Making video games is hard, time consuming (and sometimes thankless) work. Now, more so than ever. Smaller scale, indie developers are in an especially tricky place, expected to make games of a comparable scale to AAA titles, with a fraction of a fraction of the resources. In these cases, the idea of making a “Roguelike” seems like the perfect cheat to get around this.
I’m not trying to be insulting or belittle this act by saying that either. A good Roguelike can be an all consuming game, one that can become an obsession if it hits the right marks. Games like Spelunky, The Binding of Issac or (for me personally) FTL: Faster than Light can stay with people for years, in a way most AAA games can only dream of.
Having recently downloaded Void Bastards through Xbox Game Pass, I found yet another example of the genre that I managed to find engaging. Yet, when looking up some more information about the game on its steam page, I was surprised to notice that nowhere on its profile page do the developers ever use the word Roguelike, or Rogue-lite for the that matter. Despite the game being a prime example of it.
But, some of you might be wondering; “What the hell is a Roguelike?”. Not to get too much into the weeds about it, but the hallmarks of the genre are such: Games that have a dungeon crawl-like aspect to gameplay, in which maps are procedurally generated by game itself and a character’s death is permanent. That’s the short of it.
The name comes from the 1980, ASCII based game by the name of (you guessed it) Rogue. While games like Hack and Hacknet would be hot on its heels within the genre, Rogue is the one that managed to stamp its name on the genre. Borne from hobbyists such as college students and programmers.
Many of these early styles of game were handed around as shareware, known for their punishing difficulty and easy to tinker with programming. As time moved on though, what defined the genre became muddy and less clear. We started to get the genre split and the concept of “Rogue-Lites” came about.
So much so that it became difficult to even consider any of the Rogue-whatevers as their own genre at all. Which might be why Blue Manchu don’t consider Void Bastards a game from the heritage of Rogue, instead labelling it a strategy game. Despite it having deep roots in what has become known as the “Rogue-Lite”.
This “lite” subcategory of games came about years later, when developers started to find ways to overcome the inherent weakness of the genre as consumer products. e.g. their soul crushing difficultly. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re not making progress in a video game, and Roguelikes were games in which you could easily bang your head against for hours upon hours and make no forward progress.
Thus the Lite version of the experience added a form of progression, a slow trickle of growth that would combine the payer’s inevitable increase in skill as they continued to play, with a series of power-up and abilities that would make it so the game could be finished through pure persistence, and not just high skill.
Which was by no means a guarantee of success. I still haven’t beaten Dead Cells, and I’m not sure I ever will. But the changes added a much needed sense of accomplishment to the game, delivered at a slow enough pace to make the player feel like they’re getting somewhere without making the game trivial.
Void Bastards does this as plainly as can be. Players take control of one of an infinite number of “dehydrated” prisoners from a prison ship, all with their own randomly generated names, faces and perks, both beneficial and detrimental.
From there, they must traverse a web of derelict ships, salvaging parts and resources in order to further progress their journey. Once a character dies, they are dead. And are replaced with a new prisoner. In a traditional Roguelike, this would be a start from scratch scenario. However, the lite roots find their way in here through the game’s crafting pages.
As the player progresses, they collect all manner of parts, which can be used to create a wide array of equipment on the game’s pretty large crafting table. Weapons, increases in health, items that allow you to find ammo in locations you could not before. Any time a player dies, they are sent back to the beginning of the “stage” but only lose their current ammo, fuel and food. The majority of their equipment and salvage persist between characters.
In this sense, the game doesn’t feel like a traditional Rogue-Lite, as punishment for failure generally only sends players back a half a dozen ship visits at the very most. But each time the player reaches a major objective, they start their journey at a deeper depth within the ship, increasing the difficulty of the enemies and challenges faced, while also providing increased rewards.
Void Bastard’s main charms are twofold. First comes from the balance of progression and challenging, the other comes from its unique sense of style. Taking place within panel like frames that make it seem like a cell shaded comic book, while also filled with a collection of strange characters and enemies, all of which seem to taunt you with a varying degree of British regional accent, even you support robot.
Developer Blue Manchu have found the right combination of a learning curve and pace of progression, if anything, it leans on the slightly more forgiving side of the genre. Which is not a criticism by any means, respect for a player’s time is a big factor that contributes to my value for this “genre”. But then again, maybe Roguelikes have become such a broad design term at this point that we can’t simply continue using it as a catchall term, like how some developers cringe at the use of “metroidvania” to describe their games.
Video games are growing and evolving all the time and now, more so than ever, simple classification of genre can be a far more complex issue than it was back in the days of the original Rogue.
But yeah, Void Bastards is pretty good, you should give it a try.