Disclaimer: This article was written a while ago. I'm posting it here as a stand-in for "all the content". There will be more and more current content coming shortly!
Two certainties, death and randomness
I would like to take this time to talk a little bit about the two most prominent features in roguelike-games, and how they create a certain way of thinking and promote a sense stubborn ingenuity.
So, death and randomness, the two thing that “make” a roguelike. Some people love them, some people hate them. I'm probably in the former camp in this argument, but that is neither here nor there. What I want to talk about is what happens when you combine these two, but to do that, let's set the stage.
Permadeath: One save-file, no quick-saving, risk-takers not wanted. Whatever you might think of this “feature”, it is an interesting one. The idea of having only one life is very fundamental to us meatsacks, but to games, it hasn't been heard of since the old days of the arcades. To have your progress wiped at the unfortunate end of a run might seem cruel and unfair. And in reality, it is. Who would like to get their nice project ruined because of a bad dice-roll, a miss-calculated step or just plain short-sightedness. This does however make every run count. Since you only have one shot at getting to the finish line, every time you try for the gold, you have to put your back into it. You have to be deliberate and you have to be careful, or else you'll find yourself at death door faster than you might want.
Or you could just piss away your chances experimenting with the next topic.
If death is the final prize in any given roguelike, randomness is the course. The level of randomness usually differs from game to game. Some games change everything, other just change the items, and others still might just change the levels. But no matter which kind of game you play, you might find yourself surprised and sidetracked at any time. This feature is what makes every run in any given game so exciting. You never know what the game will throw at you next. One run you might be taking an easy stroll through the games levels, another you will find yourself on your knees even before the first level(or dungeon) is completed. The permadeath feature tries it's best of force you to “play it safe”, and the feature of randomness forces you to think on your feet. This creates uneasy balance that the game expect you to keep. Your sensible side is telling you to go slow, to not take any chances, and the game is telling you that risk-taking is the only way to progress.
Who knows, maybe that potion, that treasure or that room is the one key to winning your run. No one is going to tell you what to do or hand you the tools you need. You need to figure it out, you need to risk it, in order to win it.
So, what does these to feature create? I like to call it stubborn ingenuity. They make the player learn through failure, to apply their teachings while taking risks at the same time. One feature pushes you toward the inevitability of the other. Which in turn forces you to adapt and develop new strategies. To exploit the loopholes as you find them and to wreck havoc when you can.
In a very romantic way, the twin features of the roguelikes draw a bleak portarit of life. Sometimes your on easy street, sometimes life drags your through the mud and kicks you in the gut. But always, you must do what you can, with what you have.