Roguelike games are built on a premise of trying to reach the bottom of a dungeon (either literal or metaphorical) by building up powers, abilities, items, etc. to help you defeat the powerful enemies you meet as you go. Those abilities and items are things which your character chooses as weaponry to help them in their goal, but why did they choose those items? Why are these particular powerups the ones that your character gets? What does it say about their psychology that they choose these paths to tread, instead of all other possible paths?
In this blog post we’re going to dive into human psychology and how it’s represented in roguelikes. We’re going to try to understand who your protagonist is and how they develop themselves over the course of their game, and then also touch on other media to see how characters develop narratively-rich abilities to understand how this aspect of storytelling functions. We’ll also look beyond just roguelikes and briefly touch on other progression systems and how they can be used to represent psychology.
So let’s go!
First off, this is a continuation of my last blog post where I discussed character mechanics in games like Magic The Gathering and how those ideas are presented in hero titles like Overwatch. In that post I discussed how roguelike characters start off as a blank base and then build character on top of that. In other words, you start a game like Binding of Isaac being able to move and shoot tears, but as you go you transform your tears into laser beams or scythes or whatever else. That blog post talked about building up the base, this one is focused on how that base develops over time. How do we get those new powers in these games?
Most roguelikes present you with a reward of a new ability for completing a challenge. You beat a boss, you finish a floor, you get a new ability as a result. It’s fairly straightforward, really. Some games will offer hidden abilities along your path, or will let you choose many paths that have different types of risk/reward along the way. Generally, the presentation of a new ability happens at roughly the same pacing as a Metroidvania game, where you either get it as a reward for a boss or in a tucked away corner of the map. In terms of storytelling more generally, you can think back to stories like Lord of the Rings where the characters gain abilities throughout the narrative, sometimes at important locations and sometimes not. You might get a piece of magical armor hidden in the dragon’s cave, but you might also just find a magic ring in a hidden waterway beneath the ground. The pacing in all of these types of media follows roughly the same pattern: Gain a new power, have time to explore the new power, realize the new ability helps you explore the world and the story in some new, meaningful way. While more linear stories will make sure abilities are narratively significant, nonlinear stories tend to just make sure that new power will help you access more of the map or more of the story. Roguelikes tend to be a bit too random for even that to work. Samus may gain new knowledge thanks to her Ice Missiles now, but it would be difficult to lock doors in Binding of Isaac behind an ice tear upgrade, since you’re never guaranteed to actually see that upgrade at all.
In roguelikes we have to deal with randomness, and so progress tends to work based on less specific interactions. Instead of having to shoot the ice door with an ice missile to unlock it, you’ll unlock the ice door if you choose 3 ice powerups. This broadens the means of acceptance for your run, allowing the game to work while still leaning into its randomness. We see examples of this in Isaac where you get access to certain areas based on the number of holy or evil powers you’ve accepted throughout your playthrough. Narratively we understand that these choices are possible paths a character might walk. Binding of Isaac is entirely about Isaac’s exploration of his religion and how he might choose the paths of good or evil at any time. Therefore, having new doors open up based on those choices makes sense as a way of gating off more narratively-significant bosses.
In a blog post from a few years ago I looked at how quest design worked in other media. I did this to understand how storytelling works from a game design perspective, and I realized that in games we fundamentally tell our stories in a different way from other media. This is problematic, because we as game developers have not fully learned how this works yet, and instead we borrow solutions from film’s tool kit. In other words: Is Binding of Isaac a narrative game? No, right? It’s a roguelike, and roguelikes aren’t known for their storytelling. If you ask someone for a “Narrative Game” they’re going to send you to something like Wolf Among Us or Walking Dead, both TellTale games formatted in the style of Interactive Fiction. This is what we think of narrative games right now. Yet in other media, storytelling is more about character growth and development. A character must change throughout a scene and the mechanics of that change are what we discuss in our english classes. So if character stories are just about changing that character over time, why aren’t roguelikes narrative games?
