Unexplored weaves personal roguelike stories with clever random generation

2017 GOTY Awards

Alongside our team-selected 2017 Game of the Year awards, each member of the PC Gamer team gets to champion one favorite from the year. We'll continue to post new personal picks until the end of 2017. 

When a friend first told me I should play NetHack, I didn't understand the appeal of classic, ASCII roguelikes. Or, rather, I misunderstood the appeal. I thought it was about mastering archaic controls and graphics, engaging with the combat and survival mechanics of a D&D RPG stripped down to text and numbers. But that's not what makes NetHack such an incredible game—which is something the developer of Unexplored, an unassumingly brilliant roguelike this year, likely realized long before I did. NetHack and Unexplored are games about stories.

The "story" in NetHack is essentially nonexistent. Go into the Dungeons of Doom, find the Amulet of Yendor, and get out. Unexplored borrows that same premise, dressing it up with just a bit more flavor. There are no real characters to interact with and no dialogue to speak of. But NetHack is a game of stories in the same way Civ is: its vast array of interlocking systems and simple graphics let you conjure up your own vivid stories as you wind your way through the floors. There was that first time I encountered a cockatrice, not knowing what it was, and cluelessly escaped near-death by killing it before it touched me… and then decided to eat its corpse and instantly turned to stone. There was that time I used some spare food to befriend a wild horse, and accidentally polymorphed it into a master mind flayer, one of the most powerful creatures in the game—only to have it step on a polymorph trap a few floors later and morph into a totally worthless chameleon.

The point is, Unexplored understands that those kinds of memories are what make randomly generated games compelling, not the simplistic lure of infinite content. Unexplored doesn't just facilitate those experiences; it integrates them into its world. It randomly generates lore.

As I search for weapons and potions and the stairs leading down to the next floor of the dungeon, Unexplored doles out worldbuilding in books and notes left by previous explorers. Some offer clues about how to progress through later floors.

Image via Steam user alexbrett13r

Here's one from the pages of Kurt's marvelous exploits: "The alleged Arbiter Grounds can be entered from The Grounds of Champions. It is my devious plan to reach the entrance with a grappling hook. Hah! That's right, you heard it here first! Don't go there unless you have your grappling hook, because the goings can be quite steep." 

It's a remarkably smart way to weave the nebulous storytelling power of roguelikes into the core design of a game.

This is quietly revolutionary for a randomly generated game, at least in my experience: that floors aren't randomly generated independently, but are generated intelligently, with knowledge of one another, and with flavor text that tells a story about past adventurers and your own future obstacles. Foreshadowing! And it's not just hinty stuff. There are real characters in the lore, too, and they'll talk about bosses you'll encounter in the dungeon.

"Oh no. I've just found out that poor Manny, the innocent, is dead!" writes Arthur, in the king's memoirs. "I heard it was an Anden who'd done him in. May his Cursed Lord Grievous fetch it!"

I found a related note from Kurt: "The more I hear about the Anden, the more I hate it...."

Just a few of these journal scraps can sketch in so much context for your randomly generated dungeon, and means each new run offers an exciting history to unearth. It's a remarkably smart way to weave the nebulous storytelling power of roguelikes into the core design of a game, but it's also not the only thing Unexplored does very well.

Image via Steam user Scott Lufkin

(Image: © Steam user Scott Lufkin)

Despite being real time instead of turn-based, and having a simple graphical interface instead of a dozen text-based menus, Unexplored manages to retain most of NetHack's most important complex systems. There are still character stats; potions and scrolls that must be identified, with risks and benefits attached; cursed and buffed weapons and equipment. Where Unexplored streamlines, it also offers new challenges. There are more puzzles that would've been tedious in ASCII but add character to the environment as you explore; each weapon type has a different attack animation, like a jab or a wide sweep, that adds an element of taste and skill to combat. 

Unexplored doesn't try to do everything classic roguelikes do, but it channels their spirit into clever new ideas and offers much of their depth in an intuitive new interface. It's almost certainly the best game of 2017 you haven't heard of, and if NetHack's 30 year lifespan is any indication, it'll still be great a decade from now.