Do you know the worst part about a roguelike? You can’t even rage-quit! “Oh, I just died? Well… fine! I’ll just delete my saves and… oh.”
The roguelike genre is one I had avoided for years, rebuffed by the mere word “permadeath.” Is that supposed to be an appealing characteristic? It’s like, I don’t need to know anything more about scrotum piercing to understand, at a fundamental level, that it’s just not for me. And so I happily carried on in my non-permadeath gaming, leaving behind the empty husks of my peers who had just lost their 60+ hour Diablo 2 Hardcore characters.
The problem I am having though, is with all these roguelikes that choose to, well, bend the (unwritten) rules. For me, it started with Dungeons of Dredmor. After dying a few times getting a feel for the game, I went full optimize-the-fun-out-of-the-game mode. Explored every floor, room by room, while collecting and refining every resource. It was pretty clear that I had vaulted over the difficulty curve and would be coasting my way to the very end. That’s the point of permadeath though, right? To encourage conservative play?
Regardless of the answer to that question, the fact remains that I was on hour 22 of my roguelike save. To me, that is starting to border on obscene. I feel like the roguelike structure works perfectly for games that can conceivably be won within a few hours or a single (marathon) session. Anything longer is simply suspect – what useful purpose does permadeath serve then? I have 52 hours /played on FTL and 27 hours on Binding of Isaac, both of which can be finished within 2-3 hours. Permadeath in this scenario, and procedurally-generated encounters generally, thus increase the play-time of an otherwise short game. But if you are already spending 20+ hours on a single life only to die in some asinine way… well, what’s the point of trying again?
If you can’t tell, I’m writing this post because I’m pissed at dying in Don’t Starve. I made it all the way to the final world in Adventure Mode, which I could not even start until I found the doorway on Day 30+ in Survival Mode. You have no idea how close to the end I was. I had collected all four Things and was on my way to the Wooden Thing to assemble them. The last world is exceedingly harsh though, and my sanity was leaking out at a precipitous rate (it didn’t help that I was traversing a swamp). I stopped to pick a Blue Mushroom in the hopes of regaining just enough sanity to push me over the finish line.
Alas, a tentacle I couldn’t even see spawned and spanked me twice. Dead. I resurrected at my Meat Effigy in total darkness, and was one-shot a few seconds later. Dead again. Spawned back at the Adventure Door portal, and would have to go through everything all over again.
…except I don’t think I am. I have 35 hours into Don’t Starve, and was relishing the thought of being “done” with the game once Adventure Mode was beaten. “Done” in the sense of achieving sufficient mental satisfaction to allow me to move on to another game. Now? I just feel so goddamn empty. Dying to the last boss in Binding of Isaac feels terrible, but you are only really out an hour or so. Same with FTL. With Don’t Starve, I just saw 7-10 hours of my life evaporate into the ether. While that is technically how all leisurely pursuits end, I don’t usually end a gaming session feeling, well, like an empty husk.
It’s not really Don’t Starve’s fault – if the game were easier, even a tiny bit, it wouldn’t be the same game on a fundamental level. I like that a harsh game like this exists, as it pushes you into uncomfortable scenarios in which inaction is punished. I just don’t know if I want to be playing “long-form” roguelikes like this anymore. Permadeath is fine in the proper contexts, and said context is always in short games, IMO. Putting roguelike qualities into a game that simultaneously demands X amount of investment just strikes me as cruel and unusual. Some people like that sort of thing, sure. But I doubt that the end reward for our valiant efforts will be sweet enough to cover the acrid, bitter bile that is seeing so many hours go up in smoke.
Fake Edit: I tried again anyway. Died a few times, tried some more. Got the insanely difficult “forever winter” stage as my first level, but persisted anyway. Somehow made it even farther. Got to the 4th stage, and was feeling pretty good about myself. Run into a field of killer bees looking for a Thing, and died. Now at 48 hours /played. FML.