Roguelites, Neoliberalism, and Social Media

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Steven Harvie is currently working on a PhD in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. Using the archive collections held at the National Library of Scotland, he investigates the writing practices and experiences in the publishing industry of renowned Scottish writer, Muriel Spark. Beyond literature, Steven has an abiding interest in games and Games Studies.Follow the author on Twitter

Eli Cook recently published an essay examining the relationship between American neoliberal ideology and the popular Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books of the 1980s. Cook argues that “the meteoric rise of CYOA in this era reflected and reproduced the ascent of individual choice to the heart of American notions of subjectivity, agency, society, mobility, and freedom” (Cook, 2020, pp. 7-8). A significant point in Cook’s argument is the emphasis on how CYOA introduced interactive narratives before and without technological advancement, in a pre-digital world. He criticises what he sees as “an implicit (and sometimes explicit) causative explanation which contends that interactive fiction took off first and foremost out of technological—rather than cultural, economic, or social—change” (Cook, 2020, p. 6). CYOA books suggest otherwise, that interactive fiction was nurtured and popularised by certain ideological forces at work in 1980s America. 

Analysing the second-person narratives—characterised by repeated refrains like “YOU AND YOU ALONE,” printed in capital letters for a sense of urgency—Cook shows how the assignment of responsibility in CYOA books ties into the neoliberal strategy to shift responsibility and therefore blame onto individuals rather than structural systems. Furthermore, Cook notes that the tendency in COYA books to reward their readers’ risky choices within the story serves to promote the ideal neoliberal subject of the entrepreneurial risk-taker—the kind of people responsible for the global financial crisis of 2008 (Cook, 2020, p. 8). While Cook demonstrates that CYOA books offer “a fruitful cultural metaphor into the inner logic of neoliberalism” (Cook, 2020, p. 26), I propose that a particular video game mode—the roguelite—deserves similar attention. Roguelites evolved from the niche, hardcore subgenre of roguelikes—characterised by dungeon crawling, procedural generation and permanent death—to offer more approachable, flexible, and modern takes on an otherwise obscure and inaccessible genre. Like the CYOA books, I argue that roguelites reflect and reproduce the values supporting neoliberal ideology, but that isn’t enough to explain their recent popularity. To account for the sudden appeal of the roguelite over the past decade, I consider its connections with another successful project unique to the last decade: the indomitable rise of social media.

Rogue (Epyx 1980), the game which birthed a whole ecosystem of game design, was released in 1980, and many other games followed its lead throughout the decade and into the ‘90s (Hack [Jay Fenlason 1982], Nethack  [The Nethack DevTeam 1987], ADOM [Thomas Biskup 1984]), within the same political atmosphere as the CYOA books. These roguelikes, however—and the concept of roguelike games more generally—remained relatively unknown and underground until 2011 when The Binding of Isaac, Edmund McMillan’s fast-paced, grotesque, and disturbing roguelite, made a successful entrance into the gaming scene. Isaac effectively made approachable and mainstream an otherwise inhospitable and esoteric game mode. Countless roguelites have since flooded the Steam and console stores. In this essay I argue that roguelites are popular because 1) they reflect the kind of neoliberal values embedded within CYOA books, but also that 2) their fundamental design principles simulate and exaggerate the systems that fuel addictions to social media. To put it another way, I contend that the recent popularity of roguelites is no accident; rather, that it coexists alongside both the powerful neoliberal imperatives to risk it all, work hard, and adapt, but also the more immediate excitements, disappointments, and worries of a media landscape within which many people constantly define and value themselves. 

Definitions

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A dungeon floor layout in Rogue

Roguelikes and roguelites are characterised by their core design. According to Rob Parker, this design must include “procedural content generation, permadeath, and a tendency towards mechanical complexity (a large number of given actions that players can take, or a requirement that players make a range of tactically complicated decisions)” (Parker, 2017, p. 124). What, then, distinguishes roguelites from roguelikes? While a controversial figure in gaming culture, the late YouTuber John Bain (aka TotalBiscuit) provides a clear definition of the terms: traditional roguelikes inspired by Rogue constitute their own insular genre, while roguelites should be seen as a (relatively recent) mode of video game development, a set of guiding design principles capable of absorbing and mixing in several different types of established video game genres.

