Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Episode 83: ASCII

This is episode 83 of Roguelike Radio, where we discuss ASCII! Talking this episode are Darren Grey, KawaiiDragoness and Jeff Lait.

You can download the mp3 of the podcast, play it in the embedded player below, or you can follow us on iTunes.

Topics raised:
 - How it used to be viewed as a requirement to be a roguelike, or considered a roguelike element
 - Why do we still use ASCII?
 - ASCII as a retro aesthetic, much like pixel art
 - Developer freedom and ease of game design without graphics
 - Quickly parsing what's going on across the screen with an ASCII interface
 - How the Roman alphabet is something we grow up with and can recognise easily - Chinese or other symbols roguelikes aren't so easily parsed
 - Thinking through character sets, symbol/letter reuse, colour categorisation, rare colours, etc. Deciding what scheme you use at the start of game creation can be important.
 - Conventions across games, such as & meaning different things in Nethack and ADOM
 - Emulating the console in libtcod or the T-Engine or other graphical systems
 - Using Necklace of the Eye to improve the visuals of many ASCII games
 - The benefits of console games, such as ssh and accessibility to the blind, but the restrictions of trying to play them on modern systems (especially Windows)
 - The purity of ASCII in game design, and the artistic statement of using ASCII in the representation of the game's elements and mechanics
 - ASCII supporting procedural environments - many #s don't look so bad, but adding tiles requires more detailed decoration
 - Simple ASCII tiles have no decoration, no confusion over what are game elements
 - The danger of ASCII making it too easy to add new content, thus resulting in junk-filled games (though it can be great if you want a junk-filled game)
 - Disagreement over whether Brogue is beautiful or ugly
 - Making a clear interface (not always possible with just ASCII, such as no healthbars)
 - Deciding on a restricted colour palette (ColorSchemeDesigner is a handy tool)
 - Fonts! Why is there no Comic Sans roguelike?! Darren's recommendation: DroidSansMono
 - The chaos of ANSI / Unicode, and the danger of too much noise from extra characters
 - The difficulty in getting new players to accept ASCII
 - Hex in ASCII
 - The learning curve with ASCII games, both for new players and people switching between major games
 - The easy availability of excellent tilesets (such as the monochrome Oryx Roguelike set) making it harder for players to accept ASCII, especially when tiles can have functional advantages like showing weapon held
 - The @ Symbol in the New York Museum of Modern Art
 - The iconicism and neutrality of the @ symbol, letting you imagine whatever hero you like
 - ASCII art (Jeff hates it)
 - Kawa's ASCII Let's Play series

Join us next time on Roguelike Radio for a discussion of one of the giants of the genre - Nethack!


  1. Been waiting awhile for this. I love me some clear and concise graphics, I feel dense tiles are NOT always superior. I have major problems knowing what's going on with Crawl's tiles. There are just a ton of advantages to ASCII. I made a list over at roguetemple, I'll paste it here:

    1. Small: Very clear at small resolutions, you can get much more on the screen at once.

    2. Skills: No need to have an artist, a programmer's skills will do.

    3. Diverse: You can do a TON with ascii, with, say, 6 colors and 54 letters you can depict 324 monsters.

    4. Energy: As said above, developers can put all energy into game play design.

    5. Resources: they run well on older or weaker systems, and laptops.

    6. Imagination: Ascii engages the icon -> representation section of your imagination. You actually have to think DRAGON. Not just see it.

    7. Temptation: There's no temptation to sacrifice gameplay for sound and visuals, if you are a gameplay person then this is awesome.

    8. Looks Better: A shoddy tileset by someone with minimal skill looks like hell compared to simple ascii.

    9. Cool Points: Playing in ASCII, and having it actually be fun for you, is just cool and amazing. Don't be too snobby, but come on, you play a game that most people think looks like The Matrix.

    10. Tradition: If you are into that classic feel, ascii is traditional.

    Then there's the one huge negative: Not many gamers will actually play an ascii game, it's a huge barrier for entry.

    1. I agree on several of these, particularly ASCII versus bad tiles (I think Cataclysm DDA's tiles look pretty rough, for instance. Better ASCII than that), but I'm not convinced by cool points. As mentioned in the episode, ASCII is offputting, and while you might feellike you have cool points for playing a weird looking game, the trade off is that it's hard to bring in new players.

