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On Procedural Death Labyrinths
by Lars Doucet on 12/03/13 01:12:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Cross-posted on my personal blog, Fortress of Doors.

A few weeks ago Tanya X. Short said, "Never Say Roguelike."

I usually shy away from vocabulary fights and let smarter people than me hash it out, so I was pleasantly surprised when her argument not only convinced me, but inspired me.

Shortly afterwards I posted the following chart on twitter (click to expand):

Procedural Death Labyrinth

The chart basically compares the new crop of "games with Roguelike elements" that some advocate calling "Rogue-LIKE-LIKES / Rogue-LITES," (RLL hereafter) to the five "canonical" Roguelikes (RL), per the Berlin Interpretation (BI), the most-cited formula for what constitutes a "real" Roguelike (more on this later).

What immediately pops out is that the "canonical" RL's are very similar, whereas RLL's are all over the place. Just going by the chart, Dungeons of Dredmor is a "Berlin-approved Roguelike", and Desktop Dungeons could make a strong case. On the other hand, games like Rogue Legacy and Don't Starve would probably be excluded.

However, the one thing all these games have in common is that they easily fit the mold of a "Procedural Death Labyrinth" (PDL). What are the elements of a PDL, you ask? Simple:

  1. Procedural
    Makes strong use of procedural/randomized generation, especially (but not necessarily) for level design.
  2. Death
    Makes use of character permadeath, and/or has a strong death penalty.
  3. Labyrinth
    Takes place in some sort of semi-contained environment, usually (but not always) procedurally generated.



PDL accomplishes my goals:

  1. Self-explanatory
  2. "Less Worse" than RLL
  3. Catchy and easy to say

I want to be clear that I'm not looking for a term to replace existing ones, just a clearer alternative that people can use if they want. PDL (or whatever) doesn't even have to cover the same ground as the old terms, it's just another tool in our vocabulary to reach a shared understanding with our audience.

In particular, I have my sights trained on RLL rather than RL. The RL community is a well-established niche and I don't see much to be gained by messing with their word. So my position is a bit more moderate than Tanya's -- keep saying "RogueLike" as much as you LikeLike!

RLL, on the other hand, came into being quite recently and is already a confusing mess. (I don't mean to hammer on anyone for using the term, I've used it myself, after all). As Tanya pointed out, saying something is like something invites ambiguity because everyone has a different idea of what the "essential" parts of that other thing are. Notice how the Berlin Interpretation has "high value" and "low value" factors - there's a lot of ways a game could be "like" Rogue -- and people strongly disagree about what parts matter most.

Now, when we take it one step further and say our game is "like" a RogueLike, the reference point isn't even another game anymore, just another definition, and a controversial one at that. It's almost like saying something is an ArtLike, GameLike, or IndieLike -- you can't even get started until you work out what ill-defined terms like "Art", "Game", and "Indie" mean.


My term ain't perfect.

The weakest part is probably "Labyrinth." I prefer "Labyrinth" to words like "Dungeon" because it doesn't imply a specific theme or setting -- I wanted something that applied equally well to FTL as it did to Spelunky. So, in this sense I'm using "Labyrinth" in an abstract sense -- some sort of semi-confined environment with multiple passages. (Yes, I am aware that in mathematical terms a 'labyrinth' is unicursal. I'm using the colloquial meaning because it sounds better than "Maze," and I like the mythological connotations.)

In any case, the term needs to finish with a strong noun that suggests adventure, mystery, and danger, and "Labyrinth" fits the bill. Others have suggested "Quest," or even just "Game."

"Procedural Death Game" is fine and certainly broadens the definition, the trouble is it always makes me think of Russian Roulette. "Procedural Death Quest" is good too, it just implies that Death is the goal of the Quest, though I am fond of the acronym PDQ.

Procedural isn't perfect, either - it's developer jargon that might confuse everyday players. "Randomized" might be a better choice.

So here's a list of contenders:

  1. PDL: Procedural Death Labyrinth
  2. RDL: Randomized Death Labyrinth
  3. PDQ: Procedural Death Quest
  4. PDG: Procedural Death Game

And who says we need to come up with just one all-ecompassing alternative? There's 1st-person shooter and 3rd-person shooter, and Turn-based strategy and Real-time strategy, right? If you have a PDL where there's only one, super-hard path through the level, perhaps you'd rather call it a Procedural Death Gauntlet? Or whatever.

