Can a roguelike be hopeful?
Header image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Mad Max: Fury Road came out in 2015, but I still can’t get the War Rig out of my head. Furiosa’s hulking mass of a truck, loaded up with the hope of escape from a nightmare, beset on all sides by marauders and the people who would lodge it back into its appropriate place of transport and travel. Fury Road is the story of that War Rig and what it allows, and my recent foray into the similarly vehicle-based Convoy has me reflecting on what the role of these kinds of vehicles play in the stories we tell each other.
Released contemporarily with Fury Road, Convoy is a much different story. A game in the run-based mode of FTL, Convoy puts you in the position of a group of people who have had to land their spaceship on a hostile world in order to make repairs. They need special items— spaceship items even—and wouldn’t you know it, the gangs and enclaves of this hyperviolent world seem to be hoarding them. Three major factions rule this land, and you need to get deep into their respective territories in order to defeat their leaders and make the necessary repairs to your ship. Otherwise, you’re toast.
You do it, of course, with your War Rig. It’s not named that, but that’s the feeling of it. It’s a powerful engine at the heart of your mission that carries all of your hopes and dreams in it. You need to protect it, and you have to use it as the central staging apparatus for all of your gains. It holds the world inside of it, and it could be destroyed at any moment.
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In fact, it’s likely to be destroyed. Convoy is a roguelike, or a roguelike-like, or one of the infinite proliferations of terms that have been invented to get a handle on games that require you to invest time and energy and resources into a single situation that could go wrong at any point. Like every other roguelike, you spend a lot of time trying to maintain hope.
Fury Road is a powerful movie because of that hope. We want to believe that Furiosa and Max are going to get to the Green Place, and when it doesn’t materialize we need to believe that they’ll reclaim Immortan Joe’s autocratic aquastate in their own name and in the name of something more liberatory.
The War Rig is an engine for that ending. It is a battering ram that moves through the plot, centering all action, demanding that we pay attention to it. Enemies attack it, and yet it keeps going. The film encourages the viewer to erase the distance between our heroic characters and this hulking vehicle. When it smashes into an enemy craft, it’s Furiosa or Max doing that smashing; when it’s pierced by spears in a bid to destroy it, we worry for the bodily health of our intrepid characters. Fury Road flattens out theses humans, their dreams, and this War Rig. Most films never manage that level of strong identification across object and subject.
And yet, the miraculous thing is that this is what is happening constantly when we’re playing a game like Convoy. We invest all of our hope. We flatten out the gap that might exist between the War Rig, the heart of our convoy, and ourselves. All of the things that Fury Road does through immaculate action direction, dialogue, and cinematography is happening automatically, without pressure, in Convoy.
More than this, Convoy isn’t just about a single powerful truck making its way into the future. It’s about a small cadre, a convoy even, of vehicles that are trying to accomplish a mission against all odds. All of those vehicles are me. I decide what their weapons are, I control them, I make them run my enemies into the large obstacles that dot the wasteland landscape. In the same way that the War Rig comes to be Furiosa and Max, my convoy begins as me.
I said before that Fury Road is a hopeful film. It’s a movie that will make you cheer. It ends with the downtrodden and oppressed literally being lifted to the heavens, the long reign of tyranny they’ve been under finally ending. Early in the film, we see a bit of graffiti that asks “Who killed the world?” By the end of the film, it almost doesn’t matter because the heroes that we’ve attached ourselves to are going to resurrect the world. The movie ends and things are better.
This is where Convoy and Fury Road diverge, and it’s also where we might linger when considering how much hope to put into video games. There is satisfaction in beating a roguelike game. There is a thrill in overcoming battles. We, as the convoy itself, are making this happen. But the continual death and resurrection, the trying it all again, that saps the heroism from it.
It feels good to overcome something that has beaten you over and over again for weeks or months, but it does not have the same spirit of being necessary. When Furiosa returns, triumphantly, to liberate her people, we have to believe that it was because good must win out. It is helpful to believe that labor and fighting and struggle will produce something good in the end because that’s the way things are supposed to be. In that way Fury Road works mythologically.
The roguelike in general, and Convoy is within that, dispenses with necessity. It’s unlikely that you’ll finish the game. In fact, it’s exceedingly unlikely. When we talk about this in games culture, it’s through the lens of difficulty. The axis through which we evaluate roguelikes, after all, is not “how much hope do they give us?” Instead, it’s “how complex, interesting, and difficult can this world become?”
I wonder, then, if it’s possible to have a game in the style of Convoy that conveys hope. Can we make games of skill and luck that also have the same core of triumphant good that Fury Road gives us. After all, all of the qualities that make that film so powerful are either latent or wholly embraced by games already.
I want to see games that require the same skill, the same forethinking, the same knowledge as Convoy that also treat our overcoming of our struggles as a predictable reality. I want this War Rig that I’ve identified with to be treated as if it was always going to deliver a better future. I want the hopeful roguelike game.