Rogue Legacy: The Things We Leave Behind

You know, this wasn’t intentional, but I’ve been playing over a lot of old games recently. Stuff I’ve played before, stuff I’ve written about. I don’t know if it’s a feature of moving into this new phase for the blog, but I’ve ended up back in the early 2010s, when roguelikes broke into the mainstream. They were low-res, indie games, clearly opposed to the mega-studio big budget cinematic experiences like Modern Warfare. And they had their own key mechanics, too. Where the mainstream was leaning into the auto-save and the easy respawn at the start of your immediate area, roguelikes featured permanent death. You died? Game over. Start from the beginning. Fuck you. Spelunky was one of the early adopters, coming out in 2008, and a string of others followed behind. The Binding of Isaac was 2011, FTL in 2012. Don’t Starve was 2013 – it’s not a pure roguelike, it’s more of a survival game, but there are some clear lines of influence, particularly in the role of perma-death and the random generation each time you start a new game.

It’s another 2013 roguelike we’re talking about today, though: Rogue Legacy. It was a relatively standard dungeon crawler, with one key difference – it had a very strong legacy system. When you died, you could use the gold that you’d collected to upgrade your castle, giving your heir (your new character) a better chance at success. I wrote about this game back in 2016, noting that it looped the game mechanic of death into the narrative conceit of inheritance. Where other games would have you die and respawn with no in-world explanation, Rogue Legacy gave the game mechanic a fictional veneer. You see this sort of negotiation in every medium – everybody does it. As a very obvious example, in realist theatre, where the set is made up to look like a drawing room or a lounge or something, all of the entrances and exits are incorporated into the fiction. It’s not just an exit off the stage, it’s the door into the operating theatre, or it’s the door leading into the pantry. The practical need for actors to get off the stage is cloaked in a fictional explanation. So I was excited by Rogue Legacy, back in 2016, because I felt that death was a game element that needed narrative justification. I saw it as a break in the fiction, as an inconsistency that made it harder for us to talk about game narrative. That is, if you’re playing a game, and you die, and then you play the level through again and succeed, what is the narrative significance of the first attempt? It exists in this weird half-space – in the strictest sense, we’d say it just doesn’t exist as part of the canonical plot. If you were describing the plot of Halo, and you included the bit where Master Chief died seven times in the initial Flood encounter – that’s not the real story. However, the fact that you died so much does form a major part of your experience of the text, and it feels wrong to ignore it. This is where you see narrative theorists trying to loop in theories of multiple universes – the failed attempt becomes a branching, alternate universe, which co-exists silently as a shadow realm alongside or underneath the canonical events of the plot. Rogue Legacy was interesting because it short-circuited all of that drama. You didn’t have to worry about multiple universe theory: death was just part of the plot. The story continued in one long, unbroken arc, regardless of how many times you died.

And sure, that’s kinda interesting. It’s maybe a little preoccupied with hardcore narrative theory, but sure. I think now, playing through it again a few years later, my attention is drawn to other things. The inheritance mechanic gives you a unique way of looking at your character and the meaning of their life. They aren’t just working for their own interests – they’re pursuing the broader goals of their bloodline. The game gives you a string of characters who are dedicated to creating a future that they know they’ll never see. That’s not very common. It doesn’t really register when you’re playing, because the intergenerational struggle of these characters is still filtered through your singular perspective. That is, even though you play multiple characters striving towards this distant future goal, you as a player are one person pursuing a short-term goal that’s achievable in a handful of hours. You’re just trying to win the game. You never have to sacrifice your own interests for any higher, intergenerational purpose. You will reap the rewards of your own success. In that sense, the game never really encourages you to appreciate what inheritance means for the characters you play. Or rather, where it does encourage you, it’s in the wider context of you being able to achieve your goal within your own lifetime. That hampers the vibe a little. Rogue Legacy teaches you to think about your heritage in hints and suggestions, in things that flicker around the edges of the game, rather than in its core structure.

Let me give you an example. In games like The Binding of Isaac, you can choose your own starting character, from a roster of up to fifteen, depending on which version of the game you’re playing. Each character has different stats and abilities, and you can bolster these abilities by picking up new items throughout the game. Your characters are to a large degree self-made. They develop over time depending on the items you discover and choose to keep. In Rogue Legacy, on the other hand, you are offered a choice of three already-developed characters. They are entirely randomly generated, including their different traits and characteristics. You can’t choose key elements such as your class or your starting spell, except within the bounds of the three characters that you’ve been presented with. Where Binding offers a gradual, self-determined character arc, Rogue Legacy tells you who you are from the beginning, as if you were simply born into the role. On a mechanical level, it speaks to the constraints of genetics, of inheritance. You are presented with a pre-determined identity, rather than being allowed to develop something for yourself.

Similarly, once you take on one of these pre-determined identities, you must decide how you will use the time that you have to support the broader mission of your family. Will you go and fight a boss, or will you scrounge around for treasure so that your descendants might have a better chance? Your decision one way or the other influences the types of risks you’re willing to take, the rooms you’ll fight through and the rooms you’ll avoid. For example, in the image above, there’s some special treasure at the end of the spiky death pit. It’ll be armour, or a new weapon, or a magical rune – something like that. Is it worth risking the spiky death pit, or do you want to conserve your health for the boss fight? What is the most valuable thing you can do with the character you’ve been given? Again, there’s a bit of interplay here between you doing stuff for yourself (ie trying to win the game), and the characters doing stuff for their descendants (trying to make sure they eventually conquer the castle). But there’s also a parallel interplay between your skill level and your stat level. Some players would look at the spiky death pit and go oh yeah, I could navigate that, no issue. Their skill is high enough that they aren’t concerned about their stats – in this case their health. Other players might look at the death pit and think mm, I’d probably take damage, but I also know I’m not skilled enough to fight the boss anyway. In that scenario, the concrete skill boost offered by the treasure can supplement the shortfall in player skill. The spike pit might cause damage, and might drastically shorten this immediate run, but it could still be worth it for the long-term benefit. In that sense, even though the player is acting in a self-interested way, they’re acting for the benefit of their future self, rather than for the benefit of this immediate run. There’s a level of forward planning that ties in with the themes of inheritance and this elongated understanding of progression.

I guess it’s that sense of progression that’s brought me back to this game, some five years later. There’s something satisfying about knowing that your aborted or failed runs are contributing to a wider whole. You can look back fondly at your trail of dead ancestors, and see them in the context of progress rather than as isolated and sealed off within themselves. We are carried forward by our failures. Welcome to the new year.

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