One of the advantages of terms like PDL is that they invite you to mutate them to fit your game's existing needs.


Joystiq's RPG critic Rowan Kaiser seemed to approve:

Worthless Bums, developers of Steam Marines was taken with the idea:

Pete Davison used the term to describe Desktop Dungeons in his official review for US|Gamer:

The term "roguelike" is rapidly becoming one of those descriptors that has been used so much it's lost its meaning. 

In fact, I've seen a significant amount of debate on the matter on social media channels recently, with some even going so far as to suggest alternative nomenclature such as "procedural death labyrinth", which has a pleasingly defeatist ring to it.

So it looks like the term is already catching on. Neat!

*Before you hit "comment", it's time for all the caveats!

Berlin Interpretation, Schmerlin Interpretation
I'm not here to take a stance on whether the BI is "correct," and even if I did, I should point out that the BI itself considers its guidelines somewhat open to interpretation. The only reason I used it in the chart is because it's the first thing everyone trots out, and it's a good way to quickly describe what these five classic Roguelikes have in common. As I mentioned above, plenty of people have issues with the BI, and if anything, the fact that it's this controversial only helps to prove my point.

Formalism, Shmormalism
I don't really care what the "right" definition is, so long as we understand each other when we try to communicate. Arguments about vocabulary tend to take one of three forms:

  1. Enforcing Linguistic Purity
    The author insists on a preferred dialect, but the variant they're attacking is arguably just as clear as the one they support. The preferred system is elevated principally because it is more "correct" rather than on more objective bases such as clarity, economy, etc.
  2. Vocabulary Land-Grab
    In academia, getting to set the official terms is like the first phase in a 4X game - it's all about planting your flag down and keeping the other losers out. Naturally, this invites hostility and accusations of bad faith/exclusion from all sides. You see this anytime someone tries to strictly define once and for all what vaguely-defined terms like "game" mean, or how western-developed menu-driven turn-based RPG's aren't "real" JRPGs, etc.
  3. Hey term X is vague and unclear, let's maybe use a different one.
    I'm all about this one. Rather than try to take a word everyone else is already using and apply a strict definition to it, I like to come up with a new word, preferably one that's self-explanatory, and use that instead.

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Darren Grey
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I think the problem with both PDL and the Berlin approach is this tickbox feature way of looking at games. It says little about how the game actually plays. The intersection of procedural content and permadeath generates this interesting nexus of tense, refreshing gameplay, but it needs more than those two. Is Super Hexagon a PDL? What about Civilisation on permadeath mode? Of course for any definition there are edge cases, but I think PDL misses out on so many extra parts to what makes a roguelike enjoyable to play.

A big thing for me is role-playing. In roguelikes you usually control one person, usually of a rogueish nature. It's you against the odds, against the world, and that makes the permadeath all the worse and the procedural environments all the more tense and thrilling. We see this in Spelunky, FTL, Isaac and all the various classic games.

Now role-playing is more than just some ticklist design feature. It involves having a world, having some character. It might involve progression mechanics, but it doesn't need them. There are things like line of sight in many roguelikes to make you feel properly centred on the character, and using messages that refer to the character as "you". These are optional, but they can help with that feeling that you are the rogue.

And that's the big thing for me. Roguelikes aren't about some list of features, or about being "like Rogue" (though it's a bloody great game). A really good roguelike will make you *play like a rogue*. Other games let you be heroes, bashing through dungeons and restarting with ease if you do something wrong. They hand-hold you and coddle you and tell you how great you are. Roguelikes make you suffer. They make you cower and snivel, creeping through dark passages and hoping nothing goes wrong. They make you sneaky, careful, thoughtful, downright devious, and always so very afraid. You are the Rogue, and you will fear death like now other game can make you fear.

Lars Doucet
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I definitely appreciate the comment!

Just so I'm clear -- this was never about finding a different word for "RogueLike" (I'm fine leaving that as-is), nor is it about finding a term that covers all of the ground covered by RL's and RLL's. I take it your position is that RL is a term that's broad enough to apply to RLL's as well?

In response to this:
"A really good roguelike will make you *play like a rogue*. Other games let you be heroes, bashing through dungeons and restarting with ease if you do something wrong. They hand-hold you and coddle you and tell you how great you are. Roguelikes make you suffer."

