Though roguelikes have been around for a long time, the genre really exploded in popularity after Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac helped introduce its extremely hardcore tendencies to a larger audience, including me. And though I've dumped hundreds of hours into Spelunky and a great many into The Binding of Isaac, I'm sympathetic to the argument that, hey, maybe not every game has to be a roguelike! That said, I really like roguelikes, especially when done well.
There have been a trio of high-profile roguelikes released recently: Flinthook, Strafe, and Dead Cells. Each of them riffs on the same basic structure, in which players fight as long and as far as they can before dying and starting over. All three are extremely fun to play, but my response to Flinthook was the same as Strafe, in that I wished the mechanics were in a different game, one with handcrafted levels, rather than algorithms. But I was left with this nagging question: was I simply getting tired of roguelikes or were these games just doing it poorly?
Dead Cells, as it turns out, helped provide my answer, one that allows me to talk about these games in a way that goes beyond "You know, I really liked how Spelunky did it, so do more of that, I guess." It's helpful in the same way we've spent time ruminating over the definition of a Souls-like at Waypoint, as we try to break down the elemental structure of a game so we can better understand it.
On Waypoint Radio this week, a listener asked us what it's like to play similar games back-to-back, using Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as examples of open world games released within weeks of one another. While both work within the open world structure, each approaches the idea of an open world is very different ways. On a surface level, while playing similar games might help showcase preferences for one approach or another, what it's really useful for is building vocabulary for those preferences. It's about moving beyond the simple fact that you enjoy (or don't enjoy) something, but the why.
Maybe you're impressed by the way Breath of the Wild has systems colliding with one another, leading to unexpected scenarios where enemies are battling one another in the open. Horizon, on the other hand, features precious little of this, despite having an equally enormous world. And yet, Horizon has some incredible moments in that open world, but they're often the result of the developers specifically handcrafting the setup. Different solutions to the same problem.
There was only a short break in-between my time with Flinthook, Strafe, and Dead Cells. I've previously argued it's possible I won't play a better feeling game this year than Flinthook, and while Dead Cells gives Flinthook a run for its money, my reaction still holds up. Yet mechanics mean little without a structure to help you explore and experiment with them, and it's where Flinthook falls flat. Flinthook and Dead Cells aren't, ultimately, all that different, but one has me feeling exhilarated when death arrives, while the other has me looking for another game to play.
The issue, then, isn't that Flinthook (or Strafe) are in the wrong structure. It's fine that both games are roguelikes! Rogulikes aren't overdone, but you can do them wrong (or poorly). My issue is how they approached solutions to the same problem.
When I think about my best Spelunky runs, success often ran through a different route every time. The nature of a roguelike means that you could, in theory, kill yourself and start over if you're not happy with how things are playing out, but a good roguelike should make every run feel like it has the potential to pan out because the player has dozens possibilities to reach the finish line. I rarely felt that way with Flinthook and Strafe, but Dead Cells? Dead Cells was different, often harnessing the Spelunky-like joy of "Lemme try to make this work."
In Flinthook, for example, you're allowed to tailor so much of your equipment prior to jumping into a stage that it often limits improvisation. It might have benefited from putting the player into more unexpected scenarios, circumstances that made them uncomfortable and forced them to be bold.
By comparison, in Dead Cells, I'm always curious about what might happen. Maybe I'll find an electric whip that automatically targets enemies, maybe it's a set of knives that splinter across the room. The point is that I don't know. Mystery leads to experimentation, and while that experimentation might result in immediate failure, often those failures are instructive, humorous, or, at least, interesting. That's the right mixture of elements to keep a roguelike absorbing.
And look, there are lots of people who really dig Flinthook and Strafe, who don't have same problems that I do. I'm happy for them, wish them no ill will. My criticisms aren't a suggestion that every roguelike has to be tailored to my specific preferences. But what's been useful about playing all three games, despite mixed feelings, is I've been able to form a language about those preferences, so that when I'm responding to them, I can finally say why I'm into them—or not.