      It's not just an aesthetic thing, either. I think it was Jeff who remarked in this episode that someone who he introduced to roguelikes couldn't understand what they were controlling, and that was true for me too. The first time I played a roguelike (NetHack, because I'd heard of it and was curious) I couldn't tell what I was doing. I kept losing track of my @, I couldn't identify what was door, wall or enemy... It looks like just a jumble of nonsense. It wasn't just that it looked ugly to me (though it did, and often still does) - on top of that, I couldn't play the damn thing because I couldn't perceive it. ASCII is easy to parse once you know it, but crossing both the aesthetic hurdle and the comprehensibility hurdle is a big task, and it doesn't always seem worth it.

    2. exactly. It's a massive barrier for entry.

  2. Good call on that font Darren, I've also been looking at this square font, for a more boardgamey type feel.


  3. Joseph: I agree with several of your points, but have to point out that #3 is somewhat misleading... 6 x 54 does give you 324, but unless you are planning on having a game where everything is made out of monsters, (depending on the complexity of the game) you are going to have to use a fair few of those symbols as architecture, items, and so on.

    So ASCII and colors does give you a lot of possible glyph/color combinations, but not as many in reality as you might initially think.

    1. As said on the episode, it's best to not use letters as non-monsters, or symbols as monsters. Reserve specific symbols for environment features, specific symbols for items and specific letters for monsters. This lets the player parse the game more easily, and not get them caught out by new things that don't fit the standard.

    2. Yeah man. Letters are monsters. Symbols are gear.

      26 lower case letters plus 26 uppercase letters and all the colors you want to throw at it can give you a massive monster table. I'd not recommend that really but plenty of games do that.

    3. BTW it's 52 letters plus the '@' and '&' symbols to make 54. Maybe that was the confusion.

  4. Interesting points in this discussion.

    I was glad to hear Caves of Qud come up because I think that's a good counter-example to ASCII being inherently easy to parse. Caves of Qud has jumbled and confusing ASCII visuals, to the extent that I've often been attacked by enemies that I hadn't even seen because of the busy terrain surface.

    I think this illustrates that being easy to parse isn't a quality inherent to ASCII so much as just good design, just like well designed graphics/tiles. ASCII perhaps lends itself to that because of the tradition of minimalist design but it isn't a quality that just inevitably comes with an ASCII game.

  5. " - How the Roman alphabet is something we grow up with and can recognise easily - Chinese or other symbols roguelikes aren't so easily parsed"

    I think you could be wrong about this. When I first played an ASCII roguelike (ADOM in my case), I had to learn to parse it. When I played a roguelike using a different font, I had to learn it again, although it was easier.

    For us roguelike veterans, reading a typical roguelike (our preferred console font, typical symbols) is straightforward, but I am not so sure that for a newbie, a Roman alphabet roguelike is so much easier than Unicode symbols (☺☻♥☀☂☃†⚔☠♕⚛☥⚡) or some kind of an unknown alphabet. In both cases, there is a huge barrier, even if we have already overcome it.

    Would be cool to have a multi-cultural roguelike with monsters from Greek mythology as Greek letters, Norse monsters as runes, Slavic monsters as Cyrillic characters, Chinese dragons as Chinese characters, Djinni as Arabic characters, and so on...

  6. Why hasn't this episode appeared in the rss feed yet?

    1. Dunno. We're trying to fix it, but so far a mystery :-/

    2. I've temporarily reduced the feed post count to 50 again. We had modified this up to allow all episodes to appear on the RSS feed, but it looks like we may have reached Feedburners 512k feed size limit. (Either that or it just randomly started working again while I was messing with this).

      If you want all the episodes, please use the following feed URL http://www.roguelikeradio.com/feeds/posts/default?max-results=999 instead of the one published via iTunes.

  7. For those like myself that still don't have a lot of experience playing roguelikes, is there a list somewhere of typical cross game ASCII usage? Like o = orc, D = Dragon, b = burlesque dancer...

  8. I can't say I am a fan of ASCII. For me, I see ASCII as a placeholder - probably due to Dwarf Fortress and the use of the Ironhand tileset where some animals may still only be represented by their ASCII tile.

