Without meaning to, I’ve recently played a string of games that all embrace some sort of “back to basics” philosophy. Some approach it from a visual perspective, others pare down their systems, yet they all distill certain essential qualities of their respective genres. I often feel like many of the games that I play these days are of the “‘X’ meets ‘Y’ meets ‘Z’” variety. Mash-ups and complex systems definitely have their place, but I find stripping away the accoutrements in certain games is a helpful reminder of what makes their genres enjoyable.
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It is the go-to argument when arguing for the value of games to those late to the discussion. Games can be more than fun. They can be compelling.
Indeed, some games can actively undermine fun through their very design. Playing them can be unsettling or even boring. The story, we might say, is what drives us onwards. Or, in the case of the board game A Few Acres of Snow, it is the system itself that creates an immensely interesting experience, despite a sense of almost programmed boredom. This masterpiece manages to build a compelling experience by offering a competitive exercise in the creation of a churning and diabolical bureaucracy.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how roguelikes and other difficult systems-focused games foster the “good death.” Games like Spelunky are harsh but satisfying. Their rules are consistent and understandable, so each death is an instructive experience. Each death is also a clean end to a singular story. You start the game, build up supplies, and eventually your adventure comes to an end. There is no need for mental gymnastics when faced with respawns in story-driven games.
I think these aspects explain much of the current roguelike renaissance, but there’s another phenomenon that is equally important. We’re tackling challenging games in a more socially connected way than ever before. We don’t mind dying because we’re dying together.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Gone Home
One of the very first things you touch in Gone Home, a game that almost entirely consists of picking up, reading, moving, opening, or otherwise handling objects, is a plastic Christmas duck. Its presence is a weird little anomaly (What’s a Christmas duck anyway?). Nevertheless, like all of the objects in the Greenbriar home, it illustrates in the physical world the invisible relationships between the story’s family. Playing as Kaitlin Greenbriar, this isn’t any duck. This is your duck, your family’s quirky piece of the holiday season. The trappings of the home map out the outlines of a family remarkably, but it’s your own perspectives that fill them with life.
With the recent PC release, I’ve fallen back down the deep, unforgiving chasm that is Spelunky. Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic. I actually love Spelunky and barely need an excuse to play it again. My most recent return to the game coincides with a host of other modern roguelikes (or roguelike-likes, or rogue-lites, if you’re so inclined) that bring with them a philosophy of unapologetically challenging the player. It’s fascinating to me that these games are thriving alongside experiential games like Gone Home as well as broadly accessible blockbusters that are meant to entertain rather than challenge. With that in mind, I wanted to do a little armchair mass-psychoanalysis on why many of us are so entranced by roguelikes.