Game-related ramblings.

The Name Game: Rebranding The Roguelike

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What’s this? A Name Game post that’s actually serious? Indeed it is, but never fear, the Name Game will return to making fun of silly game names soon enough. Right now, however, the Name Game’s name-related talents are needed for something near and dear to this blog’s heart. I am speaking, of course, of the roguelike.

(If you are unfamiliar with roguelikes, you should read my introduction to the genre, and perhaps a few of the roguelike highlights that have appeared on this blog)

I recently read an interesting article (although the article itself is not recent!) arguing that the term “roguelike” is a rather poor one. It takes a genre of games and describes it entirely by its similarity to an earlier game, which is restrictive and often, to varying degrees, inaccurate. I find I agree with this reasoning, especially in light of the new and popular crop of games which borrow design elements from traditional roguelikes and expand them into new and interesting areas. I’ve used the term roguelike-like here on this blog mostly because I think it’s funny, but the reason it’s funny is it emphasizes the inherent absurdity of the original roguelike term.

Perhaps a new name is needed, then. Well, here at the Name Game, names are literally our game. We’ve got this.

Before I begin, I must note that I’m not the first to examine this problem. The most famous alternative name suggested is Procedural Death Labyrinth, by Lars Doucet (coined in direct response to Tanya X. Short’s article linked above). This is in fact a decent description of most traditional roguelikes, but I dislike it for several reasons which I will explain. First, however, let me note that both Tanya X. Short and Lars Doucet believed the term “roguelike” to be too vague, and argue for a more explicit name. I do not agree; I think that terms that are too specific are often less useful. Tanya even gives some examples that prove my point: she argues that the term “platformer” is better than “Mario-like”, because it is more accurate and less limiting. Platformers don’t have to include plumbers and turtles like Mario games do. Platformers share the same side-on viewpoint and focus on jumping between platforms, but they can have a wide variety of themes, pacing, and feel. Tanya’s other example, that of early sandbox games being called “Grand Theft Auto clones”, shows the same thing; these games were often different enough from Grand Theft Auto to make the term awkward, whereas referring to them as sandbox games allowed more variety while still expressing the freeform essence of their design.

Procedural Death Labyrinth is far too specific. The most obvious problem is “labyrinth”, which is very restrictive in terms of setting. Roguelikes often take place in dungeons, some of which may even be labyrinthine, but there are others that provide wide open landscapes, spaceships, cities, or other places to explore. I also take issue with “procedural” being in the title. Nearly all roguelikes do in fact feature procedural generation, but not all; Legerdemain, for example, has a handcrafted world to explore. I don’t think procedural generation is a requirement for a game to be a roguelike. In fact, the procedural generation is typically used because it works well with the third word, “death”. This one I actually like. Roguelikes do not always have perma-death, but they do always treat character death with more gravity than most other games. They are designed so that players will attempt to stay alive at all costs, rather than simply reload a saved game if things aren’t going perfectly. To me, this is essential to the feel of a roguelike game, so it’s a word I’d like to keep.

Capturing the essentials of how a roguelike feels is key. Death is certainly part of that, but labyrinths and even procedural generation are not; they’re just means that are often used to serve the core. Death is at the core.

Another term I’ve seen suggested to replace roguelike is “dungeon crawl”. That has its own problems, one of which is that “dungeon” (like “labyrinth”) is too limiting, but perhaps a larger problem is that the term dungeon crawl is already used to describe a specific sub-genre of role-playing game epitomized by the likes of Dungeon Master or, more recently, Legend of Grimrock. I do like the word “crawl”, however. To me, another essential part of roguelike design is the incremental advancement players achieve after many, many attempts. Ideally, each death teaches the player something new, and eventually the player will build up enough knowledge and strategy to be able to triumph. This slow progress is a crawl indeed, and given the way my brain works, I decided to smash these two terms together to form my first alternative name: the deathcrawl.

I like this name for several reasons. It’s concise, unlike Procedural Death Labyrinth, which takes so long to say (and type) that Lars Doucet himself was already abbreviating it as PDL even as he proposed its use. Deathcrawl concisely captures that essence of a roguelike: frequent death, and slow, hard-earned progress. I also like its conciseness because it makes it easy for specific games to add some more adjectives to establish their own identity. Spelunky, for example, could be a deathcrawl platformer, while FTL could be a starship management deathcrawl. There can be fantasy deathcrawls, science-fiction deathcrawls, even historical or modern deathcrawls. The term is also general enough to include games that would not necessarily have been called roguelikes, like Dark Souls (which I, criminally, have not yet played; it’s on my to do list).

But deathcrawl does have some drawbacks. For one, it sounds rather unpleasant. I can’t imagine someone unfamiliar with the genre would necessary feel encouraged to play something called a deathcrawl. Then there’s the fact that it doesn’t quite capture a type of game that I really hoped to include. Games like UnReal World, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, or the Adventure mode in Dwarf Fortress are more about freeform exploration of a meticulously modeled world, and while they still feature many deaths they are less focused on gradual progress so much as they are on endless possibility. Most would call them roguelikes, as they obviously share many of the same design principles, but to me the term deathcrawl doesn’t quite fit them. They’re more about exploration.

