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How Love Island, sudoku, and ’90s malls fit into the Roguelike Celebration

Held in a virtual space from Oct. 20 to 22, Roguelike Celebration is ‘simultaneously hyper-specific and extremely broad’

Pictured: (l-r) Kenzo Nudo, Carmen Kocourek, Leonardo Dionicio, Kassandra Castillo, Carsten Bergersen, Taylor Smith, Marco Donatelli, Hannah Wright Photo: Sara Mally/PEACOCK via Getty Images
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Is Love Island a roguelike? There’s plenty to compare between the British dating reality show and the video game genre, according to researcher Florence Smith Nicholls, who will discuss the topic during a lightning talk at this year’s Roguelike Celebration.

Roguelike Celebration will be held Oct. 20 to 22 in a custom-built online space — a multi-user dungeon (MUD) — themed like an ’80s or ’90s shopping mall with high fantasy elements. Alongside the talks and events that are part of the celebration, the MUD (built by Emilia Lazer-Walker) will include puzzles for attendees solve, making it a game in and of itself.

“We wanted to preserve that feeling online, and so poured a lot of energy and love into making a digital space that felt unique and had that opportunity to surprise you with all the little touches using the shared language of loving roguelikes,” Roguelike Celebration organizer Alexei Pepers told Polygon.

Lazer-Walker told Polygon that keeping the online space text-only was a “necessary compromise” to be able to build out a custom MMO that’s used just two days a year with a totally volunteer team. “But we also knew our audience — as people with a love for ASCII graphics and retrocomputing — would be into that,” Lazer-Walker said.

The Roguelike Celebration takes a “simultaneously hyper-specific and extremely broad” approach to the definition of roguelike, Lazer-Walker said, allowing for both breadth and nuance in the sometimes hard to pin down genre. The conference lineup includes everything from “procedurally generating mid-2000s reality shows,” to discussion of the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, and a talk “arguing that hand-authoring sudoku puzzles is better than procedurally generating them,” Lazer-Walker said. These wide viewpoints on procedural generation are “like catnip to intellectually curious polymaths,” Lazer-Walker added.

Procedural generation is a staple of roguelikes, something Pepers describes as feeling like magic. “Playing an excellent roguelike to me has this feeling where even if you know how the trick is done, the depth of systems and capacity for surprise and storytelling feels magical,” Pepers said. “And yet at the same time it has all the downsides of magic — it’s often wildly unpredictable, can go wrong in spectacular ways for hard to understand reasons, and yet is so beguiling in its promise that many a developer has been guilty of wasting months or years chasing the dream without success.”

The complexity of both developing and playing games like this makes the subject rife for deep exploration and introspection, giving the celebration a quirky, unique vibe. It’s a place where you can find talks about data science and in-depth skill-sharing alongside handcrafted sudoku puzzles, mid-2000s celebrity reality shows set in McMansions as roguelikes, and a fireside chat about 1987 open-source roguelike NetHack.

“We’re not an academic conference, we’re not a festival, and we’re not a trade show, but we’re kind of all of those things,” Roguelike Celebration organizer Qristy Overton said. “We’re trying to make a space where all kinds of people can just get really deep in the weeds about this one particular kind of game, so the end result is kind of esoteric. But hey, so are roguelikes!”

If you can’t attend the event live from Oct. 20 to 22, the talks will live on YouTube as part of the Roguelike Celebration archives. But the organizers recommend spending some time in the MUD space, where the livestreams will be embedded. “The YouTube archives only convey half the story — sometimes the threads in the Theater chat during a talk are these amazing, ephemeral jewels of discourse (sometimes they are people repeatedly yelling ‘Juice!’ or spamming the /dance command, which adds to the atmosphere),” organizer Sam Marcus said.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.