‘Tharsis’ Is Casually Brutal

Tharsis is a uniquely short roguelike, turning the experience into something that a time-conscious gamer like myself can enjoy.

Tharsis is a brutally difficult roguelike of number crunching, risk management, and gambling that can be finished in a scant 20 minutes. The catch is that you’ll lose the game in those 20 minutes. And you’ll likely lose many, many games after that as well. In fact, based on the mixed reviews from critics and users on Steam, I’d wager that the overall win percentage of its player base is less than those of Splunky, The Binding of Isasc, FTL, Darkest Dungeon, etc. As a result, some of those people think that Tharsis is too hard, or broken, or unfair. I think it’s actually the perfect difficulty to keep things casual.

One of my personal pet peeves with modern roguelikes is that they often try to ape the length of a normal game. A single run of FTL, Convoy, or Skyshine’s Bedlam can last several hours. Even more action oriented games like Splunky, The Binding of Isaac, or Rogue Legacy can tease the hour mark on good runs. Then there are games like Darkest Dungeon and Civilization that are structured around lengthy campaigns that can still end in utter failure. These are all games that are specifically designed to be played multiple times, but the average length of their sessions prevent me from playing them that many times. I like the games, I like their worlds, I like the systems at play, but the time that it takes to learn those systems is just too long for me. The time investment is just too high.

That’s what makes Tharsis so attractive. The whole game lasts only 10 turns, and you won’t even get that far for a vast majority of your runs. So even on a great, wildly successful run, you still probably won’t break the hour mark. The time investment is designed to be short, allowing me to approach the game casually. I can play a run while watching TV, as something to do during commercials, and be done with it by the time that an hour-long drama is over. I can fail quickly over the course of minutes rather than fail slowly over the course of hours.

The harsh ramp up in difficulty reflects this shortened timeframe. Tharsis ramps up fast because it is meant to be a short experience. To make it easier or to make it ramp up more slower would be to make it longer. Put another way: I can reliably survive to week five of the 10 that it takes to arrive on Mars, that’s half the game and that’s so close to the end that to make Tharsis any easier would be to make it beatable. The difficulty that seems so unfair is really just a normal difficulty ramp up compressed into a much shorter time frame than what we’re used to.

The advantage to this kind of pace is that it means that I’m exposed to failure faster and more often than I am in games like FTL, and that exposure changes my expectations of the game. Tharsis teaches me very quickly to accept failure. Unlike other roguelikes that encourage me to learn their systems with the intention of eventually conquering the game, Tharsis discourages that kind of ambition. “You won’t win,” it tells me, “just settle for survival.” And that’s what I do. I don’t play Tharsis with an endgame in mind, I just play to survive as long as possible. Focus on this turn, then maybe the next turn. The difficulty forces me to play with more achievable goals in mind.

In general, the more time that we invest in a game, any game, the more we desire to finish it. Roguelikes are designed to undercut this desire, asking us for investment and then denying us the satisfaction of completion. Sometimes this can be motivating (see Darkest Dungeon), but other times it can be disheartening (see FTL). By lessening my required investment, Tharsis prevents my failures from becoming too disheartening. Even if I end up failing more because each run is so short, those losses sting less because they were so short.

I don’t mind resetting my progress when I’ve only invested 15 minutes in an experience, and when my average lifespan is only 15 minutes, surviving for 20 minutes is exciting. When the game is only 10 turns long, surviving to turn five feels like beating like the odds and getting to turn eight feels like cheating death. This is the same experience that I imagine that others have with FTL and Isaac and so on, but here that experience has been condensed into something that a time-conscious gamer like myself can enjoy. It’s a quick roguelike for those of us who constantly have other obligations to meet.

It’s a roguelike for the casual gamer.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.