Rogue Souls

I’ve been in the process of moving to a new apartment over the last couple of weeks, and my development PCs have been unplugged for the last few days in particular, so I haven’t made any tangible progress on Gunmetal Arcadia this week. (That is to say, no checkins.) But I’ve been playing a lot of Spelunky and Isaac recently, among other 2D platformers and roguelikes, and I’ve been looking for things I can borrow and places where I can do something different and unique. I’m trying to figure out what it is, beyond the surface level bullet point features, that makes the idea of developing a roguelike seem so appealing to me right now.

See, I wasn’t always a fan of roguelikes. If we jump back in time ten years to my undergrad days, I was fairly averse to the genre. David had recently discovered NetHack, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t bring myself to play it more than once or twice. Death was too punishing, too final. When I died, it felt like my time had been wasted. I remember saying that if I ever made a game like that, I’d find a way to make permadeath less frustrating.

Fast forward ten years and roguelikes are now the genre du jour among indie games. Not only that, but the genre has grown, tacking on a “-like” or two and reaching far beyond the top-down ASCII dungeon crawls from which it originated. In the same way that “X but with RPG elements” has become shorthand for “the player can earn experience points and level up,” “X but with roguelike elements” now indicates the presence of features such as permadeath and randomly generated levels.

With the explosion of roguelikes, it’s not surprising that others have attempted to temper the frustration of permadeath, often with the addition of unlockables which can improve your odds of survival. I’ll be honest, ten years ago, I probably would have thought this was a great idea, but having seen it in practice across a number of games, I’m not a fan of this solution. In some cases, I feel like it ruins the feasibility of “vanilla” runs (or cheapens their purity, perhaps), and it can force the player to grind in order to be realistically capable of finishing the game. This solution serves to mitigate beginners’ frustrations, sure, but it does so at the expense of long-time players. There has to be a better way.

Dark Souls isn’t a roguelike, but it handles death in a similarly unforgiving manner. When you die, you lose all the unspent souls you’ve collected, souls being the game’s primary currency, used both for buying goods and for leveling up. Dark Souls offers a silver lining, however: if you can reach the place where you died without dying again, you can recover these souls, effectively eliminating any punishment. This is often not as easy as it sounds, as enemies respawn each time, while items are not replenished and weapons continue to degrade. This “one shot at redemption” model works so well because it is both a carrot and a stick. The game first deprives the player of something they’ve earned, then it offers them a chance to reclaim that loss, with the caveat that one false move may cost them not only their earnings from the last round, but potentially the ones from this round too. This creates a wondefully tense dynamic. “Maybe I made a mistake, but I can still salvage this.” I love that.

So that’s how I’m approaching permadeath in Gunmetal Arcadia. Not wholly irreversible, still recoverable in some way, but not so forgiving as to be exploitable or without tension. What exactly that means is still up for grabs. Procedural level generation means that stealing Dark Souls‘s mechanic verbatim is out of the question, as retreading the same ground to find the place where you died will be impossible. (Not that I’d want to do that, right? I’m a professional game developer fully capable of inventing his own designs! Yeah!) But I’d like to find a solution that creates the same sort of dynamic, where losses incurred by a previous failure effectively raise the stakes on the next run.

In fact, I think the notion of each run being informed by its predecessor is likely going to be a consistent high-level theme throughout much of Gunmetal Arcadia. I like the idea that choices you make during one session could influence the next in subtle ways. Maybe you eschewed technology in favor of magic, so on the next go-round, warlocks are friendlier and apothecaries offer discounts on spells. Balancing this in a way that preserves the viability of vanilla runs will be important, of course. I would liken this concept more to Demon’s Souls‘s world tendency system than a grindable series of unlockable upgrades in that regard.

Historically, I’ve always a little wary of making design thoughts public too early, not because I’m afraid they’ll be stolen (ideas are cheap), but because I don’t like to run the risk of overpromising and underdelivering. (An early design for Super Win included coffee cup powerups that would make you temporarily run faster and jump higher. It didn’t fit that game’s Metroidvania nature, so I cut it.) It should go without saying, but everything on this blog should be taken with a grain of salt, especially at this early of a stage.