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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Game Theory: The Roguelike and the absurd; what dungeon grinding tells us about humanity

Article by Matt S.

The roguelike is one of my favourite RPG sub-genres. From the early days when as a school kid I discovered the free Nethack, right though to my time as a university student when it was all I could afford to play, the classic roguelike was something I spent a lot of time playing. And then I moved on to the likes of Chocobo's Dungeon on the Wii, Sorcery Saga on the PlayStation Vita and The Guided Fate Paradox on the PlayStation 3. This genre is one that I can't really resist playing, no matter how many times I play what is essentially the same thing.

But it's not the narrative that is appealing about the roguelike; roguelikes have rarely had what could be called classic stories. It's not the depth of gameplay, because certainly there are deeper RPG sub-genres out there than the grind-heavy and single-button play of a roguelike.

Related reading: A game theory piece on Nietzsche and Persona 4

No, what is appealing about the roguelike is that on a very fundamental level, from the very building blocks of the sub-genre's creation, it is absurdism in motion. And, just like absurdism in theatre, literature, and the other arts, through its repetitive mechanical structure it tells us a lot about the human condition because it is so damned addictive.

A preface to absurdism

Before we get into how absurdism specifically applies to the roguelike genre, it might be worthwhile giving a very quick overview to absurdism for anyone who many never have encountered the art/ philosophy movement before.

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon

As a philosophy absurdism can become incredibly complex (especially since it shares close ties to the mind bleepery that is existentialism, nihilism and surrealism), but if I was to try and summarise the core theory of the philosophy in two sentences: absurdism is the idea that there is so much stuff out there in the universe that to try and understand it is ultimately futile. But because humans are humans, we try to make meaning of what is around us, and these ultimately doomed efforts are, at core, absurd. 

The more famous exponents of this philosophy tend to be in the performing arts, and include Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the work of more modern artists like David Mamet often include absurdist elements.

It's important to note that while absurdist works are often incredibly funny, or at least contain humour, and while the underlying philosophy reveals some of the strangest oddities about the human condition, absurdism is not in itself a genre of comedy. It's entirely possible for serious works to explore this theme (although such works are often then mistaken for examples of nihilism).

Google searching will give you more background on absurdism, or you can hit up Amazon for books on the subject. You can essentially do entire degrees on the philosophy, so what I've described above is an obscene generalisation, but hopefully it will stand as an adequate intro to discuss its relation to the roguelike.

A scene from Waiting for Godot

From Godot to Chocobo

So on to the discussion of absurdism and the roguelike. We'll start with a scene from Samuel Beckett's classic absurdist play, Waiting for Godot: Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Vladimir's hat in place of his own which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Estragon's hat. Estragon adjusts Vladimir's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Estragon's hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Lucky's hat. Vladimir adjusts Estragon's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Lucky's hat in place of Vladimir's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes his hat, Estragon adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on his hat in place of Estragon's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes his hat. Vladimir adjusts his hat on his head. Estragon puts on his hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Lucky's hat. Estragon adjusts his hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Lucky's hat in place of his own which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon hands Vladimir's hat back to Vladimir who takes it and hands it back to Estragon who takes it and hands it back to Vladimir who takes it and throws it down.

What you'll do in the typical roguelike: Enter dungeon. Explore random halls and rooms. Battle creatures. Face one too powerful, die, be sent back to the start at level 1 with no equipment. Enter dungeon. Explore random halls and rooms. Battle creatures. Face one too powerful, die, be sent back to the start at level 1 with no equipment. Enter dungeon. Explore random halls and rooms. Battle creatures. Face one too powerful, die, be sent back to the start at level 1 with no equipment. Enter dungeon. Explore random halls and rooms. Battle creatures. Face one too powerful, die, be sent back to the start at level 1 with no equipment. Enter dungeon. Explore random halls and rooms. Battle creatures. Face one too powerful, die, be sent back to the start at level 1 with no equipment. Enter dungeon. Explore random halls and rooms. Battle creatures. Face one too powerful, die, be sent back to the start at level 1 with no equipment. Enter dungeon. Explore random halls and rooms. Battle creatures. Face one too powerful, die, be sent back to the start at level 1 with no equipment. 

Sisyphus

Do you see the similarities here? A common way in which absurdists will address the core themes of "their" philosophy is through the use of repetition. But it's not the kind of repetition that a poet might use to create meaning - rather, what's key here is that the repetition that serves no real value. At the end of the process not a lot has been achieved by the characters (and by extension in the roguelike, the player), and this goes right back to the roots of the absurdist philosophy - the Albert Camus essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a tragic figure from Greek mythology who was trapped in hell and forced to spend an eternity pushing a boulder up a steep mountain, only for it to inevitably roll back down the mountain forever. He stands as a metaphor for the ultimate futility of humanity in its search for meaning and purpose.

A roguelike's mechanics are very much like pushing a boulder up Sisyphus' hill. Players can spend hours painstakingly working through a quest, only to have all that progress all-but reset when a random encounter or trap "kills" their character, sending them back to the start of the level (or entire game) little better off than when they started. Trying to master the roguelike is ultimately futile since the random nature of these games actively defies mastery - even if you're able to complete the game the next time you play the experience is going to be very different.

The modern roguelike and absurdism

Of course, the modern roguelike does make progress easier. The game is generally broken down into smaller sections, and a "death" resets progress to that previous section. Furthermore, elements of character development now typically remain, even following a "death." As you're playing games such as The Guided Fate Paradox or Chocobo's Dungeon, you therefore feel like you're making progress as new dungeons pop up in the game and your character is stronger than how they were at the start at the game, even if there is the occasional "fatal" mistake along the way.

Sorcery Saga

However the core theme of repetition remains in these games, be that through griding up experience levels, or repeating specific areas of the dungeon because it's either a significant difficulty spike or it's an especially good place to earn loot. Absurdly enough, however, this repetition itself doesn't do anything to progress the narrative, or give players a greater understanding of the world they are playing in. Consequently they're pulled into a Sisyphean loop very much like the ones I've described at the start.

As we've already seen repetition - and specifically repetition that doesn't really lead anywhere - is core to both the roguelike and the absurdist philosophy. But what does that tell us about the human condition? As The Myth of Sisyphus highlights through the symbolism of the fable, humans have a fundamental desire to achieve meaning to problems that it is faced with, regardless of how futile each attempt is. What is fascinating about the roguelike is that, despite being so repetitive, the roguelike formula remains an endeering one, validating the core theme that absurdism addresses - that despite the futility of understanding the universe, humans will continue to try to overcome its challenges, and as such they will continue to buy roguelikes.

Related reading: Another game theory piece, this time on Danganronpa and morality.

Or to put it another way through a popular proverb; the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It's absurd, and it's the roguelike.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Game Theory: The Roguelike and the absurd; what dungeon grinding tells us about humanity
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