I knew “Rogue Legacy,” a PC game just released by Cellar Door Games, was going to be trouble. The demo alone, which probably comprised less than a quarter of the final game, had roped me in for several multi-hour sessions.
“Rogue Legacy” has a story, but it doesn’t matter. The point is to enter a castle and collect as much treasure as possible by killing as many monsters as possible. Every time you enter the castle, the layout — the traps, the treasure chests, the monsters — is randomized, meaning no two playthroughs are the same. When your character dies, you choose one of his or her offspring, all of whom have randomly determined classes, skills, and characteristics (ranging from colorblindness to dwarfism to irritable bowel syndrome; some are just gags and others actually affect your characters’ abilities), further adding to the replayability.
It’s a perfect game for zoning out, for mindless button-mashing with some light strategy on the side. So it’s very enjoyable. But as I played, and played, and played, a familiar feeling returned — one I’d last had when “Diablo III” came out last year. It’s the sense that I’m not entirely in control, that the game has tapped into some deep part of my brain and is keeping me hooked. I’m not the only one: Patrick Hancock, reviewing “Rogue Legacy” for Destructoid, called it “one of the most addictive games I have played in quite some time.”
And it’s making me wonder whether we give some games too much credit simply for being irresistible in a twitchy, primal way.
The mechanisms that are sucking me and others into “Rogue Legacy” are, after all, neurological. Like all animals, we respond to so-called stimulus-reward pairs. If we get something desirable for doing X, we are going to want to do X more. When the mouse gets a food pellet for pushing the lever, it will push the lever over and over again. It’s an easy, evolutionarily efficient way for our brains to point us toward productive (or reproductive) activities, which meant a very different thing in the wild than it does in a modern world with modern temptations.
Any enjoyable activity, from sex to drugs to (for some people) running, by definition involves a pleasurable neurological response. But with video games, it seems like this dynamic is most potent in games like “Diablo III” and “Rogue Legacy” — games that, even if they can be won, are really about building your character or characters up to make them as strong as possible by entering randomized dungeons over and over. The addictive qualities of these games feel more powerful than do those of most other (non-narcotic) activities: As several nights with “Rogue Legacy” drifted into the wee hours of the morning, I felt like the proverbial pellet-hungry mouse.
So for those of us who want games to reach their full potential as an artistic medium, it’s hard to know where in the gaming hierarchy to place really addictive, repetitive games. A game like “Bioshock: Infinite,” which I wrote about last week, does not, for most players, elicit a very addictive response. While like any game it involves a lot of repetition (you sure do shoot a lot of things), it’s a finite experience, and most people will play through it once. It also delivers a big, meaningful story with a start, middle, and ending. It’s substantive.
“Rogue Legacy” is fun, but it’s not substantive. Maybe it and its ilk are best compared to Cheetos (or your junk food of choice). The cheesy snacks appeal to us because we love fats and salt and, in most cases, can’t fully control our responses to them. With all apologies to the flavor wizards at Frito-Lay, who I’m sure put a huge amount of effort into giving these snacks the right mouth feel and level of seasoning, there is nothing nutritious about Cheetos. There’s also nothing wrong with enjoying them in moderation.
Generally speaking, the gaming community tends to approach any claims about addiction with skepticism — after all, pundits have longed blamed video games for everything from school shootings to hypersexualized teens, and many of those with the strongest opinions on the subject have never picked up a controller. So I can understand why gamers might look askance at any claims that some video games are uniquely addictive.
Still, the experience of getting sucked into a game like “Rogue Legacy,” is, for me at least, different from other activities that can grab my attention for hours at a time. When I go overboard and spend more hours than I should playing basketball or lost in a novel, I don’t experience the same wound-up, uncomfortable sense I do from becoming briefly addicted to a game. I’m sore, maybe, or mad at myself for not having done other things that needed doing, but I’m not anxious and overstimulated in the same way. And playing basketball or reading a novel, in return for the time they suck up, offer benefits that addictive video games do not — even if there is evidence that some games might improve hand-eye coordination.
I can hear the indignant response from developers: “So wait, Jesse — you’re complaining that the game we’ve made is too fun? That you want to play it too much?” Not exactly. What I’m complaining about is the conflation of two very different things: games that addict us because we are easily addicted, and games that pull us in because of real creativity or artistry. I’m not saying “Rogue Legacy” lacks positive features — I’d give it a good grade for the sheer fun it provides — but I am saying that I’m not sure it offers enough in return for the hours it compels, and that it succeeds as a game for many of the same reasons Cheetos succeed as a snack.
Now, I would no more want to live in a world without “Rogue Legacy” and “Diablo III” than I would want to live in a world without Cheetos (how terrifying a thought is that?). But those of us who think critically about games should sometimes do a better job not just asking whether a game is enjoyable, but why. We wouldn’t want food critics grading Cheetos and filet mignon on the same curve, after all.
Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.