Cult Corner: Tunneling through the upper echelons of gaming

Will Thompson

Video game difficulty began as a way for the creators to get quarters. Memorize the pattern and sync that up with reaction time/hand-eye coordination, and you, too, can be a high-score champ — but it’ll take roll after roll of coin.

As video game consoles appeared in more households, game difficulty became adjustable, and the base difficulty of most games dropped significantly. Today, many games include a “story mode” difficulty, where the player essentially has to try to fail.

The mid-2000s gave rise to a resurgence in game difficulty. Game developer FromSoftware’s Souls series, starting with Playstation 3 exclusive Demon’s Souls, popularized old-school game difficulty and combined it with modern combat and role-playing game mechanics. The series became popular enough to spawn the term Souls-like, which essentially meant, “the game is really hard, and you’ll be replaying sections repeatedly while you learn patterns, hone your reactions and create new profanity combinations.”

Roguelite games also helped popularize video game difficulty. Spawned from roguelikes, which featured no save or checkpoints followed by permanent death after battling through a labyrinth-esque environment (a dungeon crawl, in gamer speak). Once you die in a roguelike, you start all over from ground zero in the hopes of making it farther and finding better loot. Roguelites diversify the formula and make the games more accessible by allowing the player to carry over small bits of progress from round to round.

All of this begs the question, why bang your head against a wall of brutal difficulty when you can just crush candy or wander around a block-based world of your creation? The answer: Roguelites and roguelikes ultimately push skill. Games with low difficulty can be relaxing and enjoyable, but any progress made in a roguelike usually comes from hours of hard work. Completing a run is an incredible rush, but there’s also no rush like a bout of good luck.

The dungeon-crawling element of the genre means randomized loot drops, i.e. money-less gambling. Sometimes, that amazing run where you got farther than ever was because the game spit out an ultra powerful weapon that comboed well with the armor you picked up three levels back, thus producing the shiver-inducing pleasure of steamrolling every bad guy who has previously steamrolled you.

Some of the most popular roguelites are action-oriented. Spelunky, a platformer (i.e. running and jumping from platform to platform) featuring an Indiana Jones-like character as he hops around caves, helped popularize the roguelite beginning in 2008. In 2011, developer Edmund McMillen birthed The Binding of Isaac, a top-down action roguelite in the vein of Legend of Zelda-esque dungeons, but with an unrelenting dash of dark and scatalogical humor. The game’s popularity seems to know no bounds — it is poised to receive its fourth major expansion this year, 10 years after its initial launch. McMillen also is notable for being codeveloper of Super Meat Boy, a 2010 retro-style platforming game with a difficulty curve that makes most roguelites look like Skyrim, a generally forgiving game, in easy mode.

Other genres have adopted roguelite gameplay, as well. FTL: Faster than Light has the player managing a space cruiser’s crew and resources as it jumps across the galaxy. Slay the Spire is a deck-building game. Dead Cells is an exploration-based (Metroidvania for you gamers) Souls-like. For a modern take on the traditional roguelike, Darkest Dungeon offers unrelenting challenge in a traditional, turn-based dungeon crawl with the added layer of managing the sanity of your questing party.

The most friendly of the modern roguelites is Hades. Here, the player takes on the role of Zagreus, the son of Hades himself, as the discontented lad fights his way out of the underworld with the aid of Greek mythology’s most famous faces. Hades is the most story-heavy roguelite in the bunch. You’ll build relationships with the characters as you speak to them in the halls of Hades’ palace between runs and as you encounter them in your journey.

Extra Credit: None. In the spirit of roguelikes and roguelites, let challenge itself be its own reward. Or just take some time to relax. Surely you’ve already done something difficult today.

Thompson enjoys putting somewhat carefully chosen words in relatively meaningful order. He has been to college. He lives in Lewiston and can be reached at and on Instagram at @theswap_quadcities.