Then again, exploration is also a core feature of roguelikes, so perhaps a better name would incorporate that instead. Which leads me to the deathsploration game, or simply deathsplorer. It’s a more awkward portmanteau, but somehow sounds less grim than deathcrawl, and could happily accommodate the more freeform roguelikes listed above. It’s also easy to descriptively modify (deathsploration platformer, starship management deathsplorer, etc.). I’m not sure I like the way it sounds, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, as much as deathcrawl, but it may well be a more inclusive and more welcoming name. It doesn’t explicitly highlight the gradual progress that’s so essential to many roguelikes, but it’s implied; you’re exploring, you’ll die a lot, so one presumes that the exploration will be pieced together eventually over many characater’s lives.

In the end, I’m not sure which term I prefer. So, in true Name Game fashion, I’ll just smash them together again, which gives us crawlsplorer, or, perhaps even better, deathdeath. Yeah, let’s go with that.

In all seriousness, though, I’d love to hear your thoughts on new names for the roguelike in the comments!


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  1. How about “tilecrawl”? I dunno if it’s unique to them but square tiles are almost always there. “Tip-toer”: that’s how you’re likely to be playing them.

    • Tilecrawl isn’t bad. I’m not sure it covers games like FTL and Spelunky though, unless you are referring to the rooms on FTL’s ships or the blocks that make up Spelunky levels. But I think it would be easy enough to describe a game as a tile-based deathcrawl, without having to put tiles in the genre name.

      I do like tip-toer, actually. That’s an aspect I hadn’t thought about when coming up with names, and I feel like there are some other great names along that line of thinking that are escaping me at the moment. Hopefully they’ll come to me later.

  2. I came up with another one last night: “Iterator”.

    • I actually like “iterator” a lot. It would also work well as an adjective, e.g. “iterative platformer”, “iterative exploration game”, etc.

      • Bugamn

        I really dislike this game, because it makes me think of games that use grind as a mechanic, such as those cannon launch flash games that require you to repeat so you can get money to perform better next time. The game isn’t limited by the player’s skill, it is designed to require the iteration, even if the player could beat the game at first if he had the necessary items.

        • Yes, I would definitely not consider these types of “iterative” games to qualify as roguelikes or deathcrawls. A key requirement, I think, is that each attempt is equal. If multiple attempts at the game allow the player to “buy” or otherwise achieve a permanent in-game boost that applies to all future attempts, then that’s not really a roguelike to me. The advantage of future attempts should be entirely through accumulated knowledge and skill on the part of the player, not because the game is essentially impossible until players “unlock” the tools needed to win.

          This idea is NOT encompassed in my suggested genre names, however, so perhaps a rethink is needed on that front.

      • Bugamn

        I just thought right now, what about “Journey” games? I know it’s a very vague word, but so is “Adventure” and everyone nows what that means (or has some idea, at least). I thought about this word because those are games that usually focus on the personal journey of the player. Playing those games tend to be something very personal. The bigger points will be the same, but the experience I had fighting eight orcs while riding my horse on the steps of a stair in Nethack is mine. I think that those personal anecdotes are the features that most distinguishes games inpired by rogue. Other games can have personal anecdotes too, but those are usually easier to place closer to our own experiences. The disembark at Stalingrad on the first CoD was a terrifying experience, but it was pretty similar for everyone. Some players might have experienced something slightly different, maybe an unplanned detour, but it’s still pretty similar. I feel that roguelikes tend to be more personal.

        We can also argue that it relates to the journey that the player undertakes to understand the systems. We could also call it deathcrawljourneys 😛

        • What you are describing is often called “emergent storytelling”, meaning stories that emerge naturally from the game’s systems rather than being pre-scripted. Roguelikes are great for this, and I even mentioned it way back in 2011 when I wrote my introduction to roguelikes. Foolishly, however, I didn’t think about it when coming up with new names for roguelikes. Thanks for pointing it out!

          I’m sure there are great ways to include emergence in the name. Deathmergent games. Emergentsplorer. Iterative emergent games. Emergentcrawl. Something like that.

      • I for some reason can’t see the word “reply” under some posts at all, so I’ll reply to my own post when I really am replying to this:

        “I really dislike this [n]ame [“iterator”], because it makes me think of games that use grind as a mechanic, such as those cannon launch flash games that require you to repeat so you can get money to perform better next time. The game isn’t limited by the player’s skill, it is designed to require the iteration, even if the player could beat the game at first if he had the necessary items.”

