Procedural content, permadeath, and extremely punishing difficulty has become more and more of a thing in game design. So, that fact, combined by my affinity for the history of technology from a social, technological, and scientific perspective, lead me to this book about the history of roguelikes. It makes for a good portrait of the development of four games, and getting briefly into some of the ways roguelikes have spread into wider gaming culture, though what could be a good look at the larger gaming picture is sadly limited.
Dungeon Hacks is, ultimately, the story of six games – Beneath Apple Manor (BAM), Rogue, NetHack, Moria & Angband together, and Ancient Domains of Mystery. Beneath Apple Manor is set up as being what Rogue could have been – the Roguelike that predates Rogue, but which failed to get the level of penetration that Rogue did.
Rogue and Nethack probably get the most time each, with the discussion of Rogue getting into how the game came about, along with it’s cultural permutation through its initial distribution in BSD Unix. The discussion of Nethack gets into the concept of the Nethack “Dev Team” along with how distributed development for the game was handled.
Moria and Angband, and Ancient Domains of Mystery get the least time of the main roguelikes. In part, that’s because Moria & Angband were basically designed as a response to the fact that NetHack‘s tone is pretty much all over the place, with tongue-in-cheek classes (like “Tourist”) and joke monsters (like the actual Three Stooges). Ancient Domains of Mystery mostly stands out because it’s pretty much the main focus of one developer, and with a much larger scope than any of the other Roguelike games.
The book concludes a discussion of “Rogue-like-likes” – in particular FTL and the original Diablo. This part is probably the most disappointing part of the book – mainly because of the limited scope – and particular what this section overlooks. In particular, the book basically takes the tack that the mainstream popularity of the roguelike is a modern western thing. This is unfortunate and wrong – in both respects. Home consoles got roguelikes, either as straight-up roguelikes like Fatal Labyrinth on the Genesis, or as “Roguelike-lites” like the Mystery Dungeon series and the Shiren the Wanderer series. They may not have gotten the same degree of penetration here that they did in Japan – but it is still important to mention – they got an incredible amount of cultural penetration in Japan, at at time where they had no penetration whatsoever in the US.