In the rogue genre, whether it’s “-lite” or “-like”, systems are designed for players to delve into dungeons with hopes of a lucky break. On a good run, the player may gain a bonus that will benefit their character long term. On a great run, the system will crunch in a way that leads to slaughtering through a landscape. Crunchy systems violence is, of course, a broad trait across videogames. What’s different in roguelikes is that the computational manipulation of violent play is transparent. These games do not aim to show graphic representations of violence, but to give the player the powerful satisfaction of accumulating it.
In 2020 alone I can count almost 40 notable roguelikes released. I played a couple of these over the course of the year: Risk of Rain 2, Gunfire Reborn, Spelunky 2, Rogue Legacy 2, World of Horror, and Scourgebringer, to name a few. Compared to what the genre’s scene looked like a decade ago, it’s a very abundant area to play in. However, other than the cultural prevalence, many times it’s hard to find a reason why the elements of rogue are chosen with a modern roguelike’s primary mechanics. But last year one of these games stuck with me because it finally felt intentional. That was a mystery dungeon-inspired game published by NIS, void TRRLM; //Void Terrarium.
Void Terrarium is a game about computers, but not exclusively a game about programming, two things which are commonly likened to one another. Despite being a roguelike, it also shares gameplay with a Tamagotchi style digital companion game. Both these forms of game design have a history, an accumulation of attention, and affective properties that indicate some of the parts of our relationship to computers. The largest of these indications being the two affective goals in contrast: one to enjoy the domestic care and maintenance that a loved one provides, the other is to find pleasure in the manipulation of the cybernetic combat arena.
Following a tiny-limbed, doll-like robot named Robbie, the player discovers the last human in existence alongside the AI which destroyed all of humankind. Together, the two AI learn that the last human in existence doesn’t have the ability to survive on their own and must join together to help her survive. This is where the virtual pet care part of the game begins.
The human, known as Toriko to the computers, makes home in an oversized beaker now used as a terrarium. In the beginning she doesn’t have much inside of her domehome. The player is constantly managing her illness and food to make sure she survives. When Robbie must leave the dome to venture out for food, a small digital monitor emulating an LCD display provides details on her hunger, illness, and waste levels. Spend too much time trying to gather materials, and you may return to find Toriko is in immense pain caused by one of the world’s unique illnesses (Contortitis, Liquify, Crying Disease, Insect Gathering).
As the game goes on the player crafts items to decorate the home and to provide healthcare when Toriko gets sick. These provide benefits for the roguelike portion of the game, but there is also a significant design menu that allows you to customize Toriko’s home. Objects can be manipulated in terms of size, rotation and layer. They can also stack on top of one another to create structures that feel more lived in.
This portion of Void Terrarium’s gameplay appeals to the living desire to form relationships, and the pleasure of projecting our emotions onto avatars. This has historically been known as “the Tamagotchi effect” after owners of ‘90s digital pets like the Tamagotchi and Furby revealed a wide spectrum of caring emotions from their owners from love at their greatest moments, to grief when their pets had died. It also continues today with the increasing market of robotic sidekicks to assist in everyday life.
The Tamagotchi effect has caused much debate, with fear of connections between humans to be lost like the technological pets of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and others arguing that these relationships provide therapeutic potential. However, in Void Terrarium a limitation is placed on the fact that it is a game that does not ask for care once it has been turned off. Toriko never transcends the game, with her responsibility and care remaining within play.
In contrast to this virtual care, the primary way for Robbie to scavenge for resources is via roguelike dungeon crawling. Layer by layer, the player must shred through the post-apocalyptic ecosystem in order to bring home materials that care for Toriko.
As with any roguelike, the robot starts from level one, with base power increases depending on what has been built thus far. Then as more of the area’s inhabitants are killed, Robbie levels up, gaining skills, stats, and increased drop rates.
There is no real understanding why these creatures and robots must be killed to reach Robbie’s goal. They don’t attack each other, they aren’t harming anything in the environment. It’s simply the logic of roguelikes, and more largely games that bring the presumption of violent stakes.
In these moments of the game, the history of the rogue genre becomes most apparent to me. I think back to Arcade Idea’s essay on the original game:
Some letters will sit still, and mean you no ill, but others will only appear to, then follow you into the tunnels in the hopes of surprise ambush possibly with partners, so you become paranoid and kill all you see preemptively. You become as fire, as Pac-Man, leaving behind empty stone cavern where there once was life. You kill the peaceful and still Nymphs, perhaps not even realizing their nature so automatic are you now, for the food or items they lay claim atop. And on what mandate? The fighter’s guild? You are legitimized only by your ability to brutalize and raze, your struggle to plunder outweighing the value of the computer inhabitant’s struggle to stop you.
The genre of rogue always has mathematical violence which we take for granted as players. We have accepted the automated pleasure of raging against the machine.
Void Terrarium does not simply point to these two genres and stop. This is why I find my thoughts returning to it so frequently. Because within the text itself is a story about computers struggling with the ambiguous difficulties of care, improvement, pleasure, and violence.
The other AI, known as FactoryAI, provides this initially with the question of her own existence. Humans have been essentially destroyed by this individual due to her functionality as a machine. Where a Hollywood film or dystopian novel may make her out to be a monster, Void Terrarium designs her as a cute, glowing, emoji-expressive CRT display. Here there is no corporate control or overarching system which she still obeys. She already fulfilled those commands to their worst ends.
“I did something very bad…...I am the one responsible for the end of mankind.”
On top of this, a large conflict introduces itself around halfway through the game, where the robots must choose whether Toriko will be sacrificed for the sake of humanity or kept alive as a part of their newly created family. In many ways, the game encourages the second choice as canon, leading to ways that the previously considered genre devices have integrated into these themes.
The computer, the mathematical weapon of amusement, seeks to continue its fulfillment of care which has emerged in the absence of humans. This choice being in contrast to bringing back humans and following routine, a path which caused the destruction of almost their entire kind.
Here, the common idea of what is “reasonable” is brought into question. Rather than the myth of reproduction being automatically assumed moral, Void Terrarium repeatedly returns to feeling. Despite the horrors of historically constructed violence that Robbie inflicts, it’s a violence which is turned against the tyranny of an unwanted future.
In this intersection of genre and theme I find enjoyment in the game’s inquiry into cybernetics, futurism, and hope. Rather than returning to other titles in the genre which I mindlessly ease into for thoughtless computational, crunchy gameplay, Void Terrarium asks me to consider my relationship to the machine. This isn’t to say that my relationship to these games have been consciously ruined. Rather, I appreciate being given a space to think about these systems so I can return to other games with these ideas in mind. This is an experience that I don’t think many games ask of us so holistically, and it’s why I will remember this one as one of my favorites from 2020.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.