The vast majority of roguelikes don’t have any sort of plot at all. Or, at least, only the most basic bare bones of one. More of a framing story, something to explain what’s going on on only the most surface level. Going all the way back to the original Rogue, where you are simply trying to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. Often, they run along those lines, get to the end of this dungeon and either retrieve this artifact or kill this evil wizard or whatever.
Early roguelikes, especially, were often focused more on pure mechanics. The story was just something bolted on top as a laugh, as well as any purported world building that may happen along the way. But, you also see some that are built into existing fictional universes, like Angband. Little by little, a sort of storytelling starts to come together in some corners of the roguelike space. Nowadays, some roguelikes have full-on plots with lots of non-player characters and tons and tons of lore and world building.
There are many different ways to integrate a story into a game. You can tell it directly, with cutscenes and dialog. You can tell it indirectly, with mere hints of what is happening through descriptions of aspects of the game world, and the state of the world itself. You can also have games that focus on a prescribed story, with all the beats carefully planned out ahead of time. Or, you can simply set up systems and let the stories emerge as they may, uniquely for each individual player. You can focus on a particular plot, a series of events happening at a particular time to particular individuals. Or, you can focus on building out the wider world, building up the lore and the space of possibilities that could happen there.
Or, of course, you can do all of these at the same time! Including many different avenues to get across thematic meaning and information about events and the world they take place in. The possibilities for storytelling in game go even beyond these, the few categories I could think of off the top of my head. To find some guidance, I thought back about things really stuck with me in my long experience with games, of all kinds, as a medium.
Two broad types stand out to me:
1. RPG Sourcebooks and Warhammer Army Books
I got into Warhammer from a young age. Not actually playing it, mind you, I can count the number of times I did that on one hand. No, just the general milieu and vibe of it. Citadel Miniatures catalogues, White Dwarf magazine, and army books (or codices, for 40k).
For those who don’t know, Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k are fictional universes owned by Games Workshop, a British publisher. They started out as tabletop RPGs, grew popular with the addition of wargames, and have found even more success with modern video games like Dawn of War and Vermintide. For each different type of army you could build in the wargames, Games Workshop published a book with the specific rules for their units, as well as all sorts of background information.
These are the thing that I had. They not only contained all sorts of complex rules for a game I almost never played, which was fun to think about, they also had tons and tons of world building. The way it was presented was half of the fun. In 40k books, often all the information would be from the viewpoint of the Imperium of Man, and thus include lots of broad speculation or downright incorrect information, informed by their limited understanding of the actual subject of the book.
Some of the world building was direct. A timeline of events, a list of regions and who lives there and what they’re like, directly telling you who a character is. But there was also, mixed in, some diagetic, in-fiction snippets of text. A letter written about some battle, describing some particular monster, or from one character to another. Almost a sort of fictional anthropology, digging deep in some cases, making broad sweeping statements in others.
Thinking about it now, I see that they wanted to give you an idea for what that particular race or group was like, but not dictate in exact terms what they have to be. They want to leave open gaps for the players to fill in, with their own particular additions, for their own army. It’s the same with RPG sourcebooks (I got into RIFTS, never played it once). The aim is to give the potential player suggestions, give them a vibe and a mood, give them constraints so that they have fill in the details and feel a closer connection.
Also, part of the appeal is that it’s just the pure thought-experiment nature of speculative fiction boiled down to the bare essentials. What if there was a whole nation ruled by the undead? What if man explored the stars, then forgot everything about how technology actually worked? What if the Holy Roman Empire had wizards?
But then, you dig down. You can go down into the trenches, and as time goes on fill in more and more of the blanks. Figure out what the consequences of these tossed-off notions actually are, in the long run, after years and years of history and development. The process of making a fictional world feel more real by thinking through all of the decisions made about it.
I absolutely love that shit.
2. Generic Characters in Final Fantasy Tactics (and in RPGs in general)
This may seem like a strange one, but it’s actually along the same lines as the first one.
In the game Final Fantasy Tactics, you have your main characters, who are involved with the plot. The protagonist Ramza, and any allies he meets along the way. But then, you also just have a bunch of random, normal people that fill out the ranks of your party. They have randomly selected names, zodiac signs, and stats. That’s about as deep as it goes.
After a certain point in the game, you can start sending them off on side jobs. You go to a bar in a town, and find out about missions you can send one or two units off on, independently. There’s really no gameplay, you don’t get to see any of their mission, they just leave for a certain number of days and then show back up, at the same town they left from. Then they give a little report about how the job went, and gain some experience and job points.
I love the idea that these normal people off the street, former soldiers lookin’ for work, get recruited into this absolutely buck wild quest that Ramza is on. The plot of FFT is basically the War of the Roses (which Game of Thrones is also based on) but it was orchestrated by the Catholic church in order to prepare a great blood sacrifice to resurrect Jesus, who is actually a demon. Also, the twelve apostles are also demons and possess humans through strange crystals (gotta have crystals, it is a Final Fantasy game after all).
So Ramza is going through this whole journey of being labeled a heretic and trying to save his family from this conspiracy, meanwhile Abelard the Black Mage over here is just puttin’ in time and getting his paycheck. As I played that game, back in the day, I assigned personalities to the various generic units in my party. You have to spend a lot of time with them, grinding out their job levels and building them up from weak recruits into gods of death. It gives you plenty of opportunity to roleplay little moments in or outside of battle.
The modern XCOM series also has this dynamic, and they’ve really expanded on it. You can customize soldier’s clothing, the way they hold themselves when idle, have them for friendships, and so on. There is a great joy in the anonymous hero. The functionary, the person just doing their job, and that job happens to be part of saving the world.
I think these two specific types of storytelling, utilizing a heavy amount of top-level world building and also generic, interchangeable units that the player is allowed to form a direct connection with, are perfect for a roguelike.
The nature of a roguelike is that you’re going to be playing over and over, repeating runs until you learn well enough to win, or get lucky. So, repeating direct, prescribed plot points is going to get old, fast. But if you’re just building up the possibilities and deepening understanding of what’s already there, then repeatedly seeing the same things over and over is a virtue, rather than a problem.
Similarly, if you’re just repeating over and over, making the player character slightly different each time can help keep the player engaged. It doesn’t even have to be meaningful in a mechanical way, necessarily. Small things like a name, or a short list of particular traits, would help mark them out as an individual, rather than a faceless avatar.
In a world where stories are meant to emerge in a natural way, as a consequence of systems rather than crafted writing, every fixed point is a liability. You don’t want to narrow the space too much, to restrict imagination unnecessarily.
So, to sum up: Generic characters, and lots of lore and world building around the edges.
Going along with my remembrance of FFT, I also thought it would be fun to have a traditional JRPG-style story… which the player doesn’t get all the details of, or really participate in. It’s just a thing going on in the world, but really none of your business. Piecing together mysteries in game stories is all the rage these days, just look at the games out of From Software.
I’d like to take a moment to say, just for the record, that of course this is not the definitive, absolute best way to tell a story in a roguelike. Plenty of existing games do things differently. There are all sorts of ways you can handle the specific limitations of the genre within the fiction.
In this series of blog posts, I’m partially going through the process of game design and picking apart the concepts of a genre, but also just picking out things that I, personally, happen to like. My abiding philosophy is to make the game that you would want to play. But, approach it in a careful and thoughtful way, think through all the angles ahead of time that you possible can.
As the saying goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” In order to truly capture the part of a thing that you admire, you have to analyze it in greater detail.