The Birth of a Genre: Procedural Death Labyrinth


In the past few years, the roguelike genre has exploded with popularity. However some people dislike the prevalent use of the term “roguelike” to describe procedurally generated games with permadeath due to the genre’s long established traditions such as ASCII art and turn-based action. But as the genre gains popularity some work to bring a more appropriate term that suits all of the popular modern “roguelike-likes”.

But where did the term roguelike start?

Rogue was originally released for Unix in 1980. Based in a fantasy setting similar to Dungeons & Dragons, the goal was to collect the Amulet of Yendor at the bottom of a series of dungeons. The game was depicted using keyboard symbols and letters – ASCII art. The dungeon was randomly generated and the player used single key strokes in a turn-based environment. After Rogue, more ASCII art based, procedurally generated turn-based games followed like Hack, Moria, ADOM, Angband, Crawl, and others.


As computers and their capabilities grew, roguelikes grew also. Pixel art and other art styles replaced ASCII text. Some roguelikes ditched the turn-based move and combat system in favour of real-time movement and attacks. This includes games like Binding of Isaac and Spelunky. This caused a lot of contention concerning what exactly could be labelled a ‘roguelike’.

In 2008 at the International Roguelike Development Conference in Berlin, Germany a definition was laid in place that outlined the main factors that designate a game as a roguelike. This definition is referred to as the Berlin Interpretation. It lists the following as the ‘high value factors’ that can define a game as a roguelike: Random environment generation, Permadeath, Turn-based, Grid-based, Non-modal, Complexity, Resource management, Hack’n’slash, and Exploration and discovery.

Unsurprisingly, this definition still carries controversy and disagreement. Darren Grey’s Screw the Berlin Interpretation! blog post from May 2013 lays out the main problem that many have with the Berlin Interpretation: that despite the Interpretation’s disclaimer that the definition is “not to place constraints on developers or games”, those factors do indeed place constraints on developers and serve as a contention point among communities. Some gamers simply use factors from the Interpretation as a means to exclude games they don’t feel fit their personal idea of a roguelike.

A few months later in December, Lars Doucet made a post coining the term Procedural Death Labyrinths. Using charts, Doucet cross referenced the five main “canon” roguelikes set by the Berlin Interpretation (ADOM, Angband, Crawl, NetHack and Rogue) and many of the popular modern ‘roguelike-likes’ and ‘roguelites’ such as Spelunky, FTL, Rogue Legacy, Don’t Starve and others. Unsurprisingly the ‘canon’ roguelikes all had the same characteristics while the roguelike-likes were much more varied. He found three things that all the games across the board had in common: Procedurally generated, permanent death, and semi-contained environment. Those three points are where the title Procedural Death Labyrinth comes from, however he says the title is aimed more at the awkwardly titled roguelike-likes rather than the more established, niche ‘canon’ style of roguelikes.

This isn’t the first time that a burgeoning game genre has tried to find the right name. Although the first-person view existed in shooting games as early as the 1970’s, what we now refer to as first person shooters were called Doom-clones or Doom-likes in the early 1990’s due to Doom‘s rampant success. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that the name FPS surpassed “Doom-clone” in popularity.

The new label of PDL has taken off so far – there is now a website dedicated to spreading the use of the term. In March of 2014 there was a Procedural Death Jam, a 7 day competition for game developers to create PDL games. There’s even a concerted effort to tag games on Steam with “Procedural Death Labyrinth” where applicable. As the genre continues

This article originally appeared at and was published in April 2014. Since that site got shut down I am now re-hosting my article here. Also, I think in the final version there was a bit more to the article but this is the only version I have saved. Freelance protip: save the final versions of your articles to your own storage so you don’t kick yourself later.

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