“Pixel Dungeon” Review
I hate roguelikes. I hate, hate, hate roguelikes. I hate their popularity. I hate how blatantly they appeal to the lower classes of Let’s Players and Twitch streamers. I hate how the fun of procedural generation is ground into the dust because developers decide to leave balance to RNGesus instead of making each and every playthrough as entertaining as the last — proving that being a good developer has nothing to do with being a good games designer. Most of all I hate how every roguelike, while they parasitically scavenge the gameplay mechanics of every roguelike that has come before it with almost no innovations, decides not to do anything to improve those mechanics, and thoughtlessly implements them out of tradition instead of seeing what would make for a decent game.
I have played Crawl, DoomRL, Nethack, Hack, FTL: Faster Than Light, as much Dwarf Fortress as my brain could handle before having a seizure out of protest, and — the only good roguelike I have ever played — Rogue Legacy, which you will notice is nothing like any of the titles I have just listed. Because, save for Rogue Legacy and Dwarf Fortress, every one of those games suffer from the same fundamental flaws that, almost forty years later, still haven’t been addressed, all of which based on the over – reliance on luck. Core combat relying on random dodges and misses. Progress dictated by RNGesus giving you the right items. Potions and scrolls you have no idea of the effects, so you’re forced to use them to find out, only to never see them in the dungeon again. Getting screwed over by said potions because you don’t know what they do, and using your beneficial ones at the worst time accidentally. And, for the worst type of roguelike, the inability to run away from combat when you’re forced to explore the dungeon to find random items that make your gameplay randomly good.
It doesn’t have to be this way! Roguelikes can still be good, while having good gameplay and great worlds and the sense of thrill and excitement one gets from exploring new worlds, finding yourself in new situations, and not only surviving in them, but thriving in them, distilling the whole of video games into the virtual worlds and virtual struggles that makes the medium so damn appealing! What do today’s roguelikes offer us? A bunch of frustrating and poorly – thought – out gameplay mechanics that developers have the gall to say is part of the “experience”, because the theory is you can’t criticise something that deliberately aims for a low target and then hits that target. Eating shit is part of the coprophiliac experience, but you’re still eating shit no matter how much shit – eating was advertised!
More like the Dumbgen
This is the second game this week I really don’t want to write about, and the first one was a browser game, so that doesn’t say much of the quality of this title. If you’ve played any Roguelike, you know how this goes: you lurk around the floor killing enemies in incredibly simplistic combat you have very little control over, try to get enough experience points from randomly – spawning enemies so you don’t immediately die from an enemy two levels higher than you, try to get good item spawns so you can not immediately die against a tougher enemy you randomly miss against because your weapons suck, and try to get to the bottom to find the Magic MacGuffin. You know, why can’t we have a roguelike with an actual story? We already read so many item descriptions and pithy lore quotes that you’d think all that writing talent would go towards giving us some motivation to, you know, play the game.
You can be a warrior, a wizard, a rogue, or some other class you have to beat the third boss to unlock, which you’re never going to because of all the bullshit in the last paragraph. It’s always these three classes, aren’t they? It’s always the Generic Fantasy Template where you’re in a cave or a nondescript dungeon with WÆPOENS OFF OLÞE and a bunch of rats, cave goblins, skeletons, and ghosts. Why can’t we play a modern – day roguelike where we have to cap gangsters in the Harlem slums to earn drugs and retrieve the Mystical College Degree? At least Crawl had some variety in its environments and a lot of classes you could roleplay as, like a bird, a cat, an octopus, or a blatantly overpowered berserker. But even then they all rely on luck in their own special way, even though you would think having some special abilities to negate that luck would be an asset.
Granted, amateur games designers often confuse “variety” with good, and it provides too easy of a cop – out argument to say you’re not playing the class the “correct” way, as if we need to play the game a “correct” way in order to enjoy it, and tells us to instead use the blatantly overpowered berserker class that gets a few more floors down before realising they didn’t find the proper randomly – spawning equipment, or otherwise starving to death because we — for reasons I expect have to do with introducing even more tedium and micromanagement than what already exists — have to find randomly – spawning food so we don’t starve to death after two minutes. You can’t even buy food and weapons most of the time because the shops are randomly – spawning too! You have a situation where you possess a thousand gold, but it’s worthless because there’s nobody to give the gold to! You can’t even bribe the monsters to leave you alone long enough to find a shop! It’s nutty. Absolutely nutty.
So does this game change any of these design flaws? Hah! Hah – hah – hah! No.
Yeah, that’s all I have to say about this game: “No”. I characterise roguelikes as “airport games” where you play them because they’re the only thing you have installed on your computer, like how I would play Crawl in high school during my boring marketing class lectures. I had a minor addiction to that game, until its text – art dungeons infected my dreams, and then I realised I had to stop. As to why these games are so addictive is the same reason why anything can be addictive: the pursuit of pleasure, those brief moments where you’re doing good in the game despite your skills being an illusion brought forth by an unfeeling computer’s random number generator, combined with every other moment where you’re trying to manipulate the illusion, to no avail, before you realise your skills have no bearing whatsoever on your progress in the game, if any skills beyond the most rudimentary are required.
I read an article on Gamasutra saying roguelikes are popular among Chinese audiences because of their replay value, which I speculate is because of many Chinese gamers being in both cultural and financial distress, where the standard of games in China is far lower than Western equivalents, and how China’s semi – communist economy combined with a totalitarian control over every aspect of the Internet makes it prohibitive to purchase and pirate games that don’t receive approval to be published in China. I think it’s disappointing, then, to see so many roguelikes that are given so much praise because of people who don’t understand just how banal of an experience they are. And it’s especially disappointing because it doesn’t have to be this way.
You see, I enjoyed Crawl because of sheer amount of stuff you could find in it. Most of the time you were in a cave yes, but there were also glass mazes and stone labyrinths punctuated between brief periods of outdoor forests and flowing rivers. It was beautiful to see all of this represented just through multicoloured text symbols, a game you could have made out of ASCII, and to look at all the descriptions of enemies and the items you could find is one of the pleasures of having procedural generation. It’s one of the reasons Minecraft is so beautiful: there’s so much to see and explore, with so much you can do in order to explore. But when a roguelike stomps out the joy of exploration for the sake of having an artificially “difficult” game, whose only challenge is not losing the run to RNG, it stops being something I’m interested in playing, because every time I go to play it I’ll loath every time I mess up because of factors that were out of my control.
Rogue Legacy was a great game because it minimised all the luck of traditional roguelikes, keeping in the randomised maps, though giving you a substantial amount of control over how you tackle them. You could always look forward to a game session because, no matter how you died, you could always get an upgrade to get better next time. It wasn’t just throwing your head into different walls and hoping it would one day break because the wall decided to be made of a softer material. There was progression to it, progression developed because of your personal skills, and not just because of what a computer decides you get to have today.
I think I admire Pixel Dungeon because of how generic it is, because if this is the “generic” roguelike, then roguelikes as a genre are fundamentally flawed. Even the generic first – person – shooter can still have some enjoyment squeezed out of it. There is none to be found here, and any enjoyment is an illusion brought forth by careless design and a proud tradition of idiocracy.