Roguelike is a genre; roguelite isn’t. Playing a roguelike forces a very particular form of interaction with the player, whereas playing a roguelite does not. Roguelite, in its current form, is a little bundle of ideas that can be applied to pretty much any genre, and that has been proven without a doubt over the past few years of roguelite development. (Bain, 2017, 12:57)     

This is why wildly different games like FTL (Subset Games 2012), Slay the Spire (Humble Bundle 2019), Spelunky (Mossmouth, LLC 2008), and Enter the Gungeon (Devolver Digital 2016) are all still appropriately called roguelites. As Maria Garder puts it, roguelites are “generically hybrid” (Garder, 2013, p. 59). It is the form, then––first birthed by a niche genre (roguelikes) and now popularly implemented in many genres (roguelites)––which interests me, so my aim here isn’t to complicate things further or attempt to resolve a taxonomic conundrum; instead I want to explore why these games appeal to players by looking at the psychological and political implications of the form. 

Risk, Randomness, and Chance

In Enter the Gungeon, the player can initially choose one of four characters (there are four more unlockable gungeoneers and an additional co-op only character), each with their own unique starting gun, and a mix of items and/or passive abilities. Players must descend the Gungeon, surviving the bullet-hell gameplay of its five dungeons or “chambers,” to collect the “Bullet That Can Kill The Past”, an item needed to change the destiny of the character. Randomisation is, like in many roguelites, a central part of this game’s design. Each chamber in the Gungeon is procedurally generated, although the rooms within the chambers are hand-crafted, and players will come to associate certain room maps with the appearance of certain enemies. After that, however, the player faces a world of luck and risk. In Gungeon and other roguelites, risk-and-reward play is a prominent and central design feature rather than a small aspect of the game experience and, as such, roguelites—following CYOA books—betray closer connections to neoliberal ideology than other forms of video game play.

Almost every interaction in Gungeon relies on risk, whether with immediate consequences or more long-term implications. Risk-averse play is viable in Gungeon, but the road to power involves risky gambles. As such, Gungeon and other roguelites subscribe to—whether consciously or not—a neoliberal view of the world in which success is determined by the bold choices of individual economic agents. Chests of varying quality appear throughout Gungeon’s chambers and players can vaguely anticipate the quality of item they will receive but not the contents themselves, rendering each use of a key—a scarce resource—a gamble. Furthermore, borrowing from Dark Souls (Bandai Namco Games 2011), some chests may actually be “mimics,” deceptive monsters that resemble chests. If a player tries to unlock a mimic chest, the mimic will attack. Just like Dark Souls, more vigilant players can see beforehand the presence of a mimic when chests shuffle slightly, but even so, to access the promised loot, players must still defeat the mimic, a tricky opponent whose rapid-fire attacks can steal a lot of precious health points. Various shrines appear randomly throughout the chambers, each offering and requesting different things: some of your health for ammo or money, one of your guns for some health points, a blank—used to temporarily remove all enemy bullets from the screen—for a chest. Or consider the “Gun Muncher,” a vendor who will eat two of your guns and spit back out one gun made according to the quality of guns given. The player is oblivious to the outcome until it occurs. Clearing a chamber itself requires a choice: do you explore every room and find as much loot as possible, risking health points and ammo depletion? Or do you play it safe and go straight to the boss room, possibly underequipped? Gungeon, like the CYOA books, positions the player as the ideal neoliberal subject, gently encouraging risk despite its potentially dangerous consequences. 

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The colour-based hierarchy of loot chests in Gungeon          

The randomisation inherent to the design of Gungeon and other roguelites can similarly be interpreted as a reinforcement of neoliberal capitalism and its associated values. For instance, a player’s need to adapt to randomness can be interpreted as coinciding with a neoliberal ideal in which individuals must help themselves (“YOU AND ONLY YOU”) to succeed in an unpredictable world. This parallels the idea that no matter what circumstances individuals find themselves in (class, race, gender, body), they can succeed with hard work, sound decision-making, and flexibility; all typical neoliberal values. Gungeoneers may only accrue a mediocre arsenal of weapons, be ambushed by mimics, or not receive enough money and other resources; but that is, according to neoliberal ideologues, irrelevant. Players can still succeed without these external factors, and that is what should be celebrated. In this sense, I argue that the common video game praise, “difficult but fair”—usually used in association with challenging but well-balanced games like Dark Souls—is also well suited to a brutal political order, desperate to appear fair. 

