Icons in Roguelikes

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by The Sheep

You know what icons are. You meet them everyday. It's those little, colorful pictures on your computer screen you can click with your mouse to make them do magic for you, right?

But there's more than this in the word icon. So, what's an icon then? I'd say icon is an abstract, symbolic representation of an idea or action. Note the lack of word graphical.

Why would anybody talk about icons on a roguelike-related forum? Everybody knows that hardcore roguelikes are text mode, and most of others are tiles, but still no icons.

Well, surprise. Tiles are icons, for one thing. ASCII characters representing various parts of dungeon are icons too. But there's much more icons in a roguelike game. We will get to it.

Now, once we see that we won't run away from icons, it's time to ask What icons are good?. What features should an icon have to really do it's job? What's that job anyways?

I think the user should be always able (in order of importance):

  1. To easily recognize the idea behind the icon. At best, icons should be obvious, they should talk directly to the common knowledge of the user. If that's not possible, they should at least talk to his imagination or a well established standard.
  2. To easily tell one icon from another. That's why they are symbolic. It's no good if you can't tell one icon from another -- you have to rely on their positions, or you're totally lost if their positions change too. It should be easy. You should never have any doubt what icon is this. That's why icons are abstract -- they have their important parts exaggerated.
  3. To look at he icons and not vomit. The icons should be kept in style, possibly matched to the overall theme of the game. They shouldn't stick out so bad that they break the immersion.

These three criteria are in fact pretty obvious. What's not obvious, is the range of elements they apply to. The range of game elements that are in fact icons.

So what's an icon in a roguelike game?

Obviously, the toolbar in a graphical roguelike would consist of icons. They represent the ideas of actions you can perform. So, analogously, the letters bound to commands are kind of icons too. Not graphical, but still.

Tiles in a graphical roguelike can be considered icons too -- they represent the ideas of dungeon elements. So the letters in a text-mode roguelike are icons too.

What more? Lots! Ever wondered why most of roguelike games uses the same items? Yes, the names of items are icons. They represent an idea behind them. And no, it's not the idea of the item they call -- that would be a stretch. Instead, the 'sword' gives you an idea of some kind of weapon. It doesn't matter how the weapon really looks like or is used like -- it increases your attack power, damage, anything -- it's a symbol, an icon. Several more complicated roguelikes use item names that are far from common. An English speaker might know the words (but usually doesn't know how the item looks like exactly), others have to look it up. It's not a good icon. It puts the 'style' requirement before the other two. When thinking about the names of items you want to include in your game, you've got to be aware that they are really icons.

Other icons in a roguelike? Race/class, alignment (good/evil, etc., probably the oldest icon known to mankind), the monsters (everybody knows the ideas behind dragon and daemon), etc. They are all like pieces on the chessboard -- they represent elements of the game, often trying to keep some kind of theme, sometimes even fooling us to think they are not icons.

Anyways, you should be able to see the icons as icons, and thus make them good icons in your game -- it often helps greatly.