Paweł Marczewski, University of Warsaw
Roguelikes are a curious genre of computer games - despite existing for almost 40 years now, their appearance hasn't changed a bit. As in other RPGs, the players explore dungeons killing goblins and collecting fabulous loot - but the player is represented by an '@' sign, the monsters by various letters ('g' for goblin, 'T' for troll…) and the gold looks like a shiny yellow '$'. As one game developer put it, roguelikes are about killing letters to collect punctuation.
The ascetic graphical style (if you can even call it that) is actually a crucial advantage. It takes a little getting used to, but after a while our imagination can substitute a fearsome dragon for a red 'D' better than any artist could. What matters is not how the dragon looks, but how hard it can hit us, and what loot it will drop after we kill it - in a way, the display in a roguelike game has a symbolic nature, similar to, say, a chessboard.
The main advantage, however, is a rapid development cycle - because a roguelike programmer doesn't need to worry about art or animation, adding a new feature is extremely easy. A typical roguelike game has dozens of features (such as combat, magic, smithing, herbology, alchemy, magical mutation, cooking, poisons, wishes…) interacting with one another in subtle and unexpected ways.
A nice example of such interactions can be the cockatrice in Nethack - this ugly monster can turn the player to stone by simply touching it (unless the player does something to stop it); however, after killing we can grab its corpse and petrify enemies by swinging it around. Of course, you have to remember to wear gloves if you ever attempt that - and if you ever stumble by going down the dungeon stairs, you'll turn to stone as well. And don't even get me started on cockatrice eggs…
Apart from the ASCII graphics and complexity, the third most important aspect of roguelikes is permanent death. If you ever die in the game, there is no loading from a past save. Your character is lost forever and you have to start from the beginning. Dying can be frustrating, but makes playing the game an extremely rewarding experience - suddenly, everything that happens becomes much more real, every risk you make has to be carefully calculated. And finally winning your favourite game after a few years of trying (really!) is the best feeling in the world, not to mention an achievement worthy of bragging.
Because permadeath makes you start the game over and over again, it cannot go the same way everytime or it would quickly become boring. That's why the content in roguelikes is procedurally generated - a new character will encounter different dungeons and monsters. No two games are the same - the randomness, combined with complexity mentioned before, can generate many unique adventures.
As a result, the game makes the player create their own story. I could, for instance, tell you the sad tale of a character that lost his only climbing set and became stranded on the wrong side of a mountain chain. Another time, a dwarven weaponsmith of mine managed to track down a Moloch Emperor and melt its 2500-kilogram eternium armor. There is also that one time when Raven, a human thief, attempted to kill the Chaos God and perished because of his own special powers… but that one is too painful to tell.
There are many roguelike games - my personal favourite is Ancient Domains of Mystery, other notable classics are Nethack and Crawl. Another game worth mentioning is DoomRL, a roguelike version of the classic from id Software. Even weirder is HyperRogue, which takes place on a non-Euclidean surface (hyperbolic plane).
Slides in Polish (PDF)