“You only live once…”

I chose that tagline for RogueLife for a few reasons. In many ways, I chose it because I disagree with it. Yes, put a bullet in the right parts of me, and I’ll run out of that one life, but I’ve also lead many lives. I’ve been a preacher, a stuntman, a corporate drone. Those were whole different lives from the one I lead now. That said, each of those lives carried something with them from the previous lives.

The same is true for the best RogueLikes.

Rogue, the original Rogue, was a game of absolutes and uncertainty. When you died, it would erase your whole save game. It has more in common with coin-operated arcade games than it does with modern, popular role playing games. This facet of the game – the permanence of death – is one of its most memorable features while also being its worst.

Rogue, while definitely a cult classic, is not a commercial success by any of today’s standards. Part of this is because of its unfriendliness. It treats its players like garbage, and it revels in this treatment. It’s unfair. Like, it’s really unfair. For example, potions are necessary to survive the dungeon, but which color of potion corresponds to healing is randomized each time you create a character. Aside from healing, potions can also be poison. Experimentation is both necessary and punished.

It’s real bad, and I hate it.

Rewards only feel good when they feel earned. The same is true from punishment. In Rogue, nothing felt earned. It’s hard to crow about victory when you were always one bad roll from losing.

These last two weeks, I’ve been playing Enter the Gungeon and Sunless Sea. They have very different approaches to the concept of death.

Enter the Gungeon is very much in that coin-op shooter territory. Lives can be measured in bullets, and – initially – it appears that there is no continuity at all. You get one life, and that’s it. Now select a character and go again.

However, you start accruing a currency when you defeat bosses. That currency seems useless until you rescue the shopkeepers and unlock the ability to buy new weapons to appear in later runs. Slowly, other characters and events show up which start to affect later runs. Each run – or every few runs – players feel like they have a little more of a chance to kill their past and defeat the ruler of the gungeon.

No, there is no “reloading” after a failed run. You can’t save-scum. It still feels like a RogueLike even though it violates the most basic tenet of the Berlin Interpretation.

(I’m not going to hop on that steaming pile of garbage right now. I’ve got something special in mind for good ol’ Berlin. You have to wait for that. Sorry.)

Sunless Sea takes a different approach. It tells you from the start that your captain will die. It tells you that is alright, and it even shows you ways to improve the inheritance you can leave for later captains. Each time your captain dies, you are asked what your next captain’s relationship to them is. Were they lovers? Rivals? Kinsfolk?

This direct and open continuity feels different from Enter the Gungeon, and it can be crueler in some ways. A life in Sunless Sea can last hours, while a life in the Gungeon will rarely go for even half an hour. The near-total loss of progress in the Gungeon feels acceptable for its session investment. Sunless Sea’s losses can be much larger, and much more cruel. In fact, one short life after a series of long ones can lead to a loss of progress in Sunless Sea that can’t be rivaled by even Rogue. Sunless Sea will happily put you right back at square one even after twenty hours of progress. Rogue would never do that. Rogue couldn’t. Rogue never had the ability to build an investment like that.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring the interplay of “Persistent Death” and “Variable Success” in greater detail. Both are big parts of the game we’re building at The Crooked Thimble, and both are dear concepts to me as a craftsman.

Tomorrow, I’ll be setting out onto the Unterzee again. Captain Eliza is gone, but a woman of letters has taken her place. Perhaps Penny will fare better. I hope she does.

If you wish to see the tragedy that befell poor Eliza, take a look at our episode below. Also, please take a moment to support our Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/crookedthimble.