I think that's basically more evidence for my point that a term like rogue-like (and especially rogue-like-like) invites everyone to have their own private sense of what it's *really* about -- the above being yours. Which is fine, and why I'm personally just in favor of coming up with a new term that some of us can use as an alternative if we like.

As for Super Hexagon -- actually it probably is a PDL, if we're being as permissive as possible and not insisting that PDL is just a relabeling of RLL.

Games like Canabalt and Cloudberry Kingdom, on the other hand, since they feature a very narrow, essentially single-path towards the exit, might be good examples of "Procedural Death Gauntlets," which Super Hexagon might also qualify for. James Rhodes is looking at the word "Procedural Death Environment" for his game Tychaia.

Again, I'm not really committed to formalism. I'm just looking for new ways to describe things that are easier for people on the outside to understand.

Darren Grey
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I often treat roguelike as an adjective, rather than a genre. So you have roguelike platformers, roguelike shooters, etc. And then there's the traditional roguelikes, of course. I change my mind on how to use "roguelike" depending on mood and context. Words work like that :)

Sorry if I presumed you were trying to find a new word for the roguelike++ field of games. Since you cited Tanya's article I presumed that was the intent.

I mentioned Super Hexagon because I think it shows how this feature list approach doesn't work well. Super Hexagon, from a design perspective, has little in common with FTL. There are few things they can learn from each other beyond generic game things. Super Hexagon is about a repetitive arcade experience, improving one's reactions with each play. FTL is about learning the systems, making choices, thinking both tactically and strategically, and sometimes taking chances with imperfect information. Both are great games, but for both players and designers there is nothing to be gained from lumping them under one heading.

So for something like PDL to work it needs to differentiate these sorts of games. It needs to speak about the play experience, and about how the designer approaches the game elements. Otherwise, well, it's just three words bundled together.

Lars Doucet
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I get that! Not really looking for a "necessary and sufficient" definition type thing. Any definition can be foiled by a plucked chicken[1] edge case.

Mostly just looking for useful shorthands to use in elevator pitches. I can't TELL you how many blank stares I get with players who aren't super into "inside baseball" game dev culture when I use the word "roguelike."

"Roguewhat? What's that?"

"It's a procedurally generated game with strong permadeath and some other things."

"Well, why didn't you just say that?"

[1] Diogenes the Cynic, in response to Plato's assertion that a man should be defined as a "featherless biped" produced a plucked chicken and called it a man.

Misha Favorov
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I think a slight re-interpretation of the 'labyrinth' side of PDL can help ease this issue a bit. Labyrinth already lightly implies two big concepts that keep games like Super Hexagon from qualifying--exploration and non-abstraction.

Exploration is probably the core of most roguelikes for me--there's a tension in roguelike level design between control and freedom of movement. Unlike with Civilization, you aren't totally free to move in any direction (there are discrete rooms with set links between them). Unlike Super Hexagon, it's non-linear (there's never just one path between levels/there's a choice involved in whether or not to explore most content). Labyrinth. . .half-implies this. Ignoring the whole classical unicursal thing, labyrinths do summon an image of a place full of both constraint and freedom of movement and direction.

Non-abstraction is fairly straightforward--you exist in a non-abstract world. You're more than just a shape moving through shapes. Labyrinth is better than 'maze' largely because it does evoke images of an actual physical space.

Honestly, I like 'Dungeon' better than 'Labyrinth'--it has all the same connotations, but even slightly more so. Part of the connotation of a labyrinth is that it's a place full of choices to make (go left or right) but that those choices are totally arbitrary due to lack of meaningful information. Also, there is a bit of a tradition of abstract unicursal labyrinths, even if those aren't the type that most people think of when they use the word. That said, 'Procedural Death Labyrinth' does just sound way better than 'Procedural Death Dungeon', so I'm really liking the term.

Tanya X Short
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I like that this conversation is continuing further. I hope more contribute to the building dialogue.

My main problem with any one term will always be the same -- it's trying to encapsulate too much all at once, without forming the real core of the gameplay. I fundamentally agree with Darren Grey's input: roguelike as it is used now is simply an adjective. A modifier.

I actually believe "labyrinth" is the strongest part of the suggested term, because it suggests a core experience intent rather than a particular feature. A customer can read labyrinth and have an idea what they're in for - getting lost, maybe endlessly, maybe being in danger.

