I’m teaching a seminar this spring at the University of Iowa. We’re reading through theory and philosophy about health, illness, life and death, and earlier in the semester we discussed an excerpt from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s heartbreaking Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life, a work that straddles the line between unutterably poignant and completely incomprehensible. In developing his concept of “a life” (note the indefinite article) Deleuze provides a blessedly concrete example from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend:
A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death.”
Deleuze is describing a form of life that is singular but not individual—it is clearly embodied in one person, but it has not yet become that person, with his spite and cruelty and his history of misdeeds. And this nonspecific life, “a life,” invites love and care from the people who surround it, but only while it lacks individuality. It’s a powerful, complex concept and one that I find quite moving.
It occurred to me that this sad and eerie idea finds an expression in the genre of video games called (coincidentally) “roguelikes,” games that give you a virtual life that is singular but perhaps not individual. Roguelikes have a long pedigree, stretching back at least to 1980’s Rogue, which gave the genre its name. The games usually detail a descent into a dungeon during which the player will kill a great number of enemies, collect a variety of equipment, and advance in power and capability. The computer generates the dungeon anew each time, so there are no set maps, and most importantly once a character dies he is gone forever—no save games or supernatural reprieves protect these unhappy clots of pixels.
For modern video game aficionados this is a little strange. Game designers learned over the past 30 years that many people don’t like to play games that punish them brutally for the tiniest misstep. Consequently most modern games treat the player rather deferentially—they provide multiple lives and often penalize death gently or not at all. In the worst case one might have to replay part of a level or restore an earlier saved game, losing a little progress but nothing essential.
Not so with roguelikes—death in roguelikes is death, the end of your character’s career, no matter how many enchanted swords or coveted wands he has collected. This is a strange feeling for people who are used to softer virtual worlds with fewer consequences. As in Deleuze, the life of a roguelike character is singular, if not individual, and as a character ends his existence surrounded by slavering virtual orcs one does indeed feel more tenderness and responsibility than one does when Mario plummets into a crevasse. Mario will need to repeat some leaps and capers, but the roguelike character has lost both his past and his future; the little @ symbol that struggled so valiantly against giant rats will cross the screen no more, nor will it delve deeper, collecting different kinds of chainmail and finally figuring out what kinds of potions it had in its backpack.
You get a twinge of pathos from the death of a roguelike character. I’m not suggesting there is anything profound or humanist about this. In fact, one of the key parts of learning to play roguelikes is developing a certain toughness about this play with oblivion—if you get too emotional about your little @ you’ll never progress. Many roguelikes goad the player by modeling hunger—if your crippling fear of orcs or zombies keeps you from moving deeper into the dungeon you will eventually eat all your food and starve to death. For skilled roguelike players (among whom I do not count myself) judging risk against reward becomes an art, between bond trading and counting cards at a casino.
A few games dominate the current Roguelike scene. Most are available free over the Internet. Gaming consoles, notably the Nintendo DS, also have roguelikes, though these are usually dressed up to appeal to a broader audience (several carry the Pokémon brand). Among the free offerings Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is probably the most polished and accessible, though “accessible” is relative here since it’s still fairly bewildering and very, very difficult. Dungeon Crawl, like most of its brethren, tells only a rudimentary story—your character has been tasked with retrieving a notable orb from the bottom of a dungeon. That’s it. You’re free to imagine that your character has a complex backstory (molested by an orb, parents killed by an orb, member of an orb-appreciation message board) but it will not affect the game in the slightest.
You also have an utterly bewildering choice of characteristics for your character. You can select from multiple races (a concept that goes cheerfully unexamined here), ranging from various shades of elf to vampires, ogres, Minotaurs and other assorted grotesques. Each of these races must then select a profession, though generally these professions draw from the stock of medieval fantasy and therefore do not include options like accountant or “filmmaker.” Think more along the lines of archers and wizards. To further confuse the picture each race has a set of aptitudes for different professions; in the cruelly racist world of Dungeon Crawl trolls face such widespread discrimination that they have a hard time becoming wizards, for instance
All of these choices take place before you actually start playing the game, and it’s entirely possible that you will go through this process and then have your character permanently killed or disabled in the very first room. It leads the player to question why he or she even plays video games. Is this relaxing, or fun? Does it test the mind like a crossword or logic puzzle? It certainly doesn’t demand the reflexes that Mario Brothers and its ilk value; things proceed at a deliberate, turn-by-turn pace.
Other popular roguelikes include Rogue itself, which is still available, the baffling and cutesy Powder, and the cloyingly anime-influenced Elona, which rapidly wore through my patience despite the fact that it gives the player the option of playing as a large snail. DoomRL, a roguelike recreation of the famous computer game Doom, has won a devoted following and is faster moving and easier than its nerdy (or nerdier) medieval fantasy cousins. ADOM emphasizes murderous druids and terrifying difficulty. Nethack, a very old and well known roguelike, seemed joyless and primitive when I tried it, though it’s supposedly rewarding for experienced players.
I find these roguelikes interesting because they work against the most popular current genres of video games—their graphics are ugly or absent, their rules baroque and harsh, their controls complex, and their stories minimal. Something about them appeals to me; maybe it is an attenuated, post-postmodern cousin of the tender reverence of those who care for, in Deleuze’s words, “a life, playing with death.”