The roguelike genre's characteristics were originally defined by the dungeon crawler Rogue and its immediate successors such as Hack and Moria, which first appeared on mainframes and personal computers in the early 1980s. These games led to new generations of successors like Angband and Nethack, which gained an enthusiast following across the internet in the 1990s.
All of these early games were ASCII-based, turn-based, and freeware, but in later decades developers began combining roguelike elements with other genres. This has lead to debates over the definition of the term roguelike.
Genre definition and debate
The 2008 International Roguelike Development Conference produced a definition of the roguelike genre called The Berlin Interpretation. The authors of this definition suggested that the traditional games ADOM, Angband, Dungeon Crawl, Nethack, and Rogue might be considered the canon of the genre and created a list of criteria to characterize roguelikes.
High value factors
- Random environment generation - The game world itself is randomly generated, but also items and their description/appearance are randomized for each playthrough.
- Permadeath - Players only have one life, and upon dying, players restart with all progress lost.
- Turn-based - The game does not advance in real time, and instead only reacts once the player has taken an action.
- Grid-based - The game world is divided into a uniform grid, where the player and all enemies and items occupy a single tile regardless of actual size.
- Non-modal - The game has only one gameplay mode, where every possible player action is always available.
- Complexity - In spite of having only one mode, the game provides multiple approaches to dealing with its challenges, usually through a complex system of interactions between items and/or enemies.
- Resource management - Players have limited resources and need to use what they find effectively.
- Hack'n'slash - Killing numerous enemies is the dominant part of the gameplay. Enemies have few concerns beyond killing the player.
- Exploration and discovery - The world is unknown and has to be explored to discover its contents. The nature of items and equipment is similarly unknown, and has to be discovered through use or identification skills/powers.
Low value factors
- Single player character - The game is centered on and experienced through a single player character, and ends with that character's death.
- Monsters are similar to players - The player and enemies follow the same rules.
- Tactical challenge - Learning the appropriate tactics is important, and generally necessary before any significant progress can be made.
- ASCII display - Roguelikes started out with only using ASCII characters to display their worlds, and it remains a staple of the genre.
- Dungeons - Dungeons, with distinct rooms and connecting corridors, divided into separate levels.
- Numbers - The raw numbers the game uses to describe the character current condition and abilities are exposed to the player.
Roguelike traditionalists and inclusionists
Roguelike traditionalists use the term "roguelike" only for games that remain very close to the Berlin Interpretation's canonical turn-based, grid-based games. Traditionalists use the terms roguelite or roguelike-like to describe games that contain some roguelike elements but vary from what they consider traditional.
Roguelike inclusionists are willing to extend the name "roguelike" to a wider variety of games with roguelike elements. For example, this may include action games that traditionalists would call "roguelites".
Since the rise of more modern re-imaginings of roguelike elements, the term has frequently come under fire as being generically and rhetorically unclear. As such, a few attempts have been made to coin a more descriptive term. Game developer Lars Doucet has suggested "procedural death labyrinth", a term that privileges procedural design, punitive death mechanics, and labyrinthine design that can sometimes obscure certain functions of the game for players, instead requiring that players learn more about the game as they die and start over again in a newly-generated world.
Growth and influence
From the 1990s forward, roguelikes have influenced a broader variety of games. The first Diablo game was heavily inspired by roguelikes and shares many of their characteristics, with the main difference being that it is real time instead of turn-based. The randomized items of Diablo inspired later loot-based games. Roguelikes were popularized in Japan with Chunsoft's long-running Mystery Dungeon franchise. Finnish roguelike simulation game UnReal World was a precursor to the survival game genre. Dwarf Fortress layers a construction and management simulation on a roguelike base.
In the 2000s and 2010s, a number of well-known independent titles such as The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, FTL, and Rogue Legacy included roguelike elements like permadeath, procedurally-generated environments, and management of limited resources.