All Aboard the Monster Train: Lessons from the Rogue-like Genre

The game of the early summer for me has been Shiny Shoe’s Monster Train, deck building game where the player transports a pyre through the nine rings of the now frozen hell to rekindle its fire. Along the way the demon-run train is attacked by various angelic creatures, destroying them in order continue. Monster Train is a rogue-like, in the vein of Slay the Spire, The Binding of Isaac, or FTL, all games I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and it fits right at home with them in its place in the gaming landscape as a difficult, but rewarding, game that puts a high premium on player decision making and the consequences of ones actions. The defining feature of rogue-likes is that the player is in a kind of randomly generated “time loop,” where if they fail they start an entire run over and try again with different contingencies in place. If you’d like to see me play an entire run, you can check out the Twitch VOD from last week’s Lunch Zone.

I find rogue-like games to often be almost endlessly engaging. I have, combined, almost 500 hours in the above mentioned games (most of it going to Binding of Isaac: Rebirth), and I think they are particularly well suited games for our current cultural moment. As I’ve spent a significant number of months holed up inside, days tend to blend into one another. Of course, I wish this wasn’t a case, but this Onion article titled “Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive,” sums up a little how I feel about my situation. I shouldn’t be surprised that quarantine is tough.

What makes rogue-likes appealing is that they offer the potential for self-improvement. Especially when one first starts one, the goal isn’t really to win. The goal is learn the game’s systems and improve one’s own skill. Only once some level of mastery over the game’s systems is attained can victory be a reachable goal. I still remember talking to a college professor about Binding of Isaac and being asked “Have you beat Mom (the big boss) yet?” In these games, advancement is a matter of time and skill. This means they aren’t for everyone. If you’re too busy they may seem like a daunting task, but if you’re stuck inside each day, where moments blend together and its hard to tell them apart, the rogue-like can become almost a model for self-improvement.

So maybe I should start approaching these repetitive days like I approach Monster Train: tactically making decisions, seeing how they pan out, keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. Then at least, when I look back on a week or two, I can see some noticeable improvement or change. I’ve started keeping a journal, which has helped distinguish days from one another, and cooking meals helps too. But regardless of my personal improvements, here are some strong principles one learns about rogue-likes and I’ll try to apply them to real life.

  1. Find Valuable Combos

In every rogue-like one must learn what combinations of cards, items, or features work best together. These strong combos are the first key to victory. In most games we might call this a “win condition” aka: if I do X and Y, I will win the game. We can apply valuable combos and win conditions to our daily life by asking what activities do we want to center our days around and how can making them primary enhance our experience. Examples of these might be physical exercise, reading books, writing (for us academics), or even leisure activities like games. By ensuring that we set aside time for these activities, we enshrine our win conditions for each day, then we can look back and say “Well I did win a run of Monster Train, today, so it wasn’t all wasted.”

  1. Trusting Oneself to Take Risks

Another key component to winning rogue-like games is to know when to take risks. Every good rogue-like has risk taking mechanics, like in Binding of Isaac where one can make a “deal with the devil,” sacrificing heart containers for strong power-ups, or in Monster Train where one can take a “trial” making a combat encounter more difficult in return for a reward. Most of the time, it is correct to take the risk to become stronger. In daily life, this might mean doing something that has a chance at failure, talking to a family member you don’t get along with or asking somebody for a favor (I am spitballing here haha). The point is that taking risks is natural and good and often yields the greatest rewards in the long run. We can’t be so afraid of “what if I fail,” that we never try, right?

  1. Take Out the Trash

In all rogue-likes, but especially deck building games like Monster Train and Slay the Spire, it is important to know what cards, items, or features are not worth pursuing, or even must be forcibly removed. You can only draw so many cards, so we shouldn’t dilute the good cards with many bad ones. In Binding of Isaac, there are some items that may be good in some contexts, but might weaken you if combined with the current character build. So we’ve got to be careful not to allow too much toxic baggage to weigh us down and excise it when appropriate. This can of course work with relationships, but in quarantine this might also look like closely examining unhealthy habits and ditching those what weaken us.

There are probably more lessons one could pull from the genre, but I’ll leave it there. I’m curious what you think. Can we use video game mechanics to help reinforce basic life lessons, or is this pursuit folly? Either way, I want to enshrine that which video games give us that I find quite important: a space to comfortably fail. Failure is just as important, if not more important, than success, because in failure we have the opportunity to learn and improve. So please, if you feel up to it, pick up a rogue-like and fail on!

Erik Kersting

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