        Comparatively, I think roguelikes are more numerous (which is not often you get to say that) than what you described and I can’t imagine the player bases of casual java based Congregate games and roguelikes clashing or overlapping in any significant amounts. I doubt there’s going to be a lot of people whose first thought on hearing “iterator” is “you mean like Penguin Flight” or whatever it’s called.

        Secondly, and more importantly, grindy games already have a term we use all the time to describe what it is that they make you do. You used it yourself. There is no-one who will say “I didn’t expect there to be this much iteration involved in completing this game”. Heck, it’s not even really a household word at all. This makes me feel it’s probably very okay to use it as the general denominator for roguelikes. It’s not reserved unless we’ve overlooking something here.

        I believe when used by software developers and engineers in general, “iterative processes” are ones where it’s implied that you don’t only repeat the same pattern over again, but that it keeps getting bigger and more complicated in the process. I’m not 100% sure on that, maybe someone can confirm, but that’s how I perceive the word. This partially helps to separate it from grinding.

        Also you’re saying the game (cannon launcher) is not limited by player skill, but surely the difficulty of Roguelikes is more knowledge than skill-based. I see what you’re saying of course. To say you could technically finish a roguelike on the first try (which you sort of implied) is of course totally hypothetical, but the “items” you’re gaining on each attempt are just the tidbits of game knowledge instead. So in some sense they DO resemble each other.

  3. Ess Tea

    Planecrawler? As different levels are often times planes of different altitudes. It’s fairly broad, anyway.

    • Planecrawler is pretty good. It would be specific to top-down games (which traditional roguelikes are) and therefore wouldn’t work for things like Spelunky (or even FTL, really) but it’s a good description for traditional roguelikes. Could even encompass something like Teleglitch (which I haven’t played yet).

      I also like changing “crawl” to “crawler” in a general sense. Deathcrawler might be even better than deathcrawl.

  4. Hi – ended up here via a post at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I enjoyed your rogue-un-like brainstorm. You’ll likely get some Rogue die-hards who will tell you that discounting procedural generation is a misstep.

    My 2 cents, though, is to point out that when you “define” the genre by characters who suffer permadeaths without save files and players who incrementally gain knowledge of how to eventually achieve their ultimate goal that you’re ALSO describing Super Mario. Sure, you can grab a few extra 1-Ups to extend your life, but even (clear roguelike) Don’t Starve has a re-spawn from death item. And when those 1-Ups are used up…permadeath, you have to make a new Mario character, and start from the beginning. Though…I don’t think that’s your intention…

    Just food for thought!

    • I’m very excited to see my blog linked over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun! Glad it brought a few people over here!

      I posted some similar thoughts over at RPS, but I’ll repeat them here: what disqualifies games like Mario, to me, is the “crawl” part of deathcrawl. It’s the way in which progress is made over repeated attempts. Progression in games like Mario require developing skill in their systems and learning the level layouts and enemy behaviors. Roguelike games require much more than this. A slow accumulation of knowledge about the complex systems of the game and how they can interact, and how to turn those interactions to one’s advantage. That’s what I was trying to capture with “crawl”, but this may well be the wrong word for it. Hence my solicitation for other suggestions here in the comments.

      As for procedural generation, my opinion is that it’s a very effective means of making this “crawl” more interesting. It keeps each attempt fresh, while still allowing the player to learn more general information about the types of dangers that might be present. It also gives many different specific situations for the player to navigate, which makes it a great way to teach systems rather than just the memorization of specific maps or patterns. As a result, I expect nearly all roguelikes (or deathcrawls) will use it to some extent. But I don’t think it’s absolutely required. A game might create the same type of “crawl” but use other, novel ideas to make the process interesting. Basically I worry that absolutely requiring procedural generation is too limiting. And I definitely don’t think it should be in the name!

      Lastly I would point out that I also do not strictly require permadeath. But I do think that these types of games need to put more importance on death than other genres do. There may be other ways to accomplish this than through traditional permadeath.

  5. Reading a few of the more recent replies, I think it’s clear that, like with other genres, you won’t ever find one word to describe all of them neatly without a grey area. That’s why games like Deus Ex is described as an RPG-FPS or you can have an action-adventure or RTS-FPS or whatever. That’s why you shouldn’t just look at one example you don’t like (people do this a TON) and conclude “no, can’t” or “no, shouldn’t”. It’s not constructive. I’ve started to ignore that kind of response.

    • This is true. No name will ever be perfect. But that just means we can always try to come up with new names, which I happen to enjoy doing. Also, while pointing out a single example that one doesn’t like is often unhelpful, if it leads to alternative ideas for names then it can be useful. I always welcome more name suggestions!

  6. Joshua Atherton

    K so this inspired me to come up with a name. “Arcade Survival” for both “roguelikes” and the worse name “roguelites”

    Since adapting and being resourceful is a part of survival games I think it’d fit. I chose arcade cause of how it plays out. Arcade games focus on the stuff people call “permadeath”. Just don’t spend any coins to continue and you only have one life (usually) Arcade also tends to be quick and full of action.

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