Thoughts on the Berlin Interpretation

If you are a fan of roguelikes, like myself, then you may be familiar with the Berlin Interpretation. It attempts to serve as an official definition for the roguelike genre, for example:

"Roguelike" refers to a genre, not merely "like-Rogue". The genre is represented by its canon. The canon for Roguelikes is ADOM, Angband, Crawl, Nethack, and Rogue.

This list can be used to determine how roguelike a game is. Missing some points does not mean the game is not a roguelike. Likewise, possessing some points does not mean the game is a roguelike.

The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.

Today I want to talk about my opinions on the Berlin Interpretation, which interests me both as a person who enjoys playing roguelikes and a programmer who would like to make a roguelike someday.

A Sense of Contradiction

I want to repeat the final paragraph from above, from the ‘General Principles’ of the Berlin Interpretation:

The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.

When I read that I cannot help but feel a sense of contradiction between what the Berlin Interpretation says and its actual nature. By definition the Berlin Interpretation constrains developers and games because it outlines the necessary, “High Value Factors,” which a roguelike must strive for in order to satisfy the Interpretation. However, it is important to note that the authors recognize and acknowledge that a roguelike does not need to incorporate every factor. In fact, three of the five roguelikes they label as canon differ from the Berlin Interpretation on one factor:

Non-modal

Movement, battle and other actions take place in the same mode. Every action should be available at any point of the game. Violations to this are ADOM’s overworld or Angband’s and Crawl’s shops.

This is one of nine “High Value Factors” the document defines. For the sake of reference they are:

  1. Random Environment Generation
  2. Permadeath
  3. Turn-Based
  4. Grid-Based
  5. Non-Modal
  6. Complexity
  7. Resource Management
  8. ‘Hack-n-Slash’
  9. Exploration and Discovery

In addition the Berlin Interpretation defines six “Low Value Factors,” attributes which are less important than those above:

  1. Single Player Character
  2. Monsters are Similar to Players
  3. Tactical Challenge
  4. ASCII Display
  5. Dungeons
  6. Numbers

In my opinion, some of those are vague (Complexity) while others are too specific (ASCII Display). And their separation into “High Value Factors” and “Low Value Factors” feels quite arbitrary. For example, the matter of ‘ASCII Display’ is so contentious that some people in the roguelike community seem to consider it mandatory while others toss up the middle finger to the idea. Even though the Berlin Interpretation claims to not impose constraints I believe it has the opposite effect, as it clearly draws lines in the sand within the roguelike community.

The Value, or Lack Thereof

I am not convinced that the Berlin Interpretation serves a useful purpose in the roguelike community. It is inherently divisive; there is no way around that. Instead of being useful measuring-tape for roguelikes, I see the Berlin Interpretation as a weak check-list of points with which to argue against games like Diablo or FTL. Personally I believe both games have palpable roguelike gameplay, but I have seen mass amounts of arguments that neither are roguelikes because they stray too far from the Berlin Interpretation.

When I see people use the Berlin Interpretation to justify how a game like Binding of Issac is not a roguelike, I just feel sad. Such titles represent, in my opinion, the modern direction of the roguelike genre. But the Berlin Interpretation fuels a lot of roguelike fans to cling tightly to classic titles like Angband, and as a result there is a large amount of rejection for games which incorporate roguelike features but differ too much from said classics, e.g. rejecting Diablo as a roguelike because it’s not turn-based. That pervasive line of thought is saddening to me because I feel like it stifles the genre. For example, my gut tells me that if I were to make a game that obeyed every factor of the Berlin Interpretation, except that it was 3D, first-person, and real-time: the majority of the roguelike community would not embrace the game as a roguelike. Insert a frowning emoticon here, because I cannot help but believe a large number of roguelike fans would react in that way.

I must admit that a major reason I take issue with the Berlin Interpretation is my disgust at exclusive attitudes in gaming. I talked about this before with regard to ‘casuals’ and the vocal gamers who vehemently exclude them and try to deny them the title of ‘gamer’, as if it were a holy and royal epithet. The Berlin Interpretation creates that same atmosphere: the roguelike equivalent of a club-house, “No Girls Allowed.”

Ending This Rant

I am aware this is not really a constructive or informative article. It is just me venting over an aspect of a genre that I love. But I could ramble about this for too many paragraphs, all repeating the same point: the Berlin Interpretation hinders the growth roguelikes by setting an arbitrary standard based on relics. I might as well shut up though since I can’t stress that opinion much more.

One final thought: am I the only one who thinks the Berlin Interpretation sounds like a spy novel by Robert Ludlum? I would watch a movie where Matt Damon kicks ass in Angband…. Just throwing that idea out there, Hollywood.

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