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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.
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!