I say all of that because I need you to suspend your belief in what makes a narrative game. How can we make Binding of Isaac tell a story of character growth that’s every bit as nuanced as Walking Dead?
Let’s start by breaking down Binding of Isaac’s character growth from a narrative perspective. Ignore the game systems for now and let’s approach this like we’re looking at Walking Dead or some other “narrative” title.
Isaac is a small child being psychologically abused by his mother who is convinced that god is speaking to her. She believes God is telling her that she must sacrifice her son, something that is told to us in cutscenes at the start of the game. We then start diving through dungeons and unlocking new abilities. These abilities and powers are all different aspects of our mother or the life we live within her house. We wear her lipstick or her high heels to become more like her, and thus feel more powerful. We will then face her in a climactic battle later in the story. This battle doesn’t end the story, though, we keep fighting off these aspects of our mother until new and more complex iterations are revealed. This is handled in the way an action film might have an act two twist that reveals the villain we thought was in charge was actually merely a pawn all along. Our mother isn’t the final boss, her religion is behind her every action. Once Isaac has defeated his mother, he then begins to fight back against physical manifestations of the beliefs that made her do these things. The true ending involves escaping the dungeon and returning home to find satan speaking to your mother through a fuzzy television set, which you must defeat to reveal a portal to hell.
The story of Isaac, throughout all of this, is one of becoming more powerful through whatever means possible. Isaac wears his mother’s makeup or clothes or whatever else as a way to feel more like the powerful authority figure in his life. Isaac also wields religious symbols as other aspects of himself as a way of feeling that same increase in power. Not to only rely on others, Isaac also finds power in things which brought joy to himself, such as old photographs or reminders of his loving pet cat Guppy. All of these abilities and powers are narratively significant in some way, they all teach us about who Isaac is and what his life has been. He doesn’t just pick things up arbitrarily, he chooses symbols and memories and gains strength through them, something the game then reinforces through short cutscenes.
If this were a game more like the TellTale examples mentioned earlier, we might expect to see Isaac learn to overcome his mother’s influence and accept his own strength. Well, this game doesn’t condemn Isaac’s mother, it just makes us face her. Isaac doesn’t need to learn to find power away from his mother, he’s free to use her strengths as much as he wants. The game tells us that we must find strength in whatever way we can, and then use that strength to confront our problems.
I asked earlier “how do we make Binding of Isaac a narrative game as nuanced as Walking Dead?” and the answer is honestly “It already is one”. A lot of how we think about interactive storytelling is deeply rooted in linear progression. Games are not a linear medium. Isaac doesn’t just show narrative progress in one way, he tries many different paths. Some of those paths are narrative failures, some of those paths are a marker of his growth even as they’re presented as just another possible ending. Some of those paths could be considered success! Isaac faces himself down multiple times in the game, a metaphorical struggle many films present to us as the totality of the experience. The only thing missing from Isaac is a rising intensity in the narrative. It’s the linear moments where the story stops the gameplay to say “hey! Feel sad now so you can be happy later!”. Isaac leaves all of those things by the wayside in order to feed us a pure video game narrative experience where we don’t quite get catharsis in the same way. Instead, our narrative catharsis comes through the same avenue as our mechanical catharsis. We experience the relief of beating the crazy boss fight and the cutscene at the end of it feels almost like an afterthought as a result. What I’m trying to say here is that this is a feature, not a bug. This is a perfectly functional way for a game to convey narrative.
Even though we feel it differently, Isaac still grows as in any other story, we’re just not as familiar with experiencing a story in this format. There is simply no way to complete Isaac (as far as I’m aware, though someone speed runner will probably prove me wrong) without picking up these powerups, and that act is itself a storytelling act. Even if someone does pull that off, it merely becomes a story of isaac finding the strength to succeed within himself all along.
