One of the most tedious things a person can do when discussing video games is to debate their validity as a storytelling medium. Like it or not, games have already been telling stories for about three decades; at this point, questioning whether they can or should is just a hair less moot than questioning whether movies should be in color. I think it’s much more productive for those of us with an interest in interactive narrative to look instead at especially interesting uses of the form: games that tell stories in ways that take advantage of the medium, encouraging players to see it through new eyes.
Frankly, I did not expect Rogue Legacy to be one of those games. An indie action-platformer released in 2013 by Toronto developer Cellar Door Games–which is actually just two people, brothers Kenny and Teddy Lee–Rogue Legacy seems on the surface to be all about its play mechanics. It’s actually pretty similar to another recent independently-developed critical darling I wrote about earlier this month, Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight: there’s the pixel-art aesthetic, the clear debt to old-school platformers like Castlevania, even the downward-striking “pogo” move taken straight out of the DuckTales playbook. But Rogue Legacy brings an extra wrinkle to the proceedings: as its title suggests, it’s heavily inspired by the formerly obscure, increasingly modish “roguelike” genre, which plants players in a randomly generated dungeon and faces them with harsh penalties (read: no continues) upon the player character’s death. Rogue Legacy‘s innovation is to remove some of those harsher penalties, instead making each player death an opportunity to improve and grow for the next time around: in this case, when one of the previous player character’s progeny enters the dungeon thirty years later, with the benefit of the treasures their ancestors uncovered. This sense of in-universe repetition through lineage is at the heart of both Rogue Legacy‘s mechanical and its narrative appeal: hinting at serious questions about the obsessive pursuit of gaming itself, even if it is ultimately too timid to convincingly pose them outright.
But let’s start with the mechanics–because after all, they are the most immediately compelling aspect of the game. Put simply, Rogue Legacy is the most addictive game I have played in some time. And I mean addictive in the clinical sense of the word: I blew through it in a long weekend, during which period I put in just under 20 hours, the equivalent of half a work week. There were times when I felt almost physically incapable of putting my PlayStation Vita down and taking a break, and other times when I wasn’t playing and felt an irresistible pull to pick it back up again. The game is extraordinarily, even insidiously good at making you think, “okay, just one more run.” It’s always dangling another carrot before your eyes: what kinds of upgrades can you afford now? What sorts of attributes will your heirs have–including everything from nearsightedness, which makes the perimeter of the screen blurry, to peripheral artery disease, which makes your character undetectable by pulse-activated spike traps–that can help or hinder your progress? What strategy or upgrade were you missing that will make that seemingly insurmountable boss battle (fuck you, Ponce de Leon) suddenly surmountable? It’s a progression system that should be familiar to players of games like From Software’s Dark Souls series, where failure is woven intimately into the fabric of the gameplay, always providing a chance to grow stronger and overcome the latest obstacle. But unlike those slow, methodical games, Rogue Legacy‘s fast pace and bite-sized, room-by-room construction make it that much easier to dive right back into the madness.
What makes the game even more interesting, though, is the way it uses that “madness” to serve narrative ends. The “Legacy” of the game’s title is of course not only a cheeky reference to its roguelike forebears, but also an allusion to the bloodline of player characters you’re guiding (and, inevitably, leaving for dead) throughout the dungeon: a family, like the Belmonts of the Castlevania series, cursed to conquer the same castle again and again for centuries–or, if you’re as lousy a player as I am, millenia. As you progress through the game, you will periodically find journal entries written by your earliest ancestor, who first entered the castle to rescue his father, the king. The journal captures the perspective of a man growing more and more obsessed with his mission: losing his sense of identity, even his humanity, the deeper into the dungeon he progresses. With the exception of a few silly gags–like the one, pictured below, that meta-theorizes on what would happen if one were to defecate into a video game bottomless pit–it’s surprisingly serious stuff, seemingly at odds with the game’s cartoonish aesthetic.
Of course, none of this is particularly original storytelling. The similarity between Rogue Legacy‘s and Castlevania‘s fated lineages has already been observed (and the Belmonts were hardly the first cursed family in horror fiction, anyway), while the “descent into madness” journal is a well-worn trope stretching from H.P. Lovecraft all the way to the original Resident Evil. But Rogue Legacy makes it feel fresh, thanks to its seamless mesh of story and gameplay. I know the feelings the journal describes–the wild-eyed elation of conquering a challenge, the distressing loss of self and surroundings–because those are the feelings I have when I play Rogue Legacy. And when late in the game I was rhetorically asked “how many sons and daughters have been lost” in my quest, I actually knew the number: about 250, all told. This is the kind of fascinating confluence of narrative themes and player experience that could make for a real, powerful statement on the obsessive feedback loop that is video games’ stock in trade.
I say “could” because, of course, we’re not quite there yet. Rogue Legacy is the latest in a long, dare I say, legacy of games that comment on the compulsive nature of games: from Metal Gear Solid to BioShock to Hotline Miami. And it shares with these ancestors an essential, inescapable contradiction: the object of its critique is also its very reason for existing. It’s hard for an excoriation of the destructive force of obsession to have teeth when the game you’re playing is itself carefully crafted to encourage and indulge obsessive play–unless, of course, you want your takeaway theme to be “stop playing video games.” We’re still at that imperfect point where a game can call attention to itself, but can’t yet take the next step and proceed with a coherent critique; the intermingling of interaction and storytelling that makes video game narrative so unique and exciting also makes it difficult to achieve the critical distance required to dig deeper.
All that being said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued, impressed, and ever so slightly disturbed by Rogue Legacy‘s narrative conceit. When I finished the game, I felt weirdly like there was a weight off my shoulders: Rogue Legacy had finally loosened its grip on me. Then, I started a New Game+ and played all the way through the first boss again. This dichotomy, the fact that something can feel both oppressive and fun at the same time, is fascinating and, I think, ideal territory for video games to explore. Maybe someday, we’ll see a game that gets the balance right enough to really shake up our preconceptions and make us think. In the meantime, for better or worse, we’ll keep going through the routine Rogue Legacy dramatizes: going back into the dungeon, overcoming obstacles, amassing intangible rewards, while the years pass by around us.
I played Rogue Legacy on the PlayStation Vita using PlayStation Plus, where it is free through the end of February (and, if you’re so inclined, also available for PlayStations 3 and 4). You can also play it on PC, Mac, and Linux with Steam.