Dirt: The Permadeath Drive
Finding narrative in the most unforgiving games.
Erik Hinton writes about Elden Ring and roguelikes.
There has never been a better time to play with death. Every morning I wake up, grip a controller, and prepare to die over and over again. Like millions of others, I’m testing my patience through breakout hit, Elden Ring, a new action RPG by the video game company From Software built around the core mechanic of killing you thousands of times. It is a wonderful game about struggling to chain together rolls and flailing jump attacks while an enormous dog statue flies around stomping on you like a goomba. Every flesh failure, every ill-timed backstep or over-zealous zweihanding, is met with the sad and immediate chimes of disgrace. Your character disappears into ash. “You Died” is stamped on the screen.
Death is a hallmark of From Software games. Streamers proudly overlay four-figure death counters on their video. When From Software’s earlier mainstream hit Dark Souls was ported to PC, it was given the subtitle “Prepare to Die Edition.” Yet despite all the enthusiastic crowing about death in Elden Ring and other From Software titles, there’s something Corinthian about mortality in these games: Where, O death, is your sting?
See, in Elden Ring, like the Dark Souls and Bloodbornes before it, when you die, you merely come back to life at the last place you saved or by a special nearby totem. In a game where death is just a small tax on your time as you learn the rhythm of bosses, I do not fear death. It is a training partner. As a result, Elden Ring feels more like a sport than a story. Even though Elden Ring might be one of the greatest games I have ever played, I watch the cutscenes like a baby clapping at shapes. Even though narrative big boy George R. R. Martin contributed lore to Elden Ring, I have no idea what is going on. I don’t care either. Wondering why I’m not more attached to the why of a title that I’ve dedicated more than a hundred hours of my life to, I started thinking about another genre of game that’s all about death: the roguelike.
Few agree on just how big the roguelike tent is. Distinguished by an idiosyncratic and hotly-debated set of game mechanics, roguelikes are either a small collection of ASCII art dungeon crawlers (Rogue, NetHack, Angband) or a broad category ranging from Flash arcade bible-thumping cry-em-up Binding of Isaac to fantasy deckbuilders like Slay the Spire to 2020’s indie gifted-kid dad-killer Hades. Most agree, though, that roguelikes are games with a permadeath mechanic. Whenever your character dies, you must start the game over from the beginning with a different, randomly generated, character. This “hardcore” requirement, reminiscent of old-school tabletop roleplaying rules, combines with the other genre hallmark of randomly-generated characters, levels, enemies and items to create playthroughs that are tense, unique, and, often, short-lived.
Though games like Elden Ring are steeped in death, unlike roguelikes, they cling to life. Even though Elden Ring offers players the most ambitious and full open world ever made, very little is up to chance, very little is rare. It’s a snowglobe in which you die and respawn, die and respawn. Only your progress up its ladder of difficulty is forever. Death is decoration.
There are so many other tropes and mechanics common to some, but not all, roguelikes that listing them seems more academic than descriptive of their experience. Instead, I will just detail my first few starts with the decade-old, still-in-beta roguelike The Caves of Qud.
My first character Mumet is killed immediately, without ceremony, by a giant centipede. He knows nothing of the world. I vow to try a ranged weapon next time.
Next, I roll a Water Merchant named Kukas Shwuun, whom I begin calling “Shawn”. He starts the game outrageously wealthy and the local arms dealer, by chance, has a fancy gun that I can just afford. I delve into my first cave, mowing down insects and crabs like an entomophobic Rambo. Drunk on power, I come across a pack of baboons and start shooting. A pink one named Hoo-ooo-AH-EE-EEE tears Shawn to pieces. I hate the baboons.
