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A great rou-IFalike (I'm trying to make this a thing), July 9, 2021
Has there ever been a pairing more obvious in theory, but more challenging in execution, than the IF/roguelike mashup? I mean I’m sure there has been, but let’s just go with it: the marriage seems natural, given the overlap in presentation, interface, subject matter, and, I think, audience – like, if you enjoy typing stuff into a text window to explore a dungeon, evade traps, juggle an inventory, and beat monsters in Zork, it’s not crazy to think you’d be into Angband or Nethack as well. And, importantly, so long as you’re sticking with text or ascii, neither genre requires the author to create art, which can be a significant barrier to entry.
On the flip side, there are really deep differences between these beasts that can make the hybrids rather awkward, if not sterile. First there’s the varying expectations for what “fairness” means – modern IF players expect to triumph with nary a restart, whereas if you win a roguelike without standing on a pile of the dead bodies of your previous avatars, it would feel unsatisfying. Similarly, it’s the rare piece of IF that takes more than two or three hours, while a mainline roguelike can easily take 30 or 40 for a single successful playthrough, and you need radically different gameplay systems and design ethoi to support those different playtimes. Finally, most of the fun of IF comes from bespoke puzzle-solving and hand-crafted text, whereas roguelikes are all about applying a consistent set of tools to wildly varying circumstances of inventory, monsters, and dungeon layout, with small shifts in positioning and granular inventory usage – awkward things to model well in a parser – providing most of the turn-by-turn interest.
Due to the combination of the appeal and the challenges, I feel like this sub-genre has a lot of entries, but comparatively few successful ones: I’m of course thinking of Kerkerkruip in the latter category, but honestly struggling to name a second stand-out example. Fortunately, after playing Black Knife Dungeon, I’ll struggle no more, as it offers a distinct, intelligent take on the rou-IFalike (I know it looks awful on the page, but say it aloud, it’s pretty good!), by adopting some more player-friendly, rogue-lite style approaches.
There’s a plot here, with the find-artifact-or-kill-foozle coin landing on the former side this time out; you’re drinking in a tavern with a sot of a dwarf, who tells you of an unrecovered treasure waiting at the end of a dangerous dungeon, and closes with these urgent words:
"'A steadfast adventurer may find it,” he murmurs, “but first, seek Blornang’s Hall.' With that, his head falls on the table, cushioned slightly by a coaster."
So yeah it’s minimal and trope-y, but at the same time, if you’re not enchanted by that “cushioned slightly by a coaster” bit, you and I are very different people.
Anyway it’s all about gameplay, and since the town is only sketched in, with two shops (one level-gated) and a tavern for getting gameplay tips in the shape of rumors, it’s all about the dungeon. In the first two minutes, you’ll notice two key examples of BKD’s streamlining. First, there’s no navigation within the dungeon – you’re always either fighting or searching in a room, or moving on to another randomly-generated one. There’s also no examine verb, possibly the first time I’ve come across this in a piece of IF? Combined, this means that the focus is on decision-making from a focused palette of actions that slowly expands as you level up, buy more kit, and encounter new foes.
At the start, the main mechanic is a low-stakes push-your-luck calculation – in another bow to roguelite convention, death only means missing out on the small gold bonus you get from leaving the dungeon alive, so it seems like all there is to do is fight your way through each set of foes and then bail out when the going gets too tough. The main wrinkle at this early stage is that monsters all come in a normal and extra-tough flavor, with the difference usually being signaled by a subtle tweak of a single word in the sentence-long descriptions printed at the start of each encounter. It’s typically more trouble than it’s worth to fight these pumped-up versions of the bestiary, so once you learn to recognize them, you’ll usually just slip right by (since you can bypass any monster at any time, even once you’ve launched into combat). You can also choose whether you want to search a room once you’ve killed a monster, with some kinds of rooms more likely to yield treasure and others tending to conceal traps.
Later levels of the dungeon complicate this simple dynamic in ways that keep BKD fresh through its hour-long playtime. Beyond incremental weapon and armor upgrades, you’ll be able to purchase three different magic items. The first is a simple ranged attack, but the other two are more interesting, consisting of an I-win nuke that must be charged up by conventional victories, and a ring that uses the environment against your opponent by casting a spell that’s unique to each room. As a result, every time you go down stairs into a new layer of the dungeon, there’s a pleasing bit of business as you figure out which text identifies the hard version of the new monsters, test their vulnerability to the various attacks, and fill out the ring’s room/monster grid. Ultimately, of course, there’s a boss who tests your mastery of the previous mechanics while injecting a few new spins of its own, and then the story wraps up tidily, though the player is left with some extra-challenging postgame goals to work through if the spirit so moves.
It’s all well considered, and if, unlike Fivebyfivia, the story’s “twist” ending didn’t land that strongly for me, well, that’s no big deal, as the journey getting there is clearly what’s important. And I did have a lot of fun with BKD, though I think the tuning requires a bit more repetition than I would have preferred. Progression through the dungeon isn’t gated by flat experience, but rather by accomplishing specific goals. Many of these are grindable – earning enough gold to upgrade your equipment, coming across the right room in your random explorations – but others require a bit of luck, like being able to kill a certain number of monsters before your hit points or a time limit runs out. This helps proceedings feel less mechanical, but in the later stages of the game, even after I’d figured out all the relevant tricks it felt like it still took a lot of replays until the stars aligned just right so I could check off these boxes and make it to the boss.
A heavy reliance on RNGesus for success is a central part of most roguelikes, of course, but this did make the final act of the game sometimes feel like a drag. And I would have liked the game better if there was a little more going on in the town, since there are no characters as engaging as the coaster-napping dwarf from the opening. Still, these are small complaints – RKD is a short game so having a bit of ennui set in for the last 10 minutes is no big deal when I enjoyed the rest of it so much, and my eyes were skipping over most of the text by the end anyway. There’s a lot to be said for a game that makes succeeding at a tricky design challenge look effortless, even if the perfect rou-IFalike is still yet to be written (admit it, it’s starting to grow on you now).