Roguelites therefore share some of the messaging present in the CYOA books, though less directly than those more propagandistic adventures. For instance, Cook highlights a choice in R.A. Montgomery’s book Journey under the Sea (1977) in which the reader—having suffered and then recovered from a dangerous mission—must choose either to quit the expedition or bravely continue. If the reader chooses to quit, the narrative ends with another set of adventurers discovering Atlantis and achieving fame. As Cook argues, the lessons embedded within these choices “frequently sent young readers the message that success is determined by your individual preferences for assuming risk” (Cook, 2020, p. 25). In Gungeon there is no strong narrative imperative towards risk; instead, the risk is propelled by the game’s mechanics, and as such is far more subtle and insidious in its ideological implications. For instance, consider Alec Charles’ argument about how the illusion of agency within video games “lulls the player into an interpretive passivity, and which thereby serves to posit its subject within a virtually invisible and (therefore virtually irresistible) ideological mould” (Charles, 2009). In other words, when players feel in control during their play they are more receptive or vulnerable to the predetermined values embedded within the game’s systems. In the case of Gungeon and other roguelites, this sense of agency makes players embrace uncritically the features of randomness and risk. 

Nonetheless, this interpretation of roguelites––that its game mechanics encourage neoliberal individualism––can apply to many, if not all, video games. What’s unique about the appeal of roguelites is, I argue, the replication of the logic of those social games many of us play every day online: the ever-present role-playing game of social media.

Social Media and the Gamification of Life

In Richard Seymour’s incisive analysis of social media, and Twitter in particular, he articulates the reason for compulsive engagement with these platforms in a way which mirrors the roguelite experience: 

Part of what keeps us hooked is the so-called variability of ‘rewards’: what Jaron Lanier calls ‘carrot and shtick’. The Twittering Machine gives us both positive and negative reinforcements, and the unpredictable variation of its feedback is what makes it so compulsive. Routine rewards might begin to bore us, but volatility, the way the medium suddenly turns on us, makes it more intriguing. (Seymour, 2019, p. 75)

“The way the medium suddenly turns on us” is a perfect description of a run in Enter the Gungeon. No matter how well the player’s doing, how many good guns they’ve found, how many effective synergies they’ve chanced upon, the game will always find a way to shatter their confidence: a tricky trap room, a tough mini-boss, an unexpected combination of enemy types, or a sudden lack of essential resources. Given that roguelikes preceded the dawn of social media, and that social media has taken many of its design choices from video game design and online gambling, this may seem like an odd or reversed comparison to make. However, I believe we should consider the rise of roguelites over the past decade a symptom of the wider context in which social media dominates large parts of our everyday life. A closer look at social media and the ways we interact with it reveals some striking similarities with the ways roguelites are designed and consumed.

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One of several images highlighting our attachment to and dependence on social media

When we scroll through Twitter or Facebook, we become stuck in a digital dungeon of sorts whose contents by turn delight and disgust us. When we click the heart button on any given tweet, we display satisfaction with a particular aspect, decision, or outcome of the unpredictable floor layout. As Jaron Lanier notes, “[social media] feeds are usually calculated to include an additional degree of intentional randomness” (Lanier, 2018). The thrilling randomness that draws us towards roguelites serves a similar purpose in encouraging our attachment to social media. And, when we tweet or post a Facebook status ourselves, we make a gamble, weighing up the options, crafting with precision a piece of media we can only hope will be accepted, enjoyed, and shared by other dungeon crawlers. As Seymour says, “for the duration of our visit, life is briefly streamlined, as with a video game, into a single visual flow, a set of soluble challenges, some dangled rewards and a game of chance” (Seymour, 2019, p. 75). 

