7DRL 2024: What Caught My Eye

7DRL 2024: What Caught My Eye

What games caught my eye, and why am I stuck on their innovations?


9 min read

[The cover image is Caves of Qud, because that always catches my eye.]

There are a lot of games submitted every year in the 7 day roguelike challenge, and it's a lot of work to go through them all and evaluate. While we wait for that to happen, I want to talk about my favorites in terms of things that they taught me that no big roguelike titles really did, especially not within an hour of playing. Now, I'm not anyone who matters, an auteur, or one whose praise is worth anything. At the same time, I am very critical and dream easily -- my favorite books aren't good books but rather books that made me dream about how good they could be. All of the entries here are full of soul and dreams, but that doesn't mean you'll love them nor that they're the best experience ever. These were made in a week. Imagine what could be done in a year...

Genrebending and Nostalgia

CvRL2! I won't mention any names, so that we don't all land in legal trouble but there's a fun game about this topic, two TV shows, and it has a protagonist with a cool whip, vampires, night creatures, magic, and a very very cool transdimensional castle that's bigger on the inside. The original games in this series are very far from being traditional roguelikes, requiring agility, jumping precisely, and knowing when to duck and throw knives. CvRL2: The Lady of Berkeley has it all, but also gives you time to breathe, think, and decide on your next move carefully without losing the edge of the original. It will still kill you for the wrong decision. The world in this game is HUGE, and that's with a certain Castle demolished years ago!

What I want to take from this entry is the feeling of a prepared world, and then a hexcrawl kind of surprise at every step when you move through it. What I'm imagining is using "Dracula's Castle" as the center of epic procedural generation, where every new start would see the preset world be changed by the castle "dropping in". The point of the procgen would then be simulating a couple of centuries and seeing how the castle affected the world up until your specific main House Belmond character is born.

Maybe it would drop you into a hex where there was already an underground conglomeration of demon-worshipers, so Dracula now has more followers and is outright invading the rest of the country. Maybe he dropped into the middle of nowhere and is experimenting in solitude, and your run is more about exploring the villages where people are disappearing, most of the big battles concentrated at the very end? It seems like a lot can be done, and it all started with exploring this map...

"You breathe the fresh air of Warakya"

In the screenshot above, my terminal translucency added a bit of atmosphere, what with the wide forests in the background. That's not a part of the experience verbatim, but it might be a good idea as well?

I know I definitely want more and I'm far from even being done with this much! There's so much content in this entry that it's hard to even believe, and all very wistfully awakening the nostalgia for the old school platformer. A solid capture of the style and spirit of the original!

Tradition Styled Cozy

Speaking of style, I've never even tried imagining a traditional roguelike being done in the style of a cozy game like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, yet A Witch Comes to Town does just that. It doesn't give away its ASCII nature, it doesn't stop being a full-on turn-based roguelike - it's just cozy at that. Pictures don't do it justice because the charm comes from the slight tingling, the minor animations that the ASCII characters produce. Lights flicker, days pass by casting shadows that move around trees and houses, enveloping them in a lushness that just doesn't appear too often in this genre. You know that thing Ghibli grass fields do in the wind?

The grass and forests in this game do that, but it's turn-based! It's so subtle but once you see it, it melts your min-maxing frozen heart. You can pet foxes, explore ruins, help people with the right medicinal herbs... If you're into making cozy things, this is a primer on how to do so and in a genre where infusing this sort of style seems simply alien. Good alien.

This game deserves academic investigation for its stylistic novelty! I'll maybe do a larger pass at it at some later point... For me, as someone who's working on a cozy game outside of the roguelike genre, it's a humbling lesson: if it's not cozy, here's proof that it could be!

Community Procgen

Coop Catacombs is a game I lost countless hours in. The premise is quite unique: instead of generating a dungeon every time you enter the game, the dungeon is generated on a server and until it's beaten - everyone gets the same thing! What more, not only are you playing the same dungeon layout as the rest of the players (in your own single-player sessions), but you can write messages to other people! Your failures can be turned into stronger items being left behind for other players, or angry ghosts that attack whoever next wanders the halls...

Coop Catacombs sends me right back to Pool of Radiance. The vibe, the color scheme, the wonderful Onyx sprites, the pure +1 Sword experience -- everything just returns me to the good old days near the warm fire, shield and axe laid down...