My next run, I get lucky. I’m given a mutant named Sebus who can teleport and randomly suck enemies into the abyss. After leveling up several times, a new accomplishment, I get stronger. Sebus gets cocky. He runs into a boar monster called a “slugsnout” who launches a wad of compacted vomit at me so hard that it almost one-shots me. I flee, but it follows. I teleport away but it tracks me down, hatred in its heart and violence stewing in the regurgitation of its guts. I escape the cave with a single hitpoint and find myself surrounded by baboons. I notice, though, that this time they are not hostile. I look at my randomly-generated equipment and I find a primal neck ring that raises my reputation with baboons.
The slugsnout pops out of the cave. I fear the end is near. However, this time the baboons swarm him. He gets drawn-and-quartered by a pack of my new primate friends. I love the baboons. I vow to find their leader and befriend them. I will become a king of the baboons. For the next few hours, the baboons and I ally to wreck packs of marauders and cannibals. I search for Hoo-ooo-AH-EE-EEE, but he is a random creation, never to be found again. Beating up some hapless “snapjaw” with my baboon brothers, my void mutation triggers by accident and sucks a baboon chieftan into the abyss. His kin look at me, betrayed. I cannot be trusted. I am no friend to baboons. I fall upon the violence of the mob. For the first time, I mourn a death. Sebus, you were pure and just wanted to love the monkeys.
In this short story about my baboon drama, you glimpse the magic of the roguelikes. Far from causing your playthrough to feel senseless, the special precarity of random chance makes the player make the meaning. Beyond the hackneyed opposition between the achievement mania of the “Church of Git Gud” and the disengagement of casual play, roguelikes, with their procedurally-generated goals and chaotic intensity, preach the dialectic gospel of fierce commitment, but only to those ends that we choose ourselves. Baboons are unrelated to any pre-defined purpose of the Caves of Qud. The game merely provides a palette of opportunities for narrative investment. The meaning of your game floats above the nonsense of entropy, of arbitrary numbers and names.
Roguelikes work in the strange medium of love, in which something happens by chance and, for no reason, you decide that it’s your reason for going on, that you would risk everything for this coin flip of fate: I chose you Hoo-ooo-AH-EE-EEE until permadeath do us part. As your character might convert scrap into blood pistols and rocket skates, roguelikes teach the alchemy of converting contingency into necessity.
Does this mean that roguelikes are the better games? Have random dungeons and tiny tiles of ASCII art won my attention for good? Will the Elden Ring be unbroken? No. The same merits that make roguelikes exciting, make them incredibly exhausting. As permadeath looms, everything means too much for casual play. I crawl through roguelikes like I craft tweets; in a manic tension of obsessively-imagined personal downfall. Every keystroke could bring permanent shame or open up an entirely novel pit of goblins. In fact, my last Caves of Qud death happened just like this. A careless up key sent my character into an air vent, which led me to a maze of conveyor belts filled with hundreds of “chute crabs.” My death was like one of those classic Man Adventure Magazine covers where a shirtless and bloody Cary Grant-like beats at a swarm of crustaceans with a cudgel.
Roguelikes do not displace more forgiving RPGs, action games, or happy platformers. What they do is suggest an answer to the riddle of why big games from Elden Ring to Horizon Forbidden West keep becoming more finely rendered and pumped full of more story, but still— with a few exceptions, such as The Last Of Us— feel narratively thin. Even so-called “story games,” stripped of combat and full of moody reflections on the more DeviantArt side of the human experience, don’t stick in my head like my best roguelike runs. My fictional family is dying of all kinds of cancers and depressions, but all I miss are my random baboons. Ultimately, roguelikes show us that real investment cannot be bought and you can’t be tricked into caring through the verisimilitude of virtual suffering.
Narrative depth resists the “more is more” logic of a society of spectacle. Narrative lives in lack and loss, what we choose to do with the time we have, how we spend our fleeting resources.
Much like roguelikes force us to blur our eyes and dream a drama out of a grid of intarsia-knit resolution sprites, the stories that make life meaningful come out of a dogged insistence to treat the noise of life as something coherent. For love to be love, it must be fierce and it must be arbitrary. It must be a keystroke away from permanent loss. — Erik Hinton