The biggest difference, one could argue, is that roguelites like Gungeon require skill in movement, reaction, and the ability to play under pressure—video game knowledge that bears little relevance to social media. But navigating and participating in social media requires its own set of skills: an acknowledgement of social conventions, online etiquette, and an awareness of those following your feed as well as the unknown—and sometimes unwelcome—audiences lurking outside your social circles. On social media we don’t simply freely express our innate personality—a concept that is in itself problematic—but rather we carefully construct and adapt it in order to control the perceptions of others and to define our own public image. In other words, social media is to a great extent a game with its own written and unwritten rules, and our interactions with it—our success or failure—depends upon the ever-shifting trends, moods, people, and politics that make up social media spaces. 

Of course, scrolling through Twitter and posting a joke is a far different experience than fighting through the Gungeon. And yet, if that joke happens to be insensitive or misunderstood, and gains traction, becoming “viral” and eventually jeopardising the user’s career—a common event Jon Ronson (2015) investigated for his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed—the experience is at once more intense and frustrating than any roguelite boss battle. While social media offers a qualitatively different experience to gaming, the former is nonetheless designed and consumed in a similar way to roguelite games. Without implying any kind of straightforward causation, I propose that a dialectical relationship exists between social media and gaming; that as our everyday online lives are increasingly gamified with the in-built features of randomness, risk, and endlessness, the popularity of roguelites has soared in response. 

It is important to remember that conceptions of “fun,” “enjoyment,” and “desire” are not created or produced in a vacuum; rather they are embroiled within the subtle but powerful dynamics of ideology. As Alfie Bown argues, “our enjoyment of culture works by making us forget that we have acquired it. In this way enjoyment is the key to ideology, making socialized things feel natural” (Bown, 2015, p. 8, emphasis in original). In this light, roguelites and our increasing interest in them speak to key experiences, desires, and anxieties of the contemporary moment. On the surface we see challenging, repetitive games, but on a closer look—and with the context of our everyday online lives—roguelites can be reinterpreted as microcosmic simulations of the uncontrollable randomness of digital life, in which players can find a safer digital environment to feed on the addictive dynamics of social media without the social repercussions. Roguelites inherit the neoliberal legacy of CYOA books while exposing the hidden, subtle mechanisms which drive and support contemporary neoliberalism’s most popular and exploitative communication tools. As we continue to enjoy the creative and ingenious evolution of roguelites, we need to remain sensitive to the ideological contexts (social, political, digital) from which our enjoyment springs, and in turn consider how the form can be used or subverted for more critical and progressive ends. 

Works Cited:

Bain, J. (2017, June 9). I will now talk about roguelite for about 50 minutes. YouTube.

Bandai Namco Games. (2011). Dark Souls. PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows.

Biskup, T. (1994). ADOM. Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS, DOS, AmigaOS.

Bown, A. (2015). Enjoying it: Candy crush and capitalism. Zero Books.

Cook, E. (2020). Rearing children of the market in the “you” decade: Choose your own adventure books and the ascent of free choice in 1980s America. Journal of American Studies, 1-28. 

Charles, A. (2009). Playing with one’s self: Notions of subjectivity and agency in digital games. Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, 3(2), 281-284.

Devolver Digital. (2016). Enter the Gungeon. Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, Microsoft Windows, Mac OSPlayStation 4.

Epyx. (1980). Rogue. Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit, Atari ST, Commodore 64, CP/M, DOS, Macintosh, TOPS-20, TRS-80 CoCo, Unix, ZX Spectrum.

Fenlason, J. (1982) Hack. MS-DOS.

Garder, M. B. (2013). Neo-rogue and the essence of roguelikeness. Homo Ludens, 1(5), 59-72.

Humble Bundle. (2019). Slay the Spire. Nintendo Switch, iOS, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Mac OS, Microsoft Windows.

Lanier, J. (2018, June  19). Book excerpt: Jaron Lanier’s ‘ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now’. ABC News. 

Montgomery, R.A.. (1977). Journey Under the Sea. Chooseco LLC.

Mossmouth, LLC. (2008). Spelunky. Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360.

Parker, R. (2017). The culture of permadeath: Roguelikes and terror management theory. Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, 9(2), 123-141. 

Ronson, J. (2015). So you’ve been shamed. Pan Macmillan.

Seymour, R. (2019). The twittering machine. Indigo.

Subset Games. (2012). FTL. iOS, Mac OS, Microsoft Windows.

The Nethack DevTeam. (1987). Nethack. MS DOS.