What we see instead are a series of hidden triggers that give us access to different paths of growth for Isaac. If he embraces religion, he gains certain types of abilities and loses the possibility of entering certain parts of the dungeon for the rest of that playthrough. I don’t know if the game will stop certain types of powerups from spawning as a result of this type of choice, but you can easily imagine how it would work if they did. Narratively, if I choose to embrace the bible and I only pick up biblical powerups, then the game can respond by only sending me narratively-interesting follow-up choices. Perhaps choosing biblical powerups causes more deceptive powerups to spawn, thus creating a commentary. Perhaps the true path to victory can only be found by choosing non-biblical powerups, or maybe the opposite is true and the bible is the one true path. These kinds of choices are usually considered narratively unimportant, just something the game designer puts in for the sake of fun, but through them we can see the world change as I pick up a non-descript ring and evil kings of the past begin to hunt me. These choices are no different than the choice made by Frodo in Lord of the Rings, afterall, we’re just not contextualizing it in the same way. To Frodo, picking up the ring was not a choice with clear consequences, and players of a game based on this story wouldn’t necessarily get the same clarity of explanation for this change as we see in the films or the book version of that story. That doesn’t make the narrative weight of the choice any different, just the way we process and understand that weight.
So with all of this held loosely in our minds, how do we replicate these complex psychological interactions for our own games? How do we walk away from these heady concepts with something tangible we can actually apply?
First off ask yourself: Who is my character? What are the ways my character grows over the course of my game? What are the themes they must explore for my story to make sense, and how can I represent these as gameplay actions?
Secondly, ask yourself: How does my character grow and change? Are they choosing between multiple options to decide on a final solution? Do their powers even matter to the end result of their story at all (Zagreus’s do not, for example, and that’s fine)? How does their change in mental state reflect itself in the choices the player is making?
And now let’s look at an example story and discuss how the characters progress and how that psychological progress can be reflected through mechanical progression systems.
I’m going to use Finding Nemo as my example here because there’s a clear psychological arc, it’s an arc which progresses through distinct stages over the course of the film, and it’s a film I imagine most of you have probably at least heard of and that’s old enough that no one will mind if I spoil it. So if you were making a Roguelike based on Finding Nemo’s story, what are the abilities and powers you might use to help emphasize the story?
First off, what are the relevant story beats of the film?
Nemo is a fish with a weak fin whose father, Marlin, lost everything and is overprotective. Marlin is unwilling and unable to let Nemo live his life.
Nemo gets kidnapped by a fisherman who takes Nemo back to a fish tank in Sydney Australia. Marlin rushes out to rescue Nemo and bring him home.
Marlin meets Dory, a forgetful fish who has forgotten where her family is, and Bruce a shark who says he’s given up eating fish. Bruce is part of a group of sharks who are trying to improve themselves, but aren’t always able to control their instincts.
Marlin finds a pair of diving goggles with the address of the fisherman written on them, which Dory then drops into the deep ocean. Dory then teaches Marlin to “Just Keep Swimming” no matter that you have suffered a failure.
Marlin tries to push Dory away for being unhelpful and slowing him down, but then her forgetfulness garners them some outside help. His need for control then leads to him manipulating her into taking a “safe” shortcut, almost getting them both killed.
Marlin meets a group of turtles who swim in a dangerous ocean jet stream. These turtles swim with their children, and are entirely hands-off with their kids, allowing them to live with the same trust as the adults.
Marlin tells the story of his adventure, which other fish share around the ocean, eventually spreading to Nemo who then initiates an escape plan.
Marlin decides to trust Dory to ask for directions, and she accidentally gets them eaten by a whale. Marlin, despairing, says he promised never to let anything happen to his son. Dory says that’s a bad promise, since then nothing would ever happen to Nemo. He then realizes he’s been extremely controlling, and is forced to let go of that control in order to survive.
Father and son are reunited at last, and then get caught in a net with other fish. Nemo offers a solution and Marlin must finally show he has grown by trusting his son’s instincts and allowing him to save them all.
Each of Marlin’s major beats in the film is learning some aspect of being able to trust others. He must come to trust Dory and Bruce, even while acknowledging that they are flawed and that he must not trust them blindly. He must learn to forgive failure in himself and others and trust despite these setbacks. He must learn to listen and accept input from those other than himself. He must learn to let go of control. Then finally he must learn to trust others enough to open up to them. Once all of those things have been accomplished he then gets to see his son and show these new skills in a final test.
