Rogue: Reflections on ASCII Imagination


Rogue was one of, if not the first, games that really captivated me. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I started playing it, but I couldn’t have been older than nine. This was at a time when storage was measured in megabytes. Back then, technology wasn’t even close to what it is today, and most computers were not able to render graphics. The chief design of Rogue was to create a game that the creators were not bored by. At this time, adventure games were text based and followed a set path. By having the computer generate the dungeon, there is a different adventure every time you play. Even the creators, Michael Toy, Ken Arnold, and Glenn Wichman, could be surprised by their own game. The generation isn’t just limited to the layout of the dungeon. Every scroll, potion, weapon, and armor is also generated every time the game starts. A milky potion can be a healing potion in one game, but in the next game it can be a bottle of poison. Before drinking the potion, the player needs to identify it (usually with a scroll) or gamble. Many times I was one move from death and quaffed a potion, hoping it would heal me. Sometimes it worked. I should add that Rogue had permadeath, meaning you only had one life. When you died, that was it. It was time to start over from the beginning again with a new dungeon and newly randomized items.

The Influence of Rogue

Rogue is one of the most influential games of all time, spawning imitations called roguelikes such as Hack, Angband, and others. Most of these are still in development today, retaining their ASCII graphics although recently both ADOM and TOME have released tile set versions on Steam. Recently, more roguelike-likes have been released, starting with FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and Spelunky. These games kept the permadeath, the large number of items, and the randomly generated dungeon structure. Diablo and it’s copy-cats are also spun off of Rogue, but instead of focusing on the permadeath. they double down on the vast number of generated items.

The roguelike formula has been embraced by the indie dev community for the very similar reasons that the original creators envisioned for their game. The set-up of a roguelike-like allows small studios and solo developers to create a few assets and then have the computer mix and match them as they see fit. The game design as a whole encourages experimentation and you can jam a whole bunch of stuff in a game relatively simply. It might sound like a cheap way to describe these types of games, but just like the original, they provide a certain tension and difficulty that is hard to come by in other types of games.

The Dark Souls series is often regarded as one of the most difficult games to master. While it is admirable that those games do a good job of teaching the player how to survive, they are beatable with skill. Rogue doesn’t give a fuck about the player and sometimes can literally put the game into an unwinnable state. Often a single player experience is player vs. designer. When you beat Dark Souls, you best the game designer and survived their traps. When you beat a roguelike, you beat an entire system working against you. The modern takes on the roguelike formula make this easier on the player which I am grateful for since my time is more precious now than it used to be.

Despite its far-reaching influence, Rogue was not an economic success. By the time it was released as a consumer product, more elaborate roguelikes had been built on top of Rogue, which had been distributed for free around colleges. Games, specifically RPGs, with greater graphical fidelity also started coming out now that technology had improved a bit. While Rogue eventually had graphical adaptations, these versions paled to the original for one reason or another. Nevertheless, it has a firm place in the history of videogames.

Rogue and Me

There are two main reasons Rogue really captivated me. The first was the fantasy it created in my imagination and the other was the relentless, almost sisyphean need to do better every run.

Because Rogue was completely rendered in ASCII characters and my English vocabulary was quite low, I had no idea what most of these monsters were supposed to be. While the player character was depicted with a smiley-face, the monsters were all letters of the alphabet, each letter signifying a different monster with different abilities. Some were familiar to me, such as the leprechauns that would steal my gold and teleport away. Others I had no idea what they were. It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned what a nymph was. The most terrifying monster I usually ran into was the Aquator who would rust your armor and make it useless. They couldn’t hurt you, but one “A” was enough to spell certain doom. They would melt the armor you painstakingly took care of and enchanted. That +3 became a -5 and you were ready to be killed off by a shitty bat. Bat’s are “B”s by the way. I imagined Aquators to be human-like with the ability to become water. They would throw pieces of themselves at you which would then blow up in a spray of water and get into your armor.

There were also the Xeroc and the Quagga – I have no clue what they are and I don’t want to Google them in case they are actually things.

For a young me, it was a perfect catalyst for my imagination, giving me a skeleton of a world for me to add to.

The simplicity of the “graphics” allowed my youthful imagination to paint this world how I saw it. I could draw a Xeroc, eventhough I had no idea what it was besides a letter “X”.  They were just letters moving on the screen. But later they would become actual monsters I imagined stalking the dungeons. If the game had had greater graphical fidelity, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it more. The fact that the world was so ready to be populated by my imagination is what made it so easy for me to get lost in.

The second reason is that it was just very difficult. The loop of starting, exploring, dying, starting over made me push on. The end game screen would have the name of your character, how they died, and the score. Each time I would try to beat it, to try to find out what other horrors lurked deeper in the dungeons. Since I mostly only saw the first half, I had no idea what the game had in store for me. When I got older and the Internet became a thing, I ruined the magic by Googling. By then I had advanced to more complicated roguelikes so the damage was minimal.

The modern iterations of Rogue are much better in almost every way. In Slash’em we can interact with toilets. Dwarf Fortress Adventure Mode generates a richly detailed history. We have pet monkeys in Brogue. IVAN is about bananas or something. People have expanded on every aspect of the original Rogue. It has been changed, improved, extended, and made more complicated. There may be no real reason why someone should start playing Rogue today save for those interested in videogame history . It might be fun to see just how far it has come or to partake in gaming history.

It is a defining game in my personal videogame history. It makes me feel special that I followed it from the (almost) beginning. To this day, I have lost myself more in Rogue and it’s grandchildren than any other type of game. I love them even though I’m awful at them.  So thank you, Michael, Glenn, and Ken.




For some background history of Rogue, check out Glenn Wichmann’s A Brief History of Rogue and The History of Rogue: Have @ You, You Deadly Zs by Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice

For the current state of Roguelikes, please visit Roguebasin

Or go play the original version(s) of Rogue.







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