Rogue Legacy. Have you heard of it? Likely not.
An independent video game released by Cellar Door Games (consisting of brothers Kenny and Teddy Lee), Rogue Legacy is, for lack of a better descriptor, a ball-buster of a game. Taking inspiration from both platforming titles and the classic roguelike genre, your goal as a player is to traverse a procedurally generated castle that changes its internal shape each time that it is entered. But we’re not here to talk about game mechanics, we’re here to talk about story.
Truth be told, the greatest tales throughout human history have consisted of very little dialogue, with feats and action being the backdrop for the narrative. Rogue Legacy brings us an incredibly sad tale, one steeped in many rich narrative concepts: family, responsibility, betrayal, sacrifice, and bloodshed.
The narrative of Rogue Legacy begins with a knight by the name of Johannes entering the shapeshifting Castle Hamson in search of a purported cure to heal his father the King (and your ancestor) of a grave illness. Johannes enters the castle and does not return. And this is where your many, many stories begin.
Rogue Legacy has an incredibly impactful story that could only be told through one of its core game mechanic: Permanent death and genetics.
Each time you enter the castle to attempt to conquer it and discover the secret that has doomed your family line, a brand new character is created. They have a name, they have their own unique way of doing things (each character has a chosen discipline, such as being a barbarian, a warrior, a mage, etc). But it’s more than just that; they have their own unique flaws. Sometimes a character will have been inflicted with irritable bowel syndrome, dyslexia, stereoblindness, and many more possible traits from birth.
The Brothers Lee have done something incredible here: For all that Rogue Legacy is rather silly, the characters that you play are very realistic depictions of humans in this aspect. Flawed people.
Rogue Legacy is, if anything, a beautiful depiction of the classic Shakespearean comedy and tragedy. It very frequently pokes fun at itself, but if we peel back the layers and really look at the narrative, it is anything but funny. For example, there are only two possible outcomes of each attempt to enter the castle with a new child descended from the original bloodline: Victory, or death. More often than not, that outcome WILL be death.
What drives a man (or woman) to walk into such a scenario, knowing that if they do not succeed, they will die and have little left behind to herald their existence? Family duty, perhaps. Honor. Maybe the pursuit of answers (of which you will find many as you traverse the castle, uncovering pieces of the journal that Johannes left behind in search of the cure). But let’s really examine the motivations of these characters, not from a game mechanic perspective, but from a narrative one. Let us look at Rogue Legacy from the point of view of one of the descendants of Johannes:
“When I was a child, my father left us. To conquer what has been in so far, unconquerable. The Castle Hamson, the place where our ancestor had vanished to ages ago. Our family has been very poor for a long time, all of our wealth taken away when Johannes made a deal with the demon Charon in pursuit of his… justly goal.
Father told me of when he was a child and his father left for Hamson, to at last rid us of this accursed fate and to bring closure to our sordid history. Grandpa failed and didn’t come back. Now that Father was of age, he too was going to attempt to finish the unfinishable. I was afraid. I didn’t want to lose my father. He told me not to worry, patting me on my head as he slipped his helmet upon his head, and told me that he would be the one to break this neverending cycle. He smiled down at me, and I smiled back up at him. I wanted to believe him, I truly did, but I knew it was a lie. I think he did too.
He never came home.
The heartbreak was painful… and yet, it was expected. Over the past several hundred years, every family head has tried, and failed to stop this seemingly neverending cycle of loss. And now it’s my turn.”
Now THAT is a story.
The most interesting thing about the narrative of Rogue Legacy is that when you finish the game and discover the secret of the castle and look back over things… Dozens, if not hundreds of unique people have been killed, all in the name of what? Was their unique life a justifiable cost for this? At the end of the day, when you as the player are making your return, you don’t feel satisified and vindicated. Instead you are left with the overwhelming feeling of a pyrrhic victory. The Brothers Lee here have tackled some pretty heavy issues in their story that few people have taken the time to explore, and did so in a completely transparent way.
An entire, multi-generational epic of sorrow told through only a few tiny notes. Rogue Legacy shows us that sometimes the best stories are not told to us, but felt and experienced.