Each lesson here can translate into a game mechanic for our purposes, so let’s figure them out one by one.
The first beat is learning to trust others despite their flaws. Marlin must learn to work with flawed characters who can still offer him support. In a game, we might get the ability to summon one of these characters in a way that is both helpful to us but can also harm us if misused. This could take the form of a summonable AI that deals friendly fire damage, something that has enough utility to be worth the risk, but something that still definitely is a risk. Bruce would probably be a massive damage summon that can hurt us if we’re not careful. Dory would likely be a guide summon that doesn’t always give correct information somehow, gives information at the cost of focus on your surroundings, or who only gives information for short periods. Each of these comes with a built-in drawback, but offers something you simply cannot do on your own.
The second beat is about failure, and so in a roguelike this most likely must mean it’s some ability to do with death. Perhaps this ability is your meta-progression system where you must learn to just keep swimming despite a setback, attempting to gain some new power from the lessons you learn each time you try. This could also be some ability that gains in power each time you die, even if it isn’t a full meta-progression system unto itself. The only thing we must avoid is allowing this system to become something which prevents your death, because this lesson is entirely about accepting your own failure and learning to grow because of it.
The third beat is that he must learn to listen and accept input from others. This could be the start of a summon-leveling system where you could help Dory become more powerful, or something along those lines. In fact, I think the more trust we invest in our summons, the more powerful this commentary becomes. Our summons gain new powers to advise us, to assist us in combat, to guide us towards our goal, etc. and we become more powerful as a result of our trust in our friends.
The fourth beat is more abstract as it means he must let go of control entirely. As a player in a game it is our desire to impact the world around us directly. It’s difficult for a game to be fun if we aren’t the one playing it, after all. Yet still, something must be found here. I would suggest a system that allows the player to initiate a result over time in some way. Perhaps we begin to see a system where we can invest into some third party, but which eventually yields a return. This could be similar to the harvest mechanic of Bioshock where you chose to either harvest the Little Sister for immediate reward or set her free for delayed reward. I think the best way of handling this would be to have a character point out a system we could already have interacted with, but didn’t know how to reap the reward from. Perhaps we have a system where we can deposit some currency into a box, or give this currency to a character, and then when we hit this point in the game the turtles can tell us “Oh, btw, check out this cool thing you can do!” And show us how to reap the rewards of our investment. That way we are rewarded for any trust we’ve shown thus far, and also rewarded for any trust we begin to show now.
The fifth beat is less of a specific beat so much as reaping the rewards of past action. In showing others that you trust them, in sharing your story with them over time, they begin to forward your story along to your son. This doesn’t really require you to gain any new ability, so we can sort of skip this one since it’s built into all the other systems we already have.
The sixth beat is our culmination of learning to let go and to trust others, and this could take the form more of a mini-boss that tests our skills rather than any new systems that we add. This beat is about learning to internalize all the previous beats, after all.
And then the final beat is being reunited with your son and getting a chance to show him all of these things you’ve learned, and to show him that you trust him as well. Finally finding Nemo would likely just give you a final boost into all of the previous systems up to this point, as well as initiating that final boss fight against the fishing net.
So we have a roguelike that’s built around summoning help. Over time we gain the ability to grow each time we fail, and then later to grow not just our own powers, but those of our friends. We gain the power to invest our points not just internally but externally and to trust that doing so will yield strong rewards beyond our direct control. Now that I’m summarizing I realize that the “Currency” I mentioned earlier is probably best if it’s our leveling up currency so that we can either choose to increase Marlin’s strength, the strength of his summons, or trust in some external power entirely to reward us with something so powerful that it merits the time spent. All of these systems are now about growth and trust in external powers. Marlin must have some abilities of his own, yes, but the bulk of the game is about summoning help instead of relying solely on yourself. This echoes the lesson of the film nicely. Since it’s a summon system, it also fits well with just about any standard roguelike setup so we don’t have to reinvent any wheels. This system means that when we get Nemo back we get a tangible reward in that Nemo becomes a new summon, one which might come with level-up currency that we can use to advance those varied systems as well. Players will feel more powerful as a result of being reunited, and so the emotional moment becomes tangible, all leading up to the final conflict.