    Fact is, tiled roguelikes have been around for a long time. 9 years after Rogue got developed there was a game called Castle of the Winds developed - which happened to be one of the first games I ever played on the computer. (I would have been like 9-10 years old when Epic MegaGames distributed it in 1993).

    For me it is just easier to view tiles, and when they are done right they can provide a lot of useful information that ASCII can not (See Crawl Enemies that run around holding a weapon that does this, that, and sends you into the abyss). As roguelikes explore new mechanics as well it will also become essential to move past ASCII - eventually will see more roguelikes then Dwarf Fortress featuring Z levels - I expect roguelikes myself to eventually start looking similar to what you see in Starcraft for example with counters to shoot over and hide behind.

  9. I was waiting for someone to mention Triangle Wizard, particularly when you started mentioning "halos" (or was it "auras"?) and "particle effects".

  10. Great episode, people. I love how you start out stating that none of you find ASCII mandatory for RLs, and then go on to deliver a crushing argument why we shouldn't make anything but ASCII games ;)

    As always,

    1. Ha!

      I think the impulse to defend ascii is a strong one. It brings a certain something that tiles will never bring.

      I just wish I could get any of my friends to play an Ascii game. I made KlingonRL last year specifically so I could get my real life friends to play one of my games. They are big gamers, but ascii was just too much for them.

  11. Re: ADOM. There are now statues in the form of grey &s, as well. Not good. Disclaimer: I hate ADOM today after confusing a Dorn Beast for a harpy yesterday.

    As always,

  12. Nice ep as per usual, random thoughts ahoy:

    -In addition to erdraug: Triangle Wizard also to an equal extent has the whole animated vector ASCII thing going on----a "K" galloping at you to then smash your character towards a wall spike to be impaled and whatnot. I know eventually you lot will successfully accost/abduct Wouter onto here and hash it and more all out.

    -Tangential to the vector bit, if the tech foundations were better I suspect Zooming in and out would be a useful thing indeed alongside fixed perspective and other various art tricks/magic eye bits to wrangle things in minimalistic environs---otherwise all we've got of use on it is last-updated-a-year-ago Through and that's tile wrangled. Like a great many other things, the A/V folks on the comp sci screwed up by going all in on Bitmap and whatnot leaving the rest to largely rot outside of Adobe generally screwing around and fouling up the collective well largely alongside the ride.

    -In a way, ASCII gets back to the core in a different way----surely I wasn't the only one that learned the alphabet via a long, drawn out, highly disturbing, animated/taped/illustrated pop up book series whereby all the letters of the Alphabet got equated to things and had all manner of fantastical and often spontaneously musical adventures?

    -There was going to be at least one full-on 3D Roguelike ASCII project...some years back...that unfortunately seems to have fizzled out a ways back despite getting decently along on screenshots and whatnot from back when the dev was posting on the Temple. :( File that one under "If Only..." alongside The Temple of Vengeance...which oddly enough also did some apt ass-kicking in a stylized ASCII context.

    -For a great while, I just couldn't fit into ASCII---but the solution as I found it is to marathon TheGameHunter(UberHunter's) video series alongside Silfir's on ADOM and at some point you sort of break on through to the other side via mass exposure at the vicarious expense of somebody else handling all the fiddly bits that would normally serve as the early parts that turn somebody away or off.

  13. Even though I its not a roguelike my first ASCII game was DND which the player was an X.

  14. An interesting discussion. Though the T-Engine product placement got tiresome - it must have been mentioned more than a few dozen times. At least it seemed that way.

    The discussions about design and particularly how important convention was intriguing. Is there an article somewhere about which game play element veteran players assume each ASCII character is in a roguelike?

    In the show notes it would be useful to link to episode 48 that covers ascii games accessibility and colour blindness when considering colour schemes. Also episode 73 where Kawa talks about issues with recording ASCII games for lets play videos. Now you've been going for a while you are allowed to be self-referential :)

  15. ASCII graphics is the best, in my opinion, it makes your mind remember the game as a book/ story, and not as a game, in one way, its the best graphics ever, play dwarf fortress with tiles.. remember it as a game.... play with ascii, remember it as an epic story