And then there's the community: you never know who else is playing with you, or who you're leaving things to, but it's always a wonderful time. Last week, there was a moment where I wanted to be a good sport, leave a "You're awesome!" message on the sixth floor of the dungeon, only for it to be accompanied by one more from someone else, and then shortly two more! It felt wonderful to see that, to feel that at 2AM, just after failing the dungeon run and feeling a bit tired and down. For me, this community element is very powerful: roguelikes are games that usually have strong communities outside of the game, but here, you can have tougher, more "unfair" dungeons because of community play - I die to mark the traps, so that you may go on. I've already talked about rogues vs souls and how these games are similar or different, and Coop Catacombs definitely sparked a future followup on that topic: are these games hard, so we add community-building to them to make them easier, to spread the pain, so to speak, or is it the other way around, and during testing, community features make the designers go harder still? Don't go hollow on me now...

Tension and Acrobatics

A game I almost always play almost screaming, runner is a cyberpunk heist that I would describe to people like if you imagine Neuromancer but explicitly ASCII. The minimal color palette, the very bright and focused visuals, the level layout -- cold, server-room-like, unforgiving, with clean and calculated repetition, sentries and patrols keeping this mechanical cage well shut, and the Hunter, a presence that I imagine akin to those robot dogs from that one Black Mirror episode -- all of this is at the same time just enough and everything this game needs. In this regard, it is itself tense. Maybe the design needs to be tense to create such tension, but runner is a masterpiece in tension building. You always have exactly enough time and not a moment more. You can make mistakes but they always cost you. Your actions aren't many and if you're not a pro at seeing where to use them, why are you even running?

And let's talk about actions! I am starting to really like bumpless design in roguelikes. In fact, I love that both this entry and A Witch has come to Town don't have conventional combat at all - your character isn't a daring hero in that sense, and they can be hurt, but they don't hurt back. In runner, you run. And you run in many different ways, including jumping off walls, vaulting over enemies, and even burrowing through the nearest wall and hoping for some space on the other side. Given that you always have a goal in reaching some tile in the level, part of the tension comes from not having a full view of the level layout and choosing to trust the environment to be either repetitive or characteristic at least. Another part comes from the fact that your abilities are on cooldown and you can either move, lose health, or choose when to use them. You have to use them sparingly, and its your proficiency in this regard that means victory or defeat. And this is a great decision in design! Makes every run feel like that one scene from Ghost in the Shell, where Batou enters the large complex of Locus Solus, downloads the building schematics and starts his own run through it knowing full well that there's not enough ammo for all of the defences:

The music fits perfectly too, in my humble opinion. Really sad I can't find it in higher quality...

Centering the abilities on the player character brings with itself a level of immersion that is hard to achieve in this genre: in other games, when in need of an exit strategy, it might be your inventory that you look through, hoping against hope. Here, you're keenly aware of yourself, of your capabilities, of what you are and aren't capable of...

Deconstruction Work Ahead

Speaking of being keenly aware... Call of Judgement is a roguelike about roguelike deconstruction. Instead of saying "here's a roguelike, play it", it says "here's a roguelike. Imagine if you were betting on whether you could complete this level. Would you play it or skip?" and then proceeds to either play it or skip! You still need the same skills that you'd need to beat the roguelike level, and learning from your mistakes stays the same. There's a skill tree, you can get stronger over time, you can learn not to attack dragons, you just don't get to do it directly.

I've seen many idle battler games, and I always had this issue of understanding what the point was. This game explained it quite well for me - I get the skill set and what it offers - a managerial view of the crawling experience!

Deconstruction for deconstruction's sake isn't as fun as offering a way for the viewer to partake - to use their insight and bet higher. Imagine if your only choice wasn't to skip or not, but to either say which class has the highest probability to pass this particular dungeon, knowing how the classes behave and what they aim to do - rogues might evade combat and always go for the gold, while knights do the opposite. That and somehow streamlining the skills and I could see this become a sport. I'd honestly watch Call of Judgment where other people watch football, with friends over and drinks and popcorn.

I don't just think this is something I could enjoy playing (and I really do think I could get deep with it!), but also be used as a model for thinking about interacting with software that does fuzzing (automatic testing) of procedural generation and encounter design. Currently, we don't have much in this field - our tools don't have a lot of insight into whether a level is beatable or not, and if they do, that's mostly based on weights assigned while generating. Does every dungeon have a perfect play? What are the conditions for that occurring? Let's wait for the Call of Judgment and learn!