Usually when I do these film breakdowns I end with a caveat about how I don’t think any of this is suited to a game because games and films tell stories in fundamentally different ways, but I believe this one might actually be an exception. We need more content, but I think the narrative here lends itself really well to a roguelike about exploring the ocean and coming to trust yourself and the people around you.
In this example we pick up summons based on the people we meet around us. Each of those people is flawed but still useful to our journey. Whereas in Binding of Isaac we picked up items that made us feel more like our mother as a way of gaining power, in the Finding Nemo game, it is our friends and companions that give us that power. Where Isaac’s items each told us about our relationship with our mother, and our relationship with religion, the summons we find in Nemo must tell us about our relationship with trust and how we can overcome our flaws and the flaws of those around us. In Isaac each item needed to describe a single character or concept in some way, and we got items about Mother or God or Guppy or any other prominent figure in our life. To design those we must ask ourselves how to show some small facet of the larger person, and then apply that to a game mechanic. Nemo’s system are more about trust, and all the characters represent the same thing. Each character could make a smaller commentary about trust, such as how Bruce can be trusted up to the point of smelling blood. We could also eschew that concept and just introduce more characters for fun, since it doesn’t matter so much what each individual character represents. Nemo ends up landing in the area of Hades where our powers themselves don’t offer narrative meaning, because the system as a whole is where the importance comes from. This means our summons can be anything we want, and most likely will end up being a mixture of both Bruce-like commentary characters, and others who exist only for entertainment.
The systemic growth shown by Marlin in Finding Nemo will echo the narrative depth we see in Binding of Isaac, even if the approach we’ve outlined in this blog post ended up very different from Isaac. Still, hopefully you can see from the examples I’ve given here how we can all come to build this type of narrative progression into our gameplay. It is growth that tells us a character’s story, and so it is our progression mechanic in a game that must do the heavy lifting to represent that.
I’ve discussed roguelike progression here so far, but as I mentioned earlier there is little difference between roguelike progression and metroidvania progression. If you wanted to include this same idea into a metroidvania platformer, your powers would be created in much the same way as we’ve discussed in this blog post. The only difference would be that you are hand-authoring where they appear and the pacing that results from that authoring. Since Metroidvania powers are just abilities that exist physically in the world somewhere, you can then adapt this same concept to many other types of game. Indeed, any game where you gain abilities over time could adapt this same concept of representing player psychology through those abilities.
Beyond just that, however, we can then apply these lessons to other progression systems as well. Roguelikes present powers to players as items in the world, but this same psychological exploration might also be used for any other power, gained in any other way. If you look at skill trees in games like Path of Exile, you’ll find some abilities are generic +1 Damage type of abilities while others are “All your cold spells are now fire spells” type of paradigm-shifting powers that change your entire gameplay style. This closely matches systems like the one found in Binding of Isaac where you find high heel shoes that increase a simple stat number, and then also items which change your tears into a tear laser instead. Turning the Path of Exile tree into a narratively-expressive developmental journey then just means charting your progress through different psychological ideals. This might be complicated for a tree as insane as that in Path of Exile, but you can hopefully imagine this working for a simpler tree like the ones found in World of Warcraft or any other MMO.
With all of that in mind, we can now chart our character arc that we’ve written into our story, and then use that same pacing and structure in our character’s progression system. If our progression system is linear, we can set beats into that system. We can build the highs and lows of our character’s psychological journey into the gameplay journey that we experience through them. If our progression system is nonlinear, we can still set tent poles along the way so that we reach different types of narrative beats as we’re finding our own path.
Combined with the lessons learned in my last blog post, we now have the framework to understand how to build our character from scratch and ensure that they’re a narratively-expressive person who conveys the themes necessary for our overall story.
Hopefully this blog post has been useful to you, and thanks for reading!