Roguelikes & Hardcore

    Roguelike: Nethack

As time progresses, your character grows stronger and more able to face the increasing dangers you subject yourself to. If you die, your current character is lost forever without save scumming. I love this game, and death in it!

    Hardcore: Diablo 2 ‘Hardcore’ Mode

As time progresses, your character grows stronger and more able to face the increasing dangers you subject yourself to. If you die, your current character is lost forever without save scumming. I hate this mode of Diablo 2.

Confused yet? Well, let’s back it up a bit. I’ll start over for you.

    Roguelike: Nethack

In Nethack, you start out as a Level 1 Whatever. You travel on through, besting various challenges, and watch your power grow (through levels, equipment, and various other things) with impending doom at every misstep. Through every death, you learn about a new facet of the game. Eating that zombie corpse? Bad idea. Quaffing random potions? Might be bad. Drinking from every fountain? Can be fatal.
When you die, you lose everything but the record of your character’s death. Certain deaths might hold a special place in your heart — like the first time you starved to death while in mortal combat with an army of freaking kobolds, or the time you made the mistake of letting a certain monster reach water.

There are so very many ways to die in Nethack and each time you die, your character’s dying state and means of death are recorded.

    Hardcore: Diablo 2 ‘Hardcore’ Mode

Diablo 2 is not a game designed with permadeath at heart, but it offers you the option to play HARDCORE — this being a box you’re allowed to tick off when (and only when) you create a new character. For the entirety of this character’s life, you will be playing with permadeath looming in the background. The game itself contains quick-to-use healing items, belts which let you hold even more restoration items, enemies and chests who drop these things until you wish they’d stop, and tons of gold which you use to restock your store of potions. You are expected to carry these things around and use them, there’s no question.
When you die in Diablo 2, there is no interesting fact, nor a particularly gripping tale to tell; the game is for the most part based around two things. These two things are character progression, and combat. The combat in Diablo 2 allows you to use your various abilities in cool and fun ways, and by doing so you level up which grants you more cool and fun abilities (or the choice to simply make them better). There’s also character progression through equipment; you get fancy new equipment which you can examine and decide whether it’s better or worse than your current equipment.
But it’s not based around death. And when you die, it’s because you were fighting an enemy (or, perhaps, you died by a trap). When you die, you realize you’ve lost all of those abilities — all that equipment. You didn’t “die at the hands of X”, you just “fucked up and died”. Perhaps you weren’t paying attention to consuming potions. Maybe you ran out of MP, or let enemies swarm you, or underestimated that nasty boss fight. But Hardcore mode doesn’t exist to make death fun, or interesting; at best it exists to give you bragging rights, and that spike of adrenaline, excitement, at the risk of losing this hard-earned character forever.

    Roguelike: Nethack

You’re expected to die. You die quick and often. The game is not focused around the thrill of combat, and despite character growth you don’t pour heart and soul into creating a character — yet the game still keeps record of every last one. (The high-scoring ones, anyway, but the point is it keeps track of lots of them.)
And sometimes the character etches a special place in your memory. Sometimes it was an exciting situation you barely got away from, other times these memories are of exciting situations you didn’t get away from. Other times you might remember how you lucked out and got a certain combination of skills or equipment.

    Hardcore: Diablo 2 ‘Hardcore’ Mode

You’re expected to live harder with the fear of death, but death itself is badly neglected. After spending hours or more building up a character, you fight demons so that you can fight stronger demons. And should you die, the character is gone with little record but those left in your memories; and your memories of that character will fade. The things you will most remember are those few especially unique items you found, or the level you got to: a mere number.
I’m not saying that Diablo 2 is a bad game, by any means, but it is a game designed around the concept of low-intensity “death penalties”. Challenges loom and should you fail to emerge victorious or at least retreat, you die and sally forth to try the challenge again. That is, of course, why your body is dropped. If you feel the urge to reclaim your items and can, you have learned to best the challenge which killed you. If you are unable to reclaim those lost items then you will have learned another lesson — that of retreat — and the game penalizes you by forever stealing away your likely best set of equipment. But not your progress. I have been corrected: The only penalty is lost gold and, on higher difficulties, some drained experience. You lose a little bit of progress through lost experience and gold but for the most part death is not really penalized. You get a little slap on the wrist and you’re let off to keep fighting with your character, high-leveled and fully-equipped.


Permadeath penalizes you in perhaps the ultimate fashion; your character, your progress, your level, your equipment, everything is lost.
Diablo 2 gives a bad name to permadeath. It becomes nothing but an aggravating after-effect of death. You die, and that is it. You take nothing away from it.
Nethack deals with permadeath, but when you die, that certainly is not it. Even if a death is a loss, you learn from the experience because there is, indeed, much to learn in the world. You learn of new things almost every time you play.
The first levels in Nethack are never the same, and do not last for a long time. Before long you learn how to progress quickly through levels that you once spent more time on, as you learn the general nuances of what you encounter there — before the game introduces more. And more.
The first levels in Diablo 2 are, despite having randomly-generated shape, still highly familiar and similar. Low-level skills are not particularly interesting, but at least growth is quick. However, there is nearly nothing to learn. Every enemy reacts in almost the same way to any attack, and there is no reason not to attack an enemy when you aren’t doing anything else. The environment is unresponsive. Items racks give you items, and there is no reason not to take the items from them. Your progression is based little on actual skill or knowledge, and more on your level, and on your equipment.

Skill and knowledge, and the process by which you acquire these things, is slow and sparse in Nethack but quick and easy in Diablo 2. It is also more important in the former than in the latter. A newbie to Nethack will die very quickly, almost every time. A newbie to Diablo 2 is meant to be able to progress through the whole game.

And of course…
When you lose, in Nethack, or in most roguelikes, you Lose Your Way.

Thanks for reading. I like comments.


About Droqen

Droqen is a game designer/developer/creator/etc. from Toronto, Ontario. View all posts by Droqen

3 responses to “Roguelikes & Hardcore

  • schillingklaus

    I’m a remorseless nethack savescummer since fifteen years, and noone will ever be able to dissuade me from doing so.

  • Droqen

    I accept your way of life.

  • Wren

    I’d be interested to hear your take on death in other games, such as Wizardry or other roguelikes such as Shiren or Nightmare of Druaga. I’ve always thought Wizardry’s method of having to “rescue” a completely wiped party with another rescue party was interesting. Nightmare has a system in which dying causes you to drop half your gold Pokemon style and all of your equipment, except for gear that is marked with a special brand you can buy. You can only have so many brands total, starting with one and growing by one for each milestone you pass in the game. However, even at the end of the game you can’t protect all of your gear, leaving an odd piece or two in danger of being lost forever.

    One aspect of Nethack that’s more tailored to permadeath is the length. Generally a successful game of Nethack shouldn’t take more than a few hours – quicker if you’re a Wizard – and so if you die you’ve lost a relatively small portion of your time in doing so. I’ve never played Diablo 2, but is there a final “ending” like in Nethack or does the game loop back into some NG+ after you beat the final boss? Generally how long does it take to finish the main campaign of Diablo 2?

    Finally, my favorite Nethack death: Choking to death on an invisible stalker corpse in the Castle after exterminating all the enemies and claiming the wand of wishing. Had just eaten a red dragon for fire resistance or something and not paying attention I see the invisible stalker corpse and think, “Oh hey, intrinsic invisibility would be nice”. It was one of those situations where I didn’t think before I hit “E” and “Y” out of pure muscle memory. There was no prompt, but I promptly died. I just stared at the screen for a while before screaming.

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