The Perils of Storytelling in Roguelikes

Storytelling in games is already hard, but balancing randomization and clarity in roguelike narrative can be particularly difficult.

by Ricardo Contreras
Jul 23 2019, 7:00pm

Image courtesy of Sharkbomb Studios

Video game narratives are hard. How your story is presented with the addition of audience participation can cause what seem like particularly simple ideas and descriptions to take on ever more complicated readings. It can be especially tough for games in the roguelike space, given that they are meant to be difficult and played multiple times through. A third act twist or using random encounters while also attempting to build a world can be difficult to pull off, and the wrong mix of randomized narrative beats can give a stark first impression. The Waypoint Radio crew discuss this with regards to the new roguelike deckbuilder Nowhere Prophet, check back in on Night Call, and take a brief dip in the question bucket. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.

Cado: There was one small glimpse where I came upon this a group of people from a mercenary group called Blue Devil Mercenaries, who again, like every other faction they've only been described as antagonistic. There's no grays or in-betweens ever described. Except for this one moment that I've had with which is part of the reason I'm still sticking with this game trying to get to the end. Essentially I come upon them doing funerary rites for some of their fallen members, and in this moment I could actually join them and pray for their fallen members. Even though every other encounter I've ever had with any other faction, either I come to an uneasy truce where like they let me pass like and continue on my way or it ends in a fight.

And this is the only one where, as far as I can tell, there was no way for a fight to even break out. So it's entirely possible that because this game is very hard, you're supposed to get past 4 maps worth to get to the end of it, I've only ever gotten to pass the first two, and this encounter happened in the second map once. So it's possible there's more things like that later on or there is supposed to be a tournament of some sort but like it's the problem that this sort of game that's like a roguelike like this has with narrative if you're going to hold back information like that and but your game is very hard and it'll take a very long time to get to the end if it feels like. Like I I know like I might I may have like if it weren't for the fact that I kept getting the cycle single like glimpse into slightly more nuanced storytelling.

I might have already dropped it for being like, "this seems weird." I mean, it's good otherwise, that's the other thing is that it's actually very like, completely mechanically, it's a very fun card game and the mechanics of having to keep your your followers alive make you play a card game differently. I had mentioned this before, when you play other games like Magic or Hearthstone or things like that, you tend to see the pieces on the board as expendable. Like they really lose that sense of, oh I could just throw this at that because it doesn't matter if it dies. When they've set this up as they're this group of followers, and if they die twice that's it, the card is gone, they're dead dead, you know that permadeath aspect.

So all of that is really interesting, but then like the weird, very black or white lack of nuance is throwing me off from like really 100% loving this game. Plus like weird ways that they describe those those factions.

Danielle: Yeah, that is a trap to fall into for writing a game, right? Even if, and this is giving them a lot of credit, but even if they have some sort of other message or they're doing something with this eventually, who knows if they are but yeah. If you set things up in such a way, very few people finish games right, very few people actually see the end of a game especially a very difficult game. So if you doing something with it, you got to kind of at least foreshadow that you're doing something with it.

Cado: Yeah, and there hasn't been much, unfortunately.

Rob: Well it also sounds like they're doing that thing where your party, your group has to be the good guys. Which means every other ideology present in the world has to be somehow bad, right? You are the only virtuous society wandering the wastes.

Cado: Which is complete, you know,

Rob: These people believe in worker solidarity, but ooh, too much! These people are out and out facists but ooh! Too much!

Cado & Danielle: [Laughter]

Rob: There's a right amount damnit, and by god, your party is going to find it. And that's why everyone can join it.

Cado: Your party already found it. That's it, you're the ones who are just the right amount of everything.

Discussed: Night Call, Nowhere Prophet, Fireball Island, Coimbra

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