You’ve probably seen the term roguelike thrown around a lot over the years by over-excited game press, but what is it?

What is a Roguelike

That’s a good question, and one with a complicated answer because its definition has been changing throughout the years since its first use.

However, the core of what a classic roguelike is:

  • that the game features levels that are procedurally generated. Meaning levels are randomly put together by the computer.
  • your character suffers from permadeath – meaning that they should have to start over once you die.

Essentially, a roguelike is designed to force you to learn its systems through a punishing cost of failure.

rogue @ 1980

The name itself comes from Rogue, one of the defining classics of the genre, that inspired later games such as NetHack. NetHack has been around for decades and is still in active development. Thanks to it being open source, ports exist for numerous computer platforms including Android!

What Do Traditionalists Think?

There is no set definition, but some roguelike enthusiasts set out to create some guidelines. The Berlin Interpretation of a roguelike was defined at the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008 by the “Cabal of Elite Roguelikers”. This provided a list of high value and low level factors that go into a roguelike game.

Namely, the permadeath aspects, and random environment generation, are two of the key factors that go into what a roguelike is. Also of note such as games being turn-based and grid-based, or even featuring worlds that are represented with ASCII characters.

does this mean that many Roguelikes aren’t roguelikes?

At least not by the Berlin interpretation. When you hear the term roguelike, you could get anything from a top-down ASCII art dungeon crawler to a first person shooter, up to even an open-world survival adventure game.

Why is it so Complicated?

Well, games started popping up in the late 2000s and early 2010s that took inspiration from roguelikes without necessarily using the conventions of the genre. Some eschew the whole “start from nothing” aspect that roguelikes often have, giving players permanent progression to start out and work toward.


In particular, several of these roguelike variant games became financial successes. Spelunky might prove to be the most influential roguelike-inspired game, because it introduced many of the conventions of roguelikes into a challenging platformer game. Its intense difficulty wound up making the game a real accomplishment for those who could beat it – and those who could consistently do well earned renown in the speedrunning communities. Its daily mode also inspired several other games to utilize similar functionalities.

A couple other games that deserve mention include FTL, which worked spectacularly as a game that players could sit back and enjoy for hours on end while traveling through space.

A long-time hit of this genre is mega-popular Dwarf Fortress - Bay12 Games is a very small company of two people that still continues to make releases. The price of the game is free, but the team has been able to devote more time to the project thanks to the generous donations by the DF community.

Dwarf Fortress

Not to leave out anything in the AAA game space, the hardcore mode of Diablo, which gave players one life, introduced many of the elements of roguelikes to players in format more familiar to them than what a traditional roguelike would be.

What Are Roguelike-Inspired Games Called?

Well, while even the Berlin Interpretation is flexible on what is and is not a roguelike – some games are more roguelike than others – the terminology for these roguelike descendents is often convoluted. The term roguelite is occasionally used for games that have elements like permadeath and procedural generation but few of the other high-value or low-value roguelike elements.

You’ll often see the phrase roguelike-inspired, but when you try to dig into what that really means for a game, then it just doesn’t mean very much. Sometimes just saying that a game is a roguelike as an adjective – such as a roguelike first person shooter – is good enough to convey the meaning of what players can expect from a game at its core. Sometimes these terms are misused, but there are at least good starting points for those wondering in short form what a game that uses the term can be.

How Do I Get Into the Genre?

First off, because of how “loose” the definition of a roguelike has become, you’ve probably already been playing a roguelike without really realizing it. “Vanilla” (or “Pure”) roguelikes are almost uniformly difficult and punishing as a genre. They’re built around giving players challenging systems that have to be mastered – and any mistake will cost you.

Should I Play the Original Rogue?

Absolutely! – NetHack is the easiest starting point. What you may be impressed by is just how deep the original roguelikes can be, if you can get past the simplistic graphics and steep learning curve. It’s a game that’s deeper and more complex than even many modern games. There is quite a bit of freedom within the game world, but with it comes loads of challenges to master.

When you’re ready for a bit more challenge, then be sure to check out Dwarf Fortress. Again, it’s available for free - PC, Mac and Linux - but if you end up getting interested in the game, why not drop the developers a few bucks?

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