I’ve seen enough roguelike games in the past two months to keep me busy in my off time for years. I definitely haven’t seen them all — I don’t think that’s technologically possible, really — but I’ve tried my best to follow the arc between the earliest arrivals and some of the latest incarnations.
At the same time, I am not a professional gamer, and I’m not a critic of game design or a developer. I’ve seen enough in the way of role-playing action games over the past 10 or 15 years to have a general acquaintance with some of the larger titles, and see a few trends in the way that separate genre has evolved.
Given both of those facts, I can sense a direction roguelike games “ought” to shift, just in terms of playability. It’s probably not often that a high-end fan of popular top-shelf games steps down to play a text-based adventure (I daresay that might send them into anaphylaxis), but I’ve tried a few and I think are things to be learned from them.
First, ancillary menus — like spellbooks or inventories — need to work like popups, and not commandeer or pollute the display. I have favorites in the roguelike genre, but most remove the entire game display, map and stats … just to show a list of the two potions I have. 😐 That, to me, is perplexing.
Second, there’s no shame in throwing out the HJKL and YUBN keys, and going for something that either uses or mimics a number pad arrangement. It’s not 1982 any more, and we’re not trying to keep the PDP-10 users in the fold. With 104+ keys available, you can sacrifice a cluster of eight to show cardinal directions and still have enough leftover for mnemonic commands.
Next, we really need to pre-think interfaces that allow for very unusual terminal dimensions. I know 80×24 is the gold standard, but there’s also an entire legion of tiled window manager aficionados who think 230×16 (and 16×230 😕 ) is very comfortable, and would love to cram a game into that space … but probably can’t.
I could give a lot more, actually. There are some statistics that need to be on the screen all the time, and some that don’t. Status bars are faster to look at than number displays. Keep ssh and telnet users in mind. Reserve at least four or five lines along the bottom for a “log” of game action, and you can stretch the screen to just about any depth you like. Use color, for goodness’ sake. Allow map panning. Try a fixed-size stat “panel” that shows any particular information at a keypress, and you can trap that against the map display in a predictable space.
And for crying out loud, stop with the I-can-only-see-one-square-around-me-at-a-time design. Myopic adventurers are likely to be eaten by a grue. Follow some fundamentals of lighting and line-of-sight. It’s not 1982 any more; we have the power to calculate these things.
Having said all that, I can show you TROG, which picks up on quite a few of those points. Now you know why I bothered with all that jabber.
Perhaps most pleasantly, TROG uses a keypad arrangement for movement, but for laptop users like me, also uses the nine keys between QWE and ZXC as compass directions. TROG also keeps to the popup-menu theme, with character creation and most inventory actions bouncing to the forefront as selection menus.
Those two points alone make me happy, and knowing that TROG seems happy to work in any window size with a depth of at least 24 rows is also a good point.
TROG also has a feature that I don’t see too often: map panning. As your adventure unfurls, the map may shift in a direction beyond the borders of your terminal, and you can use the arrow keys to shift the entire map display, rows and columns at a time, in that direction. That is actually quite nice.
I also saw where TROG has a “hard resize” command, to try and accommodate unusual changes in terminal dimensions. And TROG sees when I try to confound it, for example giving arbitrary names to characters that I deliberately left nameless.
TROG is not perfect, even if it tries hard. TROG seems to have abandoned the ESC key as a way to back out of menus, and that takes a little getting used to.
I also got a little tired of having to confirm — through a yes/no popup menu each time — when I wanted to open a door. I’m waltzing through a dungeon and there are probably dozens of doors in my path; let’s just assume I know what I’m doing and will open a door when I march face-first into it.
And while TROG’s popup interactions are nice, they’re sometimes used against the title card, and not the map environment. This is kind of a step sideways for me, since sometimes I want to be able to assess my predicament while taking stock of what potions I have. In other words, the popup selection menu is a good effect, but it isn’t necessarily an improvement over blanking out the entire display … which was my original point.
Judging by the github page, TROG hasn’t seen much activity in the past three years, so it may be that TROG never really leaps to the forefront as a revision of the roguelike experience. As it is, it worked fine for me in Arch Linux, and probably will build and run in other distros too.
I like TROG for sensing some of the shortcomings in the standard roguelike fare, and showing what can be done with the interface. Things like popup menu interactions, map panning and key improvements are, like I said, what roguelikes should be doing across the board, in my meager opinion.
But TROG still needs a little embellishments here and there, and thematically I don’t see where it offers any grand deviation from the standard high fantasy fare. It is a definite step forward — or rather, keypress forward 😉 for the genre. 😀