Emerging Genres – Why Rogue-Lites Need A Break And Souls-Likes Need A Rebrand

If slapping “gate” onto the end of a word is the eye-roll inducing hallmark of a scandal or conspiracy, then the gaming equivalent is appending “-like” to a game name to conjure up the notion of a new genre. Some like Rogue-likes have been defined incorrectly for years, with Rogue-lite coming to be the more accepted term, while others such as Souls-like are coming more and more into the limelight.

The fact of the matter is that, despite how clumsily named they are, Rogue-like, Souls-like and other “-like” pseudo genres are a useful tool for consumers to decide on their next purchase. However, for me, these genres are slowly becoming as over-saturated and meaningless as MMOs, retro platformers, or number of supposed GTA clones and “killers” we saw released in the mid to late 2000s.

Part of the reason for this is because as these subgenres have spread through the marketplace, it’s become significantly more difficult to properly gauge what they will actually be like. Marketed with such catch-all money grabbing genre definitions, it seems that the focus is to make a cheaper game quickly rather spend resources in properly innovating, and it’s difficult to tell how well they handle and adapt these gameplay mechanics.

No genre over the last few years has done this more than so-called “Rogue-likes”. For the purpose of the article, these will be referred to as Rogue-lites with a ‘t’, since Rogue-like ought to be reserved for a very well defined set of tropes that include turn-based movement as a key characteristic. The industry moving forward, thanks to the likes of Rogue Legacy, is leaning towards this definition, so I will too.

They’re a hugely mixed bag of often relatively short games where one death means the end of an otherwise great run or the chance to switch things up by buying things. Death in Strafe is wildly different to death in a similarly first person shooters such as Ziggurat, yet they share the same genre.

It’s by no means a new trait. How many times were you examining a store page and found the words “Retro Inspired Platformer”, “MMO”, or even “Modern Warfare Shooter” attached to a game in the last decade? Not to mention the number of times games were marketed as a Halo or GTA killer in the past. Some will likely gravitate to those words, while others will know just how saturated that market is and not want to take a chance on what could be a major gamble. Rogue-lites are a recent addition to this particular trend.

Introducing key differences compared to other games of the same genre isn’t unheard of, after all that is how innovation is born and even how genres come to exist. Demon’s Souls would just be another action RPG if it didn’t have its distinctive and punishing death mechanics.

However in the case of Rogue-lites, more often than not it goes against the defined conventions of what those genres are. Referring to Strafe once more, it kept the punishing difficulty with only one life, the procedurally generated levels, and randomised loot elements, but it didn’t keep many of the progression orientated parts, and this was much to the games’ detriment.

My point here is that you are not going to know that without looking at a review first or at the very least having detailed information before purchasing. If you blindly went into a restaurant and ordered a steak dinner, only to find they’ve smothered it with a hollandaise sauce that’s not only not mentioned in the menu, but that you never asked for and didn’t want, you’d quite rightly be annoyed about that.

Obviously the more savvy gamers will look at critical reviews before purchasing or even pre-ordering, even if it’s just looking at peer reviews on Steam. However some just look at a genre to make decisions as they are fans of that genre and want to scratch that itch. If they’re not a fan of certain elements of that genre however, such as overemphasising the difficulty, then it’s a wasted purchase, even as Steam and Xbox users can now seek a refund.

There’s also the argument that as Rogue-lites are easier to make by having some kind of procedurally generated world that may or may not have some custom elements, punishing enemies, loot that disappears upon death, and only one life. In my experience, this is simply not the case, as there have been some terrible games that used these tropes as a crutch, rather than expand upon them to make their game feel unique.

So what can be done about this? As a consumer, the best way to reduce the number of Rogue-lites is to speak with your wallet. If you don’t like what a developer is selling, don’t buy it. However, we can also reward games that truly bring good things to the genre. There are signs that there are such games on the horizon and while not perfect, there are games recently released that do explore the tropes better than their peers.

While I personally thought Flinthook would have done better without being a Rogue-lite in the first place, it still is a very good example of the genre thanks to the booster packs obtained and unlocking permanent upgrades. They kept the game flowing upon death, but still rewarded skill, striking that difficult balance  in the process. My only problem was that the upgrades themselves were somewhat generic and didn’t change the core gameplay.

If you want an example of a game I reckon could be doing progression in a better way, Dead Cells is a rather good candidate, even though it’s in Early Access. The idea is that you collect Cells from enemies you kill that can later be converted into unlocking weapons via collected blueprints. Each one can also eventually have a chance of showing up at the beginning of the game, though in its most basic form.

Where Dead Cells seems to so far get this right is that each weapon acts and behaves differently, encouraging different play styles. However there’s also a few points of convenience that also make things more compelling, such as the ability to come back to a run already in progress. Death is the only way that Dead Cells resets, meaning that if you are in the middle of a perfect run, you don’t have to finish in one sitting and can retain all your items and perks collected on that run.

However, despite what these games get right, the over saturation of the genre is concerning, as the ease of finding these more compelling titles becomes all the more difficult. My advice for any developers looking to make Rogue-lites in this day and age is to either reconsider your genre choice or wait for the fad to die down and return to the genre in a few years time.

If developers can indeed bring something innovative to the table, I’d rather see it on its own merit rather than in the deluge of Rogue-lite games that’s currently flooding not only the Steam store, but also to a lesser extent PlayStation and Xbox stores.

As for “Souls-Like” games, these take a lot more effort to produce as there’s an emphasis on intricately designed maps with specific enemy placement, but again there’s a small risk of direct clones that do nothing new. If anything, the biggest risk here is that the name of the genre becomes as ill-defined as Rogue-Like was, with developers taking liberties despite well established conventions. Regardless of what the genre comes to be known as, it’s in need of a better and somewhat broader term to define it, to foster further innovation and excellence instead of poor imitation.

Again my advice for consumers is to read up and speak with your wallet. If something is doing something genuinely interesting, reward those developers. For examples, of the decent efforts outside of FromSoftware’s games released in 2017, The Surge is a good option, as well as Hollow Knight and the very popular Nioh. Others will surely follow and I hope that a consensus for the genre name that’s not “Souls-Like” is coined soon.