A roguelike based on a Robert Frost poem that explores a rejection of idyllic norms? Sure, I’m in
Road Not Taken is a roguelike that takes place in a forest, in the aftermath of a major storm, being developed by Spry Fox. The game is being designed by Daniel Cook, who previously worked on Triple Town, Bunni, and Leap Day. It’s a personal story about what happens when you choose… well, the road not taken. It’s rare that one gets to write about a roguelike that draws inspiration from Robert Frost.
“When you grow up, you are often told that there is a singular path through life. You go to school, you get a job, you fall in love and then you start a family,” the game's description states. “What happens when you wander so very far off that path? There's no single answer to that question, but this game is an exploration of at least one answer.”
The mystery of game play
“The Road Not Taken, you have a character who is a little on the outside of society. There's a forest full of strange spirits and objects…if it isn't haunted, you are,” Cook told the Report. “There's a tragedy. There's a town that needs you, but doesn't necessarily respect you. There are certainly some puzzle-ly bits, more than a few secrets, and a small piece vaguely similar to Jason Rohrer's game Passage...I tend to mix up a lot of influence so the easiest thing is to just say 'play it', which unfortunately you can't do quite yet. Soon!”
Whoa boy. It’s always fun to talk about this sort of game with someone who understands what’s going on, without being able to play it yet. Still, keeping the game’s mechanics a little bit mysterious until release is part of the game’s mission.
“Much of it I'd love for the players to uncover themselves. Some of it honestly is that after all these years I still find it a bit difficult to explain the emotions of mechanics,” Cook said. “Like Tamagotchi is mechanically the dumbest thing around, a simple state machine where you press buttons on a timer. Yet a lot of people end up caring for, or diabolically abusing, these little virtual creatures. I guess that is why it is a game instead of a novel or essay.”
This isn’t the first time someone has tried to tell a story in a roguelike. The Binding of Isaac is a game that deals with abuse, neglect, and religion in a game that looks and feels like a classic 8-bit Zelda title. That game was surprisingly emotional, and sold well. It’s an interesting lesson in how unexpected genres can tell interesting stories.
“One thing I love about roguelikes is that they provide almost a pointillist form of world building,” Cook said. “Each object behavior and visual is an opportunity to point a little bit of paint on the canvas. And together, over dozens of playthroughs and interactions, the bigger theme is revealed.” Most linear games tell you a story as you travel from point A to point B. Roguelikes allow you to slowly gain more understanding of the world as you play, layering on more details and background information through each replay.
So we know a bit about the world, and the gameplay is being kept vague until we can play it for ourselves. What is it trying to teach us? If growing up, getting married, having a few kids and a career is the “road taken,” what does it mean to celebrate the idea of deviating from the standard path?
“There is a touch of judgement, isn't there, implicit in not following the standard path?” Cook said when I asked about this. “Ask around and you'll find that a lot of folks aren't on that path. They were lost in their 20's, never found the right love or they found the wrong love. Some still had kids, some live alone. This isn't some small segment of the modern world; a vast majority lack that idylic 1950's family and career.”
“I don't see it so much as a second choice, but acknowledging that there are a thousand colorful, meaningful choices,” he continued. “How do you confront that internalized judgment face-on and say ‘Sure, I'm not living some childhood fantasy of what adulthood might be. But that's okay.’”
I would be skeptical of these descriptions and claims from other companies, but Spryfox created both Triple Town and Highgrounds; they have a solid track record. Plus, and we’re happy to report this, there will be no fucking Kickstarter! They’re just working on the game and they’ll release it as a standalone product when it’s done!
I know, right? I’m excited too!
“We love the idea of using Kickstarter to build a stronger relationship with the game's potential fans—that's probably our number one reason for being interested in it,” Spry Fox’s David Edery explained. “But a KS campaign implies that you need the money to make the game, and we don't; we're entirely capable of pulling this off on our own. And a good KS campaign involves a great deal of management, fulfillment and support—energy that we'd rather put into making a great game.”
Road Not Taken is coming to the PC, and will “eventually” come to mobile devices and tablets.