statistical average more than whatever monster it credits on your tombstone. The mechanics players can directly wield run so much deeper than Berzerk’s, but the direct experience is much more facile and detached: less fun. Why would you want to make another game Like Rogue? If we’re to take the game as a template, and spoilers, people will, there’s plenty of room for improvement and variety. My feeling right away is that the further away from Rogue the better.

But why not depict violence as so distant and abstract that there is no sick visceral enjoyment to be wrung from it, leaving only the instrumental use and repetitive monotony of it? Slaughtering all the aggressive wild animals and monsters you encounter SHOULD, logically, be a draining slog that blurs together and makes you wonder why you’re even doing this. The manual to the commercial release, in fact, specifically frames the experience of the player character of Rogue as a confusing, miserable struggle, the ever-changing corridors and cycles of death and rebirth a curse. You descend deeper and deeper not just into the ruminant stomachs of the Dungeons of Doom but into senseless depravity, step by step. Some letters will sit still, and mean you no ill, but others will only appear to, then follow you into the tunnels in the hopes of surprise ambush possibly with partners, so you become paranoid and kill all you see preemptively. You become as fire, as Pac-Man, leaving behind empty stone cavern where there once was life. You kill the peaceful and still Nymphs, perhaps not even realizing their nature so automatic are you now, for the food or items they lay claim atop. And on what mandate? The fighter’s guild? You are legitimized only by your ability to brutalize and raze, your struggle to plunder outweighing the value of the computer inhabitant’s struggle to stop you.

Obviously, this is yet another repackage of imperialist conquest, and an especially bare one, but it’s also worth noting that this is all extremely masculine as far as we can say acts are gendered. Adventure games get into froo-froo touchy-feely territory, RPGs are full of prettyboys and emotional beats, but Rogue is pure austere brutality, mediated through profligate mastery of maths and complex systems as nerd proxy for dominating muscle, and from what I have gathered, its self-professed most faithful descendants up the ante further yet, in using in-game difficulty and tightly-, rabidly-policed definitions as gatekeeping and validating measures. There’s shades of the 1977 fracturing of D&D into D&D and “Advanced” Dungeons & Dragons and the Basic Set Dungeons & Dragons, sold in toy stores, where the perceived legitimacy of the latter, and with it, the twin’s general refocus on ease of accessibility, slowly bled away over the course of decades.

If it weren’t for video games’ debt to wargames and computers being designed around military capabilities, what might the medium look like? Rogue (1980) [2013] is (extremely) Like Rogue, but it comes attached to a posited alternate history where Rogue, along with all its other features, would have dating mechanics as a matter of course. The approximation of wooing is semi-deliberately crude, too crude to include gender, but despite that, the narrative feel of three different flavors of courtship naturally scans to me as more essentially different from one another than three different weapons of murder. The dissonance from including them both is, as the developer (Joe of Yukkuri Games) himself notes, super gross! Not only are literal emus available for the dating, the result of any romantic incompatibility is immediate recourse to violent annihilation, which makes it feel a bit like speed dating at gunpoint. The simple addition of further mechanics leans on, like I wrote above, how video games limit possibility by carving it out of none in contrast to how live games must carve possibility out of infinite — and arguably, collapses that tidy distinction. We sit down to play within a ruleset, but we must never forget that there are, indeed, alternative worlds.

Special credit and thanks to my friend Dalm for some observations, particularly on masculinity.

Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than cis white males, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.

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