When I recently reviewed the game Rogue Legacy, I made a simple enough statement about what the game is about: “Rogue Legacy is a game about inheritance. ” (”Rogue Legacy: Old Money and Better Living through Dungeon Delving”, PopMatters, 27 June 2013). And indeed, Rogue Legacy, as a rogue-like that sees the player dying regularly but then respawning as the next hero in a generational line in order to re-explore and attempt to conquer a medieval castle, is a game whose design and narrative is built around the concept of inheritance.
After a character’s death in the game, the player selects a new character to play (who may have different qualities and genetic quirks than the last one) but that will re-emerge in the next playthrough in the family’s own castle, which “stores” the attributes, skills, and upgrades that are purchased through the gold made by the last generation. In Rogue Legacy, the player takes on the role of an entire family, a family whose legacy is always improving on the basis of the work of its ancestors. The progeny of the original heroes always “have it better” than their forefathers because they have access to better weapons, abilities, and upgrades because of the efforts and blood of those same forefathers.
This economic model resembles the concept of possessing old money and the importance of inheritance to social progress, a concept that I briefly and offhandishly alluded to in my review: “I find the game’s antiquated model of old money’s benefits to a society’s future prosperity somewhat ironic in an era in which the previous generation just won’t die (sorry, Baby Boomers, but you won’t) or retire, leaving their wealth and money to successive generations to build on, to make life just a little bit easier for their children and grandchildren.” I didn’t expand much on this discussion, though, because of the nature of Rogue Legacy itself. It is a game that doesn’t take itself terribly seriously, and thus, I didn’t really think of the game as intentionally providing some kind of social commentary.
Its characters and the presentation of its world are more often silly than they are satirical. After all, one of the genetic traits that I alluded to earlier in this essay is a gene for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which causes your hero to pass gas uncontrollably throughout his adventure, not the usual stuff of sharp social satire.
As I admitted, though, in the review, “this is one of the few games that I have ever reviewed without fully completing before sitting down to write it up,” so I really was unaware of the full scope of the plot and how its themes might develop. Part of the reason that I felt comfortable with not concerning myself terribly with a full run through of the game before review was that it seems largely devoid of plot, though. The premise of the game is that the family that is fighting through the monsters populating Castle Hamson because they are attempting to locate a medicine for a dying king.
Of course, the notion that the king is “dying” for hundreds of years, while potentially hundreds of generations of heroes attempt to save him seems quite an absurd premise. The man seems eternally ill. He isn’t, it would seem, entirely in bad shape because he seems to have old age and death beaten at least, despite being “sick.” Beyond this premise, the few snatches of plot in the game are provided by some brief diary entries seemingly written by previous heroes attempting to challenge the terrors of Castle Hamson. Most of these entries refer to locations and concepts in the game, but again, most seem to provide brief moments of comic relief to what is otherwise mostly a hack-and-slash platformer that just seems to provide room after room of monsters to slay and gold to collect.
I assumed that any resolution or explanation for the plot would either be left unexplained or dealt with flippantly. However it turned out, I assumed would be presented as a joke and probably a ludicrous one at that.
Then, I played on in the game after that review and ran into this journal entry written by a man named Johannes (apparently the author of all of the previous entries) that describes how he actually succeeded in reaching the final chamber of the castle and what he found there:
I never knew what treasure lay in this castle. I knew only that it would cure the king.
Who could have suspected it would be the fountain of youth?
I expected a monster to greet me at the dias; a foe of unimaginable strength. I imagined it would take all my strength to best him.
But when I entered the castle and saw my father – the king – sitting atop the dias with goblet in hand, I knew all was lost.
He would never die…
… And I would never be heir.
There are no words to express what I feel.
Never being the heir is the problem of rather classic stories. It is the problem of Hamlet, is the problem that I alluded to so offhandishly in my earlier review, an inability to progress because one generation is unwilling or incapable of giving up its power and passing on its wealth.
In this sense, Rogue Legacy in all its silliness and in all its simple retro platforming fun seems profoundly attached to the now. Two generations wait in American culture to move forward, to take on the roles and jobs of a previous generation that in some cases can’t and in some cases won’t give up the reigns. Wages are stagnant, starting salaries don’t match the cost of living, and the cost of housing and transportation is so far out of balance with the money that younger workers make, the economy is broken. Thirty years ago and more, new homes in decent suburbs used to cost about twice the amount of the average salary of a middle class and blue collar worker. Now they cost four to five times the purchaser’s salaries. New cars used to be priced around a quarter of such salaries, now they cost half of what most people make a year or more. And there is no inheritance that might make up for these more exorbitant costs in a society that has admittedly most often become more comfortable to live in.
Not that a lack of inheritance is the sole reason for a broken American economy. Don’t get me started on loan and debt culture, which drives inflation in staggering ways. This is just one of many interesting “developments” in American economic “progress” in the 21st century.
Health care in this country, whether affordable to all or not, is pretty damned good. My grandparents generation, the GI generation lived well into their 70s, their 80s. My grandfather who served in World War II is unusually long lived, but he is still alive and in his 90s. My mother, a boomer born in the year of the post-War boom, 1946, is in her late 60s and probably has decades yet to live in a culture that seems to have obtained something close to the fountain of youth. I don’t want my mother to die, but she isn’t retired and won’t be retiring soon.
When the player finally reaches the chamber that Johannes himself entered, he is confronted by Johannes himself, a man who like his own father won’t die. Johannes explains what he accomplished when he discovered that he would never be made heir:
As I look down on the body of the king I realize that it is inevitable: children will always answer for their father’s sins.
I entered this castle a swordsman, a savior…
But all I have left is a rogue’s legacy.
I can feel your anger, but know it was not I who sent your family to ruin.
The moment the king set foot within this castle, the royal coffers were emptied by Charon. My family – all families – had lost all hope for a better life.
And in my mind’s eye, I foresaw only desperation and poverty ravage the country. There was nothing for me to go back to.
To my children, and my children’s children, here I sit, impassive, immortal, and await thee.
Among all its goofiness, among all its jokes about flatulence and hypochondria, Rogue Legacy doesn’t forget what it’s about. Cellar Door games built a plot around mechanics of progression, relating them to inheritance, and the horror of the game’s conclusion is that they recognized where such systems might ultimately lead when coupled with the prospect of eternal life.