'Tharsis' Reveals the Luck Inherent in the Roguelike

Tharsis can't fudge probability with a random number generator and that upsets people.


Publisher: Choice Provisions
Developer: Choice Provisions
Players: 1
Release Date: 2016-01-11

Tharsis is a game centered on the luck of a dice roll, but there's also a considerable amount of strategy revolving around those dice. It's a game about managing risk, knowing how to manipulate the many systems in play, so as to increase the odds in your favor. The odds will never be completely in your favor, but that's fine. That's part of the challenge. How do you make the best of a bad situation?

This is the question at the core of every RPG roguelike. This is a genre that regularly makes us the underdog position, an underdog pitted against an incredible force, and then asks us to beat it. In Tharsis, you have to survive on a ship seemingly held together by string and prayer. In FTL, you're a single little ship fleeing an entire galactic armada. In Darkest Dungeon, you have to beat back the cosmic horror of an evil god. In Out There you're battling the uncaring universe itself. In Skyshine's Bedlam you have to cross a No Man's Land desert hellscape while also trying to kill its king. This is hard work, hard but always doable.

There’s always an element of luck in these games, and the challenge lies in knowing how to properly manage all the unforeseen risks that you might face. In every one of these games, you can be screwed over by an unlucky random encounter, and depending on how you play, in the early game you can encounter a mid/late game fight that’s literally impossible. That’s the way that these games are designed. Early mistakes have lasting consequences.

Tharsis is no different, but based on its mixed critical reception, it seems to be taking way more heat for this balance between randomness and strategy than its peers. This critical contrast is starkest when you realize it was released around the same time as Darkest Dungeon, which has received pretty unanimous praise. That praise is deserved, and I’m not here to bash Darkest Dungeon, but the difference in reception is worth analyzing, considering how similar the two games are. Why does one punishing game with a large element of randomness receive praise while another punishing game with a large amount of randomness receive hate? How do we like our punishment?

We like our punishment to feel fair. That's kind of an obvious statement to anyone who has enjoyed a difficult game (and likely anyone reading this post), but that's also a tricky statement because it's both ironclad and vague. Punishments must feel fair, but what is a "punishing" game and what constitutes "fair"? Fairness, specifically, is really tricky because it's more a matter of perception than balance (see context), and we tend to perceive the world (or at least a virtual world) as more ordered than it really is.

We naturally assume that a game world is based on a set of logical and predictable systems. We assume this order, and so we apply that sense of order to the world as we experience it. This tends to result in us viewing the world as more favorable to us than it really is, since we're the player and we know this world was made for us by a developer: We're the center of this world so naturally the rules favor us. This isn't true for all games or gamers of course, but this is an insidious belief because it manifests in subtle ways, even when we know that we're playing games that don't put us at the center of things. We still inflate our importance even when we know that we're not important.

The other night my roommate was playing XCOM 2 and complained when a soldier missed an attack that had an 87% chance of success. Now 87% is high, but it still leaves a 13% chance of failure, and that's not an insignificant number. This is something that I've found myself doing as well in other games -- inflating 80-90% to 100%.

One of the developers of Tharsis, Zach Gage, talked about this in a recent interview at Polygon:

"It turns out that if you tell a player they have a 90 percent chance to succeed and then they fail, that player will feel ripped off and confused," Gage explained. "So in Civ games they pull some trickery to weight odds so a 90% chance actually wins a lot more often than 90 percent." Gage once saw a talk discussing this odd bit of player behavior and psychology by the eminent designer Sid Meier. But what if you want to make a game that doesn’t fudge the numbers?

Tharsis doesn't fudge the numbers. It can't. Resources for each turn are determined by die rolls and those dice are actual 3D models, so how they roll is based on physics, not on a random number generator. The dice thus become a symbol of true randomness, an embodiment of luck and gambling that seems to reject order. That's what makes people uncomfortable about Tharsis. We can’t inflate the numbers. We can't impose our sense of order on the dice. The inherent randomness of the roguelike is exposed to us, and we're forced to accept it.

Darkest Dungeon is different in that it hides its randomness within several layers of combat mechanics. The randomness is still there in the hit percentages and in determining what enemies we face each fight, as well as in the size and shape of the dungeon itself, but those bits of luck are forgotten as we strategize during a fight. We're more concerned with the positions of our soldiers, their growing stress, and their shrinking health. Randomness still has to be taken into account since many attacks aren't measured in absolute numbers (we're given a range of damage, anywhere from three to six points, instead of a consistent five points), but that randomness is overshadowed by all the other combat systems. It's just not something that we focus on.

But the funny thing is that dice aren’t actually that random. As Gage says:

“Dice very quickly fall into a curve of results depending on how many you roll," Gage told Polygon. Catan players and anyone familiar with Vegas odds know this. With two dice the most likely outcome is seven. Anyone familiar with Vegas odds will also be very much aware of this reality. The next likely roll is a six or an eight. “

Dice are governed by probability, and probability can be factored into a plan. Granted, that plan has to be rather fluid and open to change, but that’s part of the fun -- watching your best laid plans go to hell and having to make a new plan as a result. I’ve written before that the key to Tharsis is knowing how to manage risk, but it may be more accurate to say that the key to it is managing probability, knowing how to manipulate the mechanics around the dice so as to give you a better chance of rolling those good numbers.

That’s what we do in any roguelike. We build our ship or convoy or civilization or expedition in such a way that we feel like we’re prepared for most outcomes. We manipulate the mechanics so that the odds are slightly more in our favor. The difference between the two games is ultimately one of perception and preference. One only seems more random than the other, and gamers don’t like randomness.

Gage also notes this in his interview: "We got a really amazing positive response from streamers, board game players, developers, some journalists, and non-video game-focused publications, and a really negative response across the board from video game-focused publications.”

Video gamers crave control, even if it’s just an illusion. We still like to think that we can "beat" the game but we can't "beat" Tharsis (or Darkest Dungeon for that matter) any more than we can "beat" a game of Blackjack. Our best hope is to learn and manage all the probabilities at play. We win by learning to play with the game, not against it.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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