Do Roguelikes Encourage Optimism? A Reflection on Loot Rascals

Might playing roguelikes encourage a radically optimistic view of life?

Written by April-Lyn Caouette / Published on May 30, 2017

All the pieces were falling into place. My stats were high, the cards I’d equipped gave me lots of options and flexibility, and I was feeling confident I would finally beat Loot Rascals. I warped to home base, refilled my health, and warped back into the fray…. directly onto a 100-power “Space Death” who killed me in a single blow. He stole my most powerful equipment card, the rest of my gear vanished, and moments later I respawned in a fresh new game.

I threw up my hands in disgust, spat a few choice words at the screen, and turned it off to go find more productive ways to spend my afternoon.

At a recent Gamechurch staff meeting, we went around the room and answered two questions: what is bringing you life right now, and what is draining life from you?

“I’ll tell you what’s draining life from me,” I ranted when it was my turn to share. “This stupid freaking game I’m playing!” The team listened in bemusement. None of them are playing it, but they’re all gamers—they get it. Sometimes we play games that frustrate us just as much as they entertain us, if not more so.

The next time I booted Loot Rascals up, I started wondering: why do I keep playing a game that I lose consistently before making it through half the stages, sometimes in my first few turns? It’s not just because I agreed to write about it. Stubbornness is part of it—gotta show the game who’s boss (so far, it’s not me). But it couldn’t be just that. What is it?

There is an acronym in the roguelike community: YASD. It stands for “Yet Another Stupid Death”, and refers to those moments like mine in Loot Rascals, where everything is lined up perfectly for success. You’re making all the right decisions, then you take one unnecessary risk that completely backfires in an instant… and suddenly you’re staring at another “game over” screen. Some players differentiate YASD from YAAD—Yet Another Annoying Death—a term that applies specifically to random events out of the player’s control, such as stepping onto a rock trap in your first turn and being instantly killed by a boulder to the skull. But whether you make that distinction or not, it’s undeniable that roguelikes are hard. Brutally so. The odds are stacked against you from the moment you start the game. If you have any hope of surviving, you need to move carefully, avoid battles above your level, and hope that you find the gear you need to continue to survive.

For all this, most of my favorite roguelikes incorporate a light-hearted wit that adds a levity to the experience. Nethack is filled with nerdy jokes and references. Dungeons of Dredmor refuses to take itself seriously out of the gate – some of your choices for special skills are “Emomancy” (“”Harness the power of whatever, and like, stuff”) and “Killer Veganism” (“The power of clean living, moral superiority, and gluten-magic”). And Loot Rascals is so cheerful on the outside, with its vintage-inspired graphics and bright colors, that you might not realize how difficult it is until you’ve died a half dozen times.

It’s easy to be optimistic when a positive outcome seems likely. But what about when defeat is the most likely result? Roguelikes aren’t the easiest games to love. Your chances of success are minimal at best until you’ve put in the hundreds of hours to master their quirks and strategies. Yet somehow, when I play these games, I never feel hopeless. Each defeat brings me one step closer to victory. Each new playthrough gives me new strategies, new mistakes to learn from. Sometimes I’m simply dealt a bad starting condition—enemies right out the gate that I can’t possibly hope to defeat, and no useful gear to help me advance. Even then when things seem bleak and overwhelming, I know that a new beginning is just around the corner, and another opportunity to use the new tricks I’ve learned. I push through for as long as I can before my inevitable defeat.

I would like to say that roguelikes help teach me about perseverance in the face of overwhelming circumstances in life. The reality is that I struggle on a daily basis to bring this lesson home. When life drops boulders on my head, or when I’m berating myself for yet another missed opportunity, my first thought usually isn’t a sunny, “Oh well, next time!” Usually said response involves choice words and/or self-beratement. But I do think that I am improving at this and taking setbacks in stride more and more often.

If nothing else, I’ve learned that maybe it’s a good idea to escape to the next level before Space Death spawns.

About the Author:

April-Lyn Caouette is the Associate Editor of Gamechurch. She has been playing video games since before she could read, but her main gaming passion these days is for tabletop games. She occasionally tweets at @alcaouette.