By Neil Merrett
Streets of Rogue, released on Playstation 4 in 2019, developed by TinyBuild Games
The first Grand Theft Auto game released on home computers and the Sony Playstation in 1997 was sold on the premise of having a single city that the player was free to create violence and mayhem in. That is, until they are put down by in-game law enforcement, a rival gangbanger, or a disgruntled commuter.
Hardware limitations of the era meant that this city could only be realised from a top-down, 2D view that simplified the playing environment and gameplay to running and driving around a sprawling series of freeways and city streets. As such, the in-game population that drove around aimlessly in the game mostly served the soul purpose of being potential victims to mug or carjack, rather than digital citizens caught reacting to the chaotic machinations of violent criminals.
While the series courted controversy from its outset, true critical acclaim and mass market blockbuster appeal wasn’t fully realised by the developers until Grand Theft Auto 3 was released on Playstation 2 in 2001. This time, the game took place in a true 3D cityscape, one where the player delivered mischief at a truly ground level and with much greater interaction being possible with the city’s denizens and buildings.
In keeping with a broader industry shift from the late 1990s onwards towards trying to build three dimensional game worlds, GTA 3 reflected an idea that true immersion and complex game worlds could only be realised in 3D.
GTA3 was regarded as a milestone in the design of sandbox games – a term used here to describe an open ended approach to design where a player is afforded a large level of freedom with how they interact and navigate the world.
Publications such as Gamesrader have therefore put Grand Theft Auto 3, with its open ended city setting, as being the most important game of the decade in which it was released.
The consensus was that the title had achieved the impossible by creating a free roaming 3D game for consoles. So popular and acclaimed was GTA3, that it seemed that open world 3D titles would be the default aspiration for any videogame developer of note.
If a developer could not realise some form of 3D explorable world that could literally be explored from the ground up, then what was the point of making such a title in the first place?
Innovation and the indie scene
Almost two decades on from the release of GTA 3, the video games industry, particularly in the smaller-scale, but no less ambitious indie games sector, has a much broader understanding of the different ways to create immersive, complex and narratively rich titles without having to create outright simulations.
Games could now be existential text-based adventures, fourth wall breaking examinations of loss and mental health through the development process, or action-packed mash ups of various genres all crammed into a 2D game world.
Take Streets of Rogue for example. This a game that shares some basic similarities to Grand Theft Auto in terms of the more anarchic gameplay and mechanics. However, it is a game that treads its own path to create a chaotic and complex 2D world that is explored from a top down view that series such as GTA had seemingly consigned to history.
A basic playthrough of Streets of Rogue can flit between instigating and surviving blood splattered street battles, to ‘masterminding’ a brazen attempt to steal a safe by consuming an experimental formula that makes the player a literal in-game giant that can flatten walls and assailants as easy as steel.
There are the mechanics of a huge number of games in here. These mechanics range from crime simulators such as GTA to stealth adventures and twin stick shooters.
In short, you can play the game in any number of absurd ways. One approach is to play as an immoral anaesthetist that chloroforms their opponents and rivals.
Another option is to be as a whisky slurping, homeless brawler. With each new playthrough, vastly different weapons, tools and playable characters can be unlocked; from bent coppers that walk easily among the game world’s population, to vampires and werewolves that tend to have a harder job of blending into a wary crowd.
One of the more open ended aspects of the game is the option to customise and create your very own type of character.
Some players may seek to recreate their own billionaire boss within the structures of the game – resulting in a figure that offsets physical frailty by having ever replenishing financial funds at the end of every level and negotiation skills to hire villains and authority figures to do their dirty work.
Others may prefer to create a simplistic looking pin-stipe wearing figure. A creature whose common man look is augmented with lethal axe skills and a cannibalistic streak that means they can only replenish health through literally consuming the corpse of their victims – sometimes problematic in the middle of a firefight or police chase.
Another approach could be to create a zombie shaman-like fellow whose victims are resurrected as the walking dead. A violent, virulent zombie outbreak in the middle of a level can be a useful