Perhaps you’re at home. Perhaps you’re on a train. The location doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you’re enjoying your current favourite rogueish-type-like. You think you’re on top of your game, got all the enemy moves figured out. Yeah, baby, you know what to do.

And then something goes horribly wrong.

You just click, click, click quickly through three moves in one go, as if you’re trying to beat the computer before it gets in a countermove.

And of course you don’t get to be quicker than the computer because the game is turn-based. No, you get to die. You die, because you were stupid.

You’ve just experienced a brain phenomenon I call the roguerush. What the hell happened there?

My ability to predict what’s going to happen in a rogueish-type-like is not infallible, especially when there’s often a little randomness involved. 868-HACK (Michael Brough, 2013) throws enemies randomly on to the screen. Why would you just jab “up, up, up” without a care when the game can dead you good in a single move?

Despite featuring the word “hop” in its title, the interface of mobile title Hoplite (Magma Fortress, 2013) resists the player making a sequence of quick moves. Yet I can still bring myself to the edge of disaster because my brain has committed to a plan. It’ll be okay. I’ll survive, I say, as a trilogy of demon archers impale me with a trilogy of arrows. And a demon wizard roasts me, nice touch.

These are cerebral games, requiring thought and care to be poured into each step. Well, normally. As Raigan Burns (Metanet Software) pointed out on Twitter recently, there’s a lot of “dead time” in Hoplite over the first few levels during which you could almost switch off your brain and initiate auto-pilot. If I was playing just Hoplite, maybe I would’ve argued impatience was killing me. But 868-HACK force-feeds you with troubling decisions from the get-go.

Not so fast.

Getting smarter at these games takes dedication. No player can claim to be 10th Dan at 868-HACK after a single attempt. You need time to work out how its system functions, identify tactical nuances which only reveal themselves over multiple games, the risk/reward probabilities you can live with when siphoning score. The safest game ends with zero score – but that’s no score at all.

If you can’t live without the healing .RESET program, then you’re not going to succeed if the .RESET program never appears. 868-HACK dissuades you from getting hooked on particular programs by unlocking more programs as you play, and the probability you’ll see your favourite program collapses with more experience. You have to adapt to rely on defensive programs like .PUSH more instead of using something comforting like .ROW to take out enemies en masse. Instead of a learning curve, 868-HACK is more like a learning spiral that keeps spinning out.

And I was hopeless at Hoplite for ages. My strategy was always to become a better sponge, maximising health so I could take plenty of punishment. But that strategy falls apart once you’re into the endgame, because the altars are gone and full health restoration is no longer available. Over several weeks, I realised I had become reliant on luck to do the heavy lifting and needed to shift gears. It was time for a training montage.

I played a gruelling series of games where I never, ever chose prayers to heal or increase max health. I toughened up. I exercised all those extra neuromuscles that God put there just for Hoplite. I found myself bashing as a matter of course and even threw a spear once or twice.

But after all that hardship and training, I desired a little bit of glory. Yes, I got to level 23 on Hoplite. But then I wanted to see 24. And 25. Just like getting a four-game streak on 868-HACK means I now want to scalp a five-game streak. But having to survive for achingly long games can feel like real work with the stress rising with each level survived, the threat of death hanging over every moment. When will you squander your investment of time? When will you screw it up?

My subconscious mind yearns for escape. It knows what I want, what I need, and makes my fingers do what needs to be done.

They launch into a round of Russian roulette before you even realise it. Jab, jab, jab. Did you die? No? Don’t worry, perhaps it’ll happen next time. My brain keeps blanking out, roguerushing with increasing frequency, until my fingers catch me out and I am dead.

So, my advice. If you ever find yourself roguerushing, listen carefully. You might hear your brain, begging you to stop.

Related: Brough Beaten: A Portrait of Success

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7 thoughts on “The Strange Case of the Roguelike Suicide

  1. Ha, I have definitely experienced this phenomenon. It’s not restricted to rogueish-type-likes (I like that term, btw), either. I’ve gotten myself into a pickle through being cocky in many turn-based games like XCOM or Xenonauts. Cutting those spare time units down past the reaction fire point because I want to see what’s round the corner, or walking someone into enemy reaction fire because I just got cocky, or moving a unit into a new area and triggering a new group of enemies after almost everyone else has moved and so he or she has no support…

    I’d put it down to impatience, at least in those instances, and perhaps also in my experience of rogueish-type-likes such as Hoplite, but I like the idea of a yearning for escape from all that pressure. 🙂

  2. Originally, Shaun, I wasn’t going to go down this route but I realised I was playing Hoplite with a certain weariness. The idea of playing a full game for 10-15 minutes was starting to bother me. I sense the same thing in 868-HACK. It’s as if I want to convince myself that in always going to lose, like standing on the precipice of a cliff, and feeling like you’re going to fall – that you’ll *make yourself* fall.

    Some of it is definitely impatience but there’s a certain hopelessness in my play. I die really quickly at 868-HACK now. I hardly ever make it through one game: something has changed.

  3. Oh, okay, I see what you mean by desiring a little bit of glory now!

    Yeah, that makes sense. I sure do start getting cocky when I feel like I know how to do something. It always leads to a fall, of course, but some part of me obviously thinks success is simply due me.

    I wonder if this ties in to metagame progression, which for rogue—things you don’t tend to get. I’m no rogue— expert so I don’t know how common this is with nethack, rogue, angband etc but with strategy rogue—things like FTL and Invisible Inc either success or failure will result in the unlocking of new options to start with. As a result each run feels not only tense and exciting for its own sake, but also feels that it has consequences outside itself, which I think goes some way toward mitigating that feeling of growing disconnection I think you’re articulating. For me, at least, anyway.

    Probably the strangest implementation of this concept I’ve seen recently is in the Japanese game Survive! Mola Mola, which is really just another taptaptap mobile game, but while it’s all about trying to make your fish bigger by eating stuff and going on adventures, you ultimately score points and unlock progression by having your fish die. It makes death desirable, albeit ideally once you’ve levelled a few times so you get more points.

  4. I guess it’s all about over how long you can maintain discipline. I so often get killed when I should not have.

    Hoplite does grow more complex as you unlock more “prayers” with each game, although some prayers are well beyond my capabilities. I’ve not secured a speed run despite trying again and again. And of course Hoplite does have a win condition available on each level after 16 – after you take the fleece, you can walk out any time you want.

  5. I’ve merrily burnt out on 868-Hack and Hoplite. There’s no ill will there, just a comparison to chocolate cake and how a man cannot live on cake alone.

    You tried Microgue yet? (I’ve been hassling the dev for many years to release it.) I quite like the change of using monsters as spells instead of them being always being a wall of meat and situational spikes. Tricking an eyeball into teleporting me to the exit is quite fun.

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