ASCII Graphics in Roguelikes

Nostalgia and old-school gameplay philosophy dictate the complex conventions of roguelikes

Mark R. Johnson writes in his article “The Use of ASCII Graphics in Roguelikes: Aesthetic Nostalgia and Semiotic Difference”, published in Games and Culture, about how the old-school graphics used in roguelike games are special in the sense that they all have unique, game-specific meanings, but still tie the games to the nostalgic tradition.

The term ‘roguelike’ refers to games imitating the style of Rogue, a game released in 1980, that introduces complex, randomized levels, turn-based combat and permadeath within an American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) user-interface. While Rogue used the rudimentary graphics to enable playing on various platforms, later roguelikes, such as NetHack or Dungeon Crawl, have adopted the style to indicate continued tradition of old-school gameplay philosophy. Many players feel that focusing on graphics takes away from gameplay and gives less room for player imagination. By imitating Rogue, these games aim to promise a similar gameplay experience and an emphasis on actual gameplay.

Video games rely on existing genre conventions to communicate meanings, since players will automatically expect certain things from certain creatures, for example. However, almost every ASCII game presents game objects, such as enemies, in a unique combination of letter sizes and colours. Learning the logic of one roguelike only means more difficulty in trying to decipher another one, as players will have to unlearn the glyphs of the previous game.

Roguelike players might know that the letter “f” may refer to a feline class of enemies, or that “W” may be used to denote wraiths and wraith-like creatures, but they have no way of guessing which conventions are used in which games without memorizing them. To further complicate matters, there are rare occasions in which, for example, “q” is used as a continuation of the draconian class represented by “p” because it is the mirror image of the same letter. One thing most roguelikes have in common is that the choice of letter is usually higher in hierarchy than the colour, which in that case simply differentiates specific monsters within the class denoted by the letter.

ASCII roguelikes are built upon a curious combination of unintuitive gameplay and appeal to nostalgia, but the distinct style instantly tells the player what to expect from these games. They follow traditions to stay true to their predecessors and separate them from contemporary games.

Author: Mark R. Johnson

Published in: Games and Culture volume 12 issue 2, March 1, 2017; originally published May 17, 2015

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