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Tag: RogueLike

Among Rogues: Suspense, Boredom, and Neuroscience

Quintin Smith created a video a while back about the magical impact that the empty spaces of Sunless Sea have upon the game. Minutes – WHOLE MINUTES – of the game are spent crossing vast, near featureless distances between islands. Quinns ruminates on the importance of this empty space and rightly compares it to the grind found in many role-playing games.

Here’s the video. I didn’t make it. It’s Quinns. You should follow him. Support his Cool Ghosts Patreon or Shut Up & Sit Down’s donation page.

He’s not wrong. But he’s also not entirely right.

Let’s talk briefly about neuroscience. I’m going to play fast and loose with some concepts, but the following will generally be true. Also, if you suffer from depression, this whole section essentially does not apply to you. And that sucks. We’re all sorry.

Also, I am purposefully leaving out serotonin and norepinephrine. The brain is really complicated, folks. I’m trying to be brief.

Dopamine is a strange hormone that your brain uses for all sorts of weird purposes. Most famously, it’s used as “the reward chemical”, but that is a gross simplification. Yes, you release it when you eat food or have sex or exercise. It’s great for this. In these cases, it’s oddly important that the event which is rewarded was planned. Not schemed for days and days, but that you were enabled to build up expectation. That expectation is important as that’s – essentially – when the dopamine is manufactured prior to its euphoric release.

To sum up, the euphoria of reward only comes from making a decision, building expectation, and then executing. Sometimes, dopamine is talked about at the “motivation” neurotransmitter. People with depression often show a shortage of dopamine, and they can sometimes be treated by by adding more dopamine to their system. Sadly, this often causes them to lose their ability to create dopamine on their own.

Game developers use this kind of dopamine release all the time. We create clear goals, and we empower players to achieve those goals quickly. In some ways, this is great! We can sort of help with depression! Sort of!

You’ll see the same kind of goal or task list creation in all sorts of perfectly valid self-help treatments. Heck, loads of qualified therapists will encourage people to create lists of daily, short-term goals. They’ll remind their clients to take moments to celebrate completing those goals. It’s really good for you, and it can remind you how to produce dopamine if you’ve forgotten.

It’s worth noting that physical contact with loved ones – and, no, I don’t know how this works – can also produce dopamine. So, if someone you love and trust is feeling unmotivated – and you have permission for physical contact – hug them or squeeze their hand. It’ll do you both some good.

In this way, Quinns is right about what “boredom” does for Sunless Sea and for RPGs. But he’s missing something in that pairing which is unique to Sunless Sea. It’s a part of all roguelikes, and it’s particularly important to horror.

Dopamine makes episodic memories permanent.

This research is more recent. Researchers were troubled by something. Dopamine, which was getting a lot of attention as the “love neurotransmitter”, kept showing up at unexpected times. It would also be suppressed in people who definitely had not been having the positive experiences of the motivation series. Researchers kept finding dopamine suppression in sufferers of PTSD, and they find elevated levels in people who recently underwent trauma.

What recent research is showing is that dopamine is released when an episodic memory – a memory of an event rather than a skill, etc. – is written into long-term storage. This dopamine release effectively determines how long the memory will be stored. (This is a vast simplification because memory is weird. Really weird.) In Telltale’s The Walking Dead, dopamine is released every time “So-and-so will remember this” appears on screen.

For Sunless Sea, horror games, and for other roguelikes, the trauma which triggers the dopamine release is the death of a character. This traumatic release is what lets us learn from our mistakes in these games. When we die in these games, we write a memory. If we were invested in character or action, we’ll release dopamine and remember the death for a long time indeed. Importantly, whenever we encounter a similar situation, we’ll recall that memory and the emotions we felt at the time.

This will trigger us to set a goal and begin building expectation and… you see where this is going.

Those dull parts of Sunless Sea serve a purpose. They let us remember. They let us build that suspense, that suspense stimulates the production of dopamine, and, ultimately, they let us turn that suspense into joy. Without the dull parts, we can’t learn.

Next time you see me sailing Captain Penny over that calm, sunless sea, remember the turmoil roiling beneath the surface. I certainly do.

If you liked this article, check out others like it at The Crooked Thimble and please throw us some financial support at The Crooked Thimble Patreon.

Among Rogues: The Persistence of Death

“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:

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