Topic 004 - ASCII Interface

started 1999-02-12


One of the most immediately recognizable features of Roguelike games is their reliance upon an ASCII (text) interface for both input and output.

Some of the newer Roguelikes have replaced or supplemented ASCII with pixel-based graphics and/or mouse-driven controls. However, the most popular, polished, and complete Roguelikes are ASCII based.

Check out the screen grabs on the Game Review page to see what I'm talking about.


(prospective developers, take note!)

"Why ASCII???" (or "What's ASCII???") ... It's the '00s, darn it!!!"

Well, first of all, an ASCII interface helps make Roguelike games available to a wider audience.

ASCII also provides an extremely dense, precise, and efficient mode of communication between the game world and the player. This allows Roguelike games to be much more complex than similar graphics-based games.

The second part of the ASCII interface is keyboard input. Once again, ASCII allows a much richer, safer, and faster means of communication than a mouse or joystick-driven interface.


The primary disadvantage of an ASCII interface is the necessarily high level of representational abstraction. The only way it's not going to be abstract is if your game universe consists entirely of ASCII symbols.

Since the abstractions used are unique to the Roguelike genre (and often to individual games within the genre), the end result is a huge learning curve. 10 years after my introduction, I'm still learning...

Also, ASCII isn't visually impressive; it lacks the wow-factor of Baldur's Gate, Everquest, or whatever games magazines are pushing and kids are obediently playing today.

The Alternative: Graphics

Graphical Roguelikes have been around for quite a while on non-PC platforms. Erik Bolsų, author of the Roguelike Geneaology (see links), writes:

Amusing facts: C64 Telengard (1983) has bitmapped graphics... Mac Dungeon of Doom (mid-80's) had B&W bitmapped graphics... ZX Spectrum Rogue (1987) sported bitmapped graphics and point-and-click interface... AmiOmega (1990 or so) had quite fancy graphics... Crossfire (1992) has tiled graphics...

There are two types of graphical Roguelikes for PCs today:

ASCII-only and dual-mode Roguelikes tend to be more detailed, better balanced, less buggy, more portable, denser, bigger, funnier, better documented, better maintained, and consequently more popular than those with just graphics.

This is mostly pixel-based graphics take much more time to program than ASCII. Every hour spent on graphics is an hour not spent on adding detail, testing, expansion, testing, documentation, testing, humor, testing, and testing. :)

Dual-mode graphics are usually implemented, tested [ugh, there's that word again], and documented by "third party" developers separately from the game itself. Consequently, adding a dual-mode display to an existing Roguelike is usually a mere matter of simple patching and does not significantly cut into the game's essential development.

Games that have been developed with graphics from the get-go have to work twice as hard just to get the same features, depth, and robustness as their ASCII cousins. Most are abandoned before they gain more than a couple dozen fans.

See my topic on A la Carte Gaming for a discussion on how better modularity in Roguelike games (such as providing a dual-mode display) can help developers and gamers alike.

ASCII vs Graphics: Trav's Verdict

I love ASCII in Roguelikes. I love the density of information and the fine control it gives me. I love tables, statistics, and lists, all of which are encouraged by Roguelikes' text-based nature. I love the speed (both processing and gameplay) granted by ASCII.

And I love how smart ASCII makes me feel. It took me a long time to be able to make sense of all those characters and squiggles on the screen, and I'm proud that I can understand it all now! [well, at least most of it...] Likewise, it takes a lot more brains to pick up and quaff a potion of healing in NetHack than it does to step on a powerup in DOOM, so the act itself is more rewarding. And then there's macros, enscriptions, setting all those billions of options...

Playing and especially learning Roguelikes is hard work, and as a result I get a much greater sense of accomplishment when I play Roguelikes than when I play graphical RPGs.

Also, ASCII doesn't foster representational expectations, and therefore it cannot dissappoint in the areas of drawn artwork, sounds, or animation. Though ASCII cannot set moods, it cannot ruin them either.

For instance, say I'm playing a graphical RPG and I see:

You see, in a graphical RPG, there's plenty of opportunity for me to get annoyed, embarrassed, or distracted by what I regard as mood-wrecking or poorly rendered graphics (or sounds or animations). When I'm playing an ASCII Roguelike, I don't have to worry about this happening, because dragons look like 'D's, worm masses look like 'w's, food rations look like '%'s, giants look like 'P's, etc. There's not a single ASCII symbol that threatens to offend me or throw off the mood of my game.

Not only that, but I think I need ASCII. I am so used to '%'s and 'P's and typing "maa" by now that graphical tiles and mouse interfaces slow me down. I have tried many times to "get into" the optional SLASH'EM and Angband tile sets because I like the look of the terrain, but I inevitably find the object and monster representations too difficult to parse, and I end up switching back to ASCII.

AngbandTk (and the other Tk variants) come closest to satisfying [me] by offering a somewhat schitzophrenic, "best of both worlds" mode in which terrain is represented graphically while items and monsters are represented with ASCII characters. However, AngbandTk has its own problems such as bugs and a lack of window customizability.

The bottom line? As of 2005, my favorite Roguelike interface is the one provided with the MS-Windows version of Angband (and Zangband, etc.). It gives you 8 permanently visible, extremely customizable windows so you can get lots of useful information at once (I use 7 of them and fill the whole screen), an option of ASCII or tile-based graphics, and optional sound. It gives me more control over what I see than any other Roguelike interface. -more-

And control is what it's all about, baby!

Topic 004 - ASCII Interface

started 1999-02-12