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Life is a Roguelike

The genre of roguelike and roguelite video games has become a favorite of mine. Although initially viewed as a hardcore niche for masochist gamers (Shiren the Wanderer, anyone?), roguelikes and the related Lites have become increasingly mainstream with the success of games like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, FTL, Dead Cells, and many more. In my more philosophical moments I have begun to reflect on how, more than any other genre save for purely realistic (fill-in-the-blank) simulators, roguelikes reflect the essence of real life.

Who we are and the things we do have the potential to impact the people around us, our neighborhood, and the world.

The Berlin Interpretation, emerging from the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008, is a list of gameplay elements that define the roguelike genre. Each element is weighed as either a high-value or low-value factor, determining how closely each roguelike hews to the formula trail-blazed by Rogue back in 1980. Some of these elements include:  random dungeon generation, permadeath, non-modal action, resource management, the necessity of exploration, and similar rules governing monster behavior as character behavior, among others.

Dead CellsSourceresized

In the book Spelunky, written by Derek Yu and published by Boss Fight Books, the game designer reveals that the gameplay elements he chose to focus on from the Berlin Interpretation were: “1. Randomized level generation. 2. Permanent death (also known as “permadeath”), whereby the player has one life and cannot reload their game to take back mistakes. 3. A ruleset for physical interactions that is shared by the player, non-player characters (NPCs), and items.”

Using that as a jumping off point, I’d like to offer proof that real life is a roguelike.

Procedurally Generated

From randomly generated Minecraft maps to the digitally-spun histories of Dwarf Fortress, few things have more potential to improve a video game than procedural generation. Even when playing the board game Settlers of Catan, I ignore the board building rules that say ‘don’t put too much of this thing next to this other thing,’ and go for full random every time. Why? Because life is random!

Enter the GungeonSourceresized

Not one of us can choose where we are born, when we are born, who our parents are, what our native language will be, or what genes we inherit. Like baby Kal-El alternately crash-landing in Kansas or the Soviet Union in Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, our early environment and upbringing are entirely out of our control. All of us have to improvise on the fly and do our best with the hand that we have been dealt. What we end up with is the messy, emergent gameplay of our lives—and hopefully with some great stories to tell at the end.


Speaking of the end… as the good books says, “it is appointed for people to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Apart from J.C. and a handful of people in the New Testament, I have yet to meet anyone who has gotten to insert another quarter and press “Continue” on this side of eternity. Death comes to everyone.

Darkest DungeonSourceresized

In roguelikes, the haunting specter of permadeath means that you need to take your run very seriously. There is no guarantee that you will best, let alone reach, the Final Boss. Life is fragile, and after that comes a high score list of how many monsters you killed, how much treasure you collected, how many steps you took, and so on. However, perhaps you can leave your corpse behind to be looted by the next adventurer, or leave behind a monument with words of wisdom or warning, or pass on some Richard Dawkins-esque meme (“unit of cultural transmission”) to provide a strategic advantage to future generations.

Shared Ruleset

There is no friendly fire in the Metal Slug series. Star Fox doesn’t generally have to worry about mid-air collisions with Slippy while doing a barrel roll. And last time I checked, Bowser doesn’t grow double the size after eating a mushroom (although I haven’t played Odyssey, so who knows?). But in roguelike games, the same rules apply to everyone. Game physics, items, and hazards may affect all without discrimination. Want to sacrifice a stunned damsel on Kali’s altar in Spelunky? Just don’t fall on the altar yourself after bonking your head.

self-sacrifice by Steam user TzaphqielSourceresized

The same is true in real life. Everything is connected. From the macro level of geopolitical machinations and climate change to your neighbor’s dog pooping on your front lawn, who we are and the things we do have the potential to impact the people around us, our neighborhood, and the world—even total strangers living on the other side of the planet. Also, because everything in our world interacts with everything else, we are faced with unfathomable permutations of possibility. For example, who would have ever thought that cheddar and caramel popcorn would go well together? Chicagoans, apparently.

The Amulet of Yendor

And lastly, the ultimate goal of any roguelike worth its salt is to descend to the lowest level of the dungeon and retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. Just like real life!

Featured image “Nethack_screenshot” by NetHack team (License).

Justin Gabriel is a published Christian author, theology geek, and gamer. Find his books and more at http://justingabriel.org/

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