I'm not particularly tempted to migrate to using a new swiss-army-knife label. For the genre enthusiasts, it serves its purpose fine. But for marketing/design inspiration.... I want to break down this temptation into useful, right-brain feelywords that a non-developer can read/hear and say "hey that suggests a kind of game I would want to play". Procedural, random, and death don't do that, I think. :)

Paul Speed
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I like it and I've said so elsewhere. Like "Doom clone" versus "First Person Shooter" before it, I think "Procedural Death Labyrinth" nicely rises above the "this isn't rogue because we are in " issues.

The labyrinth part is good. It illustrates that the point of the game is to explore and go deeper. To get lost.

The procedural part is good. This is going to be a different labyrinth every time but even more interestingly, the game play also starts to boil down to a bunch of tactical 'procedures' ("received unidentified scroll, hold onto this until event X for best odds of applicability")

And the death part is critical. The games are about dying. You die now or you die later.

Any of these on their own are decent game elements. A few in combination also work well (Solitaire could be described as a combination of the first two but the game ends when you run out of cards to play and not in 'death'.)

It's all of those together that (to me) are the core elements of Rogue when you transcend above the potions and treasure chests.

The other part I like is how it has a similar unintended subtext that also turns out to be true. "First Person Shooter", as a genre, more often than not is a "person shooter". Sure there are games where you shoot aliens or monsters or whatever but then again the multiplayer often lets other people play those things, too... more often than not, you shoot other people (NPC or otherwise).

PDL is similarly nice in that it contains "procedural death". Often when I play through Rogue (or similar) for many futile attempts in a row, there is a sense that I'm just leaving through a death procedure that has already been determined and I'm just seeing how it plays out.

Patrick Casey
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It seems to me that turn-based gameplay is the middle child among roguelike features in discussions these days. PDL would be great for the new "evolved" use of roguelike (i.e. the roguelike-likes and roguelites). But I hope I can still use "roguelike" for the games still being made that are more or less "like Rogue", particularly if they are turn-based and have enemy and item balance tuned accordingly. It seems to me we don't need to unify the two styles since gamers who like The Binding of Isaac may not like Dungeons of Dredmor, and vice versa (since the former is real-time and the latter is turn-based).

About the importance of turn-based gameplay to the genre (pre-Spelunky at least) here's my unsolicited speech :) (please forgive the street preacher vibe - also it's from a post I wrote, ahem, elsewhere)

Real-time games require quick thinking and reflexes in addition to other elements including strategy, but turn-based games forego the former in favor of more complex problem solving and strategy.

Take the game of chess, for example. A real-time game with roguelike elements might be like playing chess with a 1 second time limit for each player's move. You can certainly have fun and some surprising and exciting games but the real-time nature limits your strategy (unless you're a genetically engineered evil genius).

Turn-based roguelike games are like chess without the time limit. You can make quick "gut feeling" moves but when things turn deadly, you can take a moment and plan several moves ahead. A turn-based game also allows the game designer to load the complexity of gameplay (to the point of sadism?). You're now playing against a chess master.

Both types of games are fun and have their merits, but it seems that without turn-based gameplay, the complexity of enemies and items will have to be tuned accordingly by the designer. Modern roguelike-likes are definitely inspired by roguelike games and have almost all the necessary roguelike elements, but simply calling them "roguelikes" or trying to unify them with the more traditional games seems inaccurate and/or unnecessary. End of preachiness!

Lars Doucet
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Yeah, that's my basic approach here - everyone argues about what "RogueLike" means, and half the community wants it to be a broad term that can be used for the new stuff, and half the community adamantly refuses, and so anytime you use RL for anything besides stuff that's close-ish to the Berlin Interpretation you get this huge argument in the comments section.

That's why I'm MORE than happy to leave the original term "RogueLike" totally alone. Keep using it!

I'm also not really out to "convert" people or tell them they need to start calling their Rogue-Like-Likes or Rogue-Lites PDL's. It's just a new option for those of us who are dissatisfied with the existing terminology.

Taric Mirza
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Good article!
Out of curiosity, anyone know of a good game (desktop or tablet) that could be described as RogueLike, RogueLite, or PDL except (internet) cooperative multiplayer? I'm not really familiar with RogueLike games other than having played Mines of Moria back in the day which was my wife's favorite video game for a number of years.

Stephen Haroldson
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Legend of Dungeon is the only game I can think of. You can find it on Steam.

Stephen Haroldson
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Legend of Dungeon is a coop roguelike-y game on Steam.

Cristofer Wolz-Romberger
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Diablo II in hardcore (PDL) maybe: though it's a little weak on the "Procedural" part.

Minecraft also comes to mind, though it's not really contained.

Terraria in anything other than Softcore might count too (Mediumcore: drop everything; hardcore: permadeath)

Actually, there's probably a decent list of games that have both multiplayer and permadeath options, though I can't think of any others right now.

Taric Mirza
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Thanks! I'll check those out.

Alex Covic
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This reminds me of the never-ending debates around analytical philosophy & the 'real' linguistic battles of the 20th century. It is a delight for the few academics that follow it, while completely meaningless in the world outside the bubble. But it helps sharpening your personal tool-set?

You could equally try to learn German & French and start reading Husserl, Heidegger & Saussure, Foucault, Derrida, etc. (it's pretty exhausting, let me tell you).

A more recent popular example would be music critics, who tried to define what is "Punk" music, or "really" Indie, or "Grunge"? "I don't want you to like my music" is a great t-shirt slogan teenagers should wear. "I am not a Grammar Nazi" is the most common phrase Grammar Nazis use?

It takes just one guy (or girl) thinking for example "Quark" is a funny "word" ... and suddenly the whole world knows something about Joyce's unreadable "Finnegans Wake". You cannot "control" language or how people use it. That is the beauty of language. We enrich our lives, by the "wrong" meanings we pick up from words. By misinterpreting it, we invite the 'new', the poesis. It is dynamic, viral, "wrong", alive.

I did hit "comment". Am I now to get stoned by the author, excluded from the wonders of the true meaning, the pure and righteous? (Do you see the danger?)

Lars Doucet
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Curtiss Murphy
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I like it! PDL says volumes, without narrowing any scope or possibilities. Well done. Now, if I can just figure out how to spell Labry ...Labrin... Labrynth... bah!

Amir Barak
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Procedural Death Labyrinth is an awesome name. What about Procedural Death Generator? Could be a sub-genre :D

I think that most people enjoy certain terms more than others based on the emotions these generate; as in the case with this term, I don't think it's used by developers because it describes their game better, in simpler terms or more accurately but rather because it just sounds badass (which it is!).

To paraphrase, describing something as a Roguelike isn't done just for the mechanic [content] component it carries but also for the emotional reaction it evokes in listeners (being cryptic to some may even be better as it forces them to adventure out and discover what Rogue and Roguelike are).

In the end an abstraction of any kind away from actual game mechanics results in an ambiguous description which leads to confusion and interpretation wars.

There's room for all of these terms in the language we employ, its up to us to combine them in the most pleasing way we can think of.

Cristofer Wolz-Romberger
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I think leaving the third word open is the way to go: more traditional roguelikes might be PDMs or PDLs (Mazes/Labyrinths), FTL is a PDS (Space); Minecraft in Permadeath might be a PDE (Environment); Dwarf Fortress could call itself a PDE or PDF (Fortress, or Fun); and so on.

The other advantage of this is that we regain the use of "Roguelike" to mean "Turn-based, grid-based hack'n'slash that cares more about depth than art".

Keith Burgun
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If you want to make a single player *GAME*, i.e., not a puzzle or toy, but something that would go into the "game" part of the Barnes & Noble shelf rather than the puzzle part, then you absolutely HAVE TO HAVE random generation and a win/loss condition. I don't say "permadeath" because that term is WAY more stupid than "Roguelike". When people say "permadeath", they really mean, "you can actually win or lose". Klondike, roguelikes, Tetris etc all have these qualities.

Kyle Phillips
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I like this.

As you mention the 'Labyrinth' part is getting stretched a bit but overall I think this is much more descriptive of what these games are about than Roguelike-lite. I'm going to start saying this around the office instead of roguelike. Gotta infest people's minds with the new (better) terminology! In fact, Procedural Death ______ (fill in the blank) could go a long ways towards being a flexible nomenclature for this style of game.

Someone grab Chucklefish and have them start rebranding, stat! :D

Cody Unrath
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I'm curious as to where Iter Vehemens ad Necem, falls in this chart. Is there room for a Sisyphean checkbox?

Bob Richardson
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While this article is now over two months old, as Steam introduced Tagging for its games today, it seems as though the term Procedural Death Labyrinth may have the means to gain traction directly in the gaming community - even if it's just a mirror of the Roguelikelike and Roguelite tags.