What a roguelike is
This article is written and mantained by Slashie, Guardian of RogueBasin, and as such represents a personal interpretation of the question. However, please feel free to discuss ideas around it, and extend the "External links" with other interpretations.
It is impossible to conceive a roguelike definition with which everybody will agree as this is a gaming genre that has evolved over time.
Even back on 1993, when the term was coined, there was no consensus about what constituted a roguelike; the definition has been nebulous from the beginning, as ultimately a roguelike is a game that is inspired by another roguelike.
This nature of the definition would doom it to just become wider and wider over time, even more with the explosion of indie developers that took note of potential of the features of the then-existing roguelikes, and grew the genre into exciting new heights mixing elements from other genres.
The answers to "What is a roguelike", then, will depend heavily on the context of the question. That sprawling definition, however, is not very useful for the purpose of discovering or studying games that share several features together.
A certain kind of roguelikes evolved during the 90s and early 00s from the original foundational roguelikes; in certain circles of discussion the defining features of these games have come to be grouped under the umbrella of "traditional" roguelikes, as a way to preserve a notion of games sharing a substantial amount of gameplay elements.
The RogueBasin seeks to become the main depot of all information regarding this style of games, including a collection of the existing projects and games, an encyclopedia of genre-related topics, a directory of developers, and a collection of development tips and articles.
Temple of the Roguelike interpretation
For the purpose of documenting one of many possible interpretations in roguebasin, here's a copy of the interpretation I posted at Temple of the Roguelike, as of 2023. Note that instead of an authoritative checklist of features, it's made up of aspects that support each other.
Please see other definitions linked at the bottom of the article.
[...] here are what I believe to be the core aspects of traditional roguelikes:
1. Permanent Consequences
The outcome of any action you take into the game cannot be rolled back by reloading a saved game (including death).
This encourages both careful tactical play and long-term strategies and planning and increases the excitement of advancing through the procedural content generated by the game.
The player controls a single character in the game at a time, this is in contrast to both a.) games where the player doesn’t control person-like characters or vehicles directly (for example puzzles) and b.) “god” style games where the player is an abstract entity creating and managing multiple discardable “units”.
Being character-centric helps the player establish a strong relationship with the individual characters, increasing the impact of the permanent consequences.
3. Procedural content
Increases the replayability of the game by having most or all of the world be generated by the game for every new gameplay session.
In addition to providing an incentive for players to dig into the game, procedural content serves as a tool to prevent the player from being frustrated by the harsh effect of permanent consequences, reflected in having to start gameplay sessions from scratch frequently.
Gameplay is similar to a board game where you can think about your actions carefully, having infinite time to reflect on your available options to face the situations presented by the game using the resources you have at hand.
This is relevant given consequences are permanent, and the intent of the game is not to test how quickly the player can take an acceptable decision but rather to challenge him to think out the best move he can make in critical scenarios.
5. Clean Runs
The consequences of death are permanent. This includes losing any progress you had made in the game. There is no “meta-progression”, as a player you don’t acquire any advantage to be applied to characters on subsequent runs, other than the knowledge you have acquired about the game.
The player represents a character, not an entire legacy of them. The games are designed so that you are rewarded for how you use your growing knowledge to adapt to the procedurally generated challenges, obtaining drastically different results compared with your initial runs while keeping the same in-game starting conditions.
Likewise, the term "roguelite" has gained position as a way to refer that games that take elements from the foundational or traditional roguelikes, but introduce critical changes such as real-time gameplay or meta-progression.
It should be noted, however, that games continue to be labeled as just "roguelikes" as it's impossible to define what constitutes a "critical change" as it's always going to be subjective.
Many people have tried to define roguelike games. Here is a collection of links to pages that purport to do just that:
- Wikipedia's definition: link.
- Slashie's 2018 "Core Traditional Roguelike Values": link
- Slashie's 2014 "Classic Roguelike interpretation": link
- 2008: A group of roguelike developers met in Berlin, Germany, and came up with the so-called Berlin Interpretation, which has mistakenly being used to attempt to define roguelikes for years.
- Slashie's 2008 "Roguelikeness Factors" link
- Jeff Lait's list of features in the context of explaining what POWDER is.
- Roguelike Alphabet for some other minor aspects of roguelikes, and how they relate to each other.