Why are there so many indie roguelikes?


This apparent trend of about half of the indie games that show up on Steam or elsewhere turning out to be either roguelikes in some form or “walking simulators” has gone on for way longer than a trend typically does, at least it seems to me. I wonder why indies keep going for one of those two categories.

For the case of roguelikes, do they just not like implementing save systems, or at least complex ones? Do they not want to design levels and just let the computer handle it? The whole thing about roguelikes is that it stretches way back, two early examples that come to mind are Nethack and possibly Oregon Trail, even though that often has a save system and preset routes, I don’t know many who really use the saves and the routes could have many things happen during. Generally speaking, there’s a set of rules and a dungeon that’s generated while random events also show up from time to time. That’s pretty much been stripped down to the random generation and permadeath features and thrown into nearly any genre at this point.

Relying on random generation can be a crutch for lacking level design skills, though if the rest of the game doesn’t hold up around it, it’s a weak crutch. As well, the generator has to be tweaked for various scenarios and progression through a run, almost like balancing a level, but it has to be done for possibly millions at once, and yet there will probably be a strange outlier that will turn out too easy or hard at a point, several of them more likely.

As well, it becomes harder to have a level be memorable since it was just thrown together when the game started according to a set of computerized rules instead of hand-placing the majority of things. The art of level design has many nuances involving how to lead the player to an intended destination or leaving subtle hints toward secrets to discover if they’re paying attention to the environment. In randomly generated levels, the player has to learn the level each time and typically those tells which lead to certain destinations are either made more obvious or not present at all and the player can just aimlessly wander through similar halls. This could be mitigated somewhat by stringing together a set of predefined rooms, which the player might know what to expect after a few times, which could be an opportunity to spring a variant of that room which isn’t quite what they’re expecting beyond the surface level to keep them on their toes.

On the other hand, the gameplay can be directed in the opposite direction to make room for almost nothing but level design. These are “walking simulators”. The entire goal is to explore and eventually reach the end, in most cases. Like how roguelikes can alleviate some pressure of level design, “walking simulators” end up putting the levels front and center and typically a small amount of interaction with nothing more than movement controls, possibly being able to use items in the environment. The goal is story, possibly. They could also be randomly generated, in which case it becomes more of a strange abstract art in many cases, but there’s not often the tension which comes with roguelikes since it’s not gameplay-focused.

Generally you’re led on a path which you may be able to explore somewhat but will generally be led in a direction and the story will reveal itself to you, either directly or from piecing things together that you notice about the environment, possibly notes or objects around. I’ll just compare Dear Esther and Gone Home here. Dear Esther is generally following a singular path while narration goes on, and it has also been released at least three times now, any time after the first costs something more than free. Gone Home also follows a general path, but you’re able to wander the rooms until you find what might lead you to the next area, and you can explore around as you go through all the rooms, and the story is a mix of found items and narration, with some smaller stories throughout as well. I would have to say the latter works better, since it becomes less of a movie you control (also going back to Telltale here) and more interaction with a set piece, where interaction is a key component of video games.

Looking at roguelikes and “walking simulators”, I feel that somehow, like I feel the “medium difficulty” of games in general is being stretched into either casual or hardcore, that gameplay and story are getting stretched apart as well, if level designers and storytellers would be able to team up and agree with the gameplay designers and programmers, there could be potential for more memorable story experiences that also are fun to play. While having story isn’t exactly vital to a game, there are ways to balance story and gameplay to make a pretty impressive product, like what Valve would do before shifting most of their focus to E-sports and VR and Steam at this point. The ability to shift between gameplay-tense and story-tense moments to keep things moving while leaving some extra things on the side to find and contemplate without bringing everything to a halt. As well, giving the player something to do during cutscenes even if they just use that time to jump on top of things and throw objects everywhere. Batman may or may not be a fan of spinning around on an axis while everyone talks to him, for one thing.