Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crawl - Usable Roguelike Gaming

Crawl is currently my favorite roguelike. I first got into the game when it was still called Linley's Dungeon Crawl during my computer-broke-moving-home-from-college phase where I learned how to use linux and played a lot of low-tech games. I recently became spontaneously nostalgiac for it while playing the recent real-time roguelike Triangle Wizard. I discovered that, apparently, Linley Henzell has left Crawl behind to develop things like White Butterfly and that a team of fine upstanding coders has picked up maintaining and adding to the game, turning it into what is now called Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

Yes, it is currently my favorite. Don't get me wrong, I've had a lot of fun with Nethack and *Angbands. But these are games built on complexity. Crawl certainly has its share of complexity -- it has more starting classes and races than I've seen in another serious roguelike -- but at the same time, the game is all about making the user experience as pleasant and simple as possible.

The game's manual contains a large section on philosophy that lays out these design goals:

" Major design goals:
* challenging and random gameplay, with skill making a real difference
* meaningful decisions (no no-brainers)
* avoidance of grinding (no scumming)
* gameplay supporting painless interface and newbie support"

They also mention striving for an "exquisite" user interface elsewhere in the documentation. These are design goals that I can get behind and reading these now, years after I came to enjoy Crawl, I begin to see why I fell in love with it.

As I said before, the game strives to be easy to use. For example, the autopickup function, which often proves to be a mixed blessing in other roguelikes, is indeed exquisite in Crawl. There is a mechanic where you must "butcher" your food before eating it - so, if you don't have a bladed weapon and walk over one, you will pick it up so you can butcher your food. You also automatically pick up small, nonperishable food that you can eat. If you are a Spriggan, and eat only vegetables, you don't pick up meat rations. If you are a ghoul and can eat only flesh, you don't pick up veggies. If you are a mummy, who cannot eat or drink, you don't pick up food or potions. etc. etc.

This simplicity allows the game to get very complex without it being overwhelming to the player. Instead, the player can use these details to make their character unique. There are several races and classes that offer completely unique play experinces -- the aforementioned mummy gains experience slowly but doesn't need to eat allowing for a thinking, exploring player to take his or her time. The ghoul must continually kill and eat his enemies to survive, indeed even to heal at some points. The demonspawn gains semi-random mutations making for a different play experience every time. etc. etc. The magic starting classes are just as varied, allowing for traditional pew-pew mages as well as for "transmuters" who distill potions from the dead and throw them like grenades at their enemies.

There are many more great things about the game that I'm not going to go into here except to say that the experience system is a fantastic blend of gygaxian levels and a skill-based system (a la Oblivion). Also, Crawl also has an excellent tile-set that actually enhances the play experince and integrates well with mouse use, a rarity in the rougelikes I've played.

Overall I've enjoyed going back to crawl. The big takeaway for me was that, by making a few systems that are discovered over time and handling them well, you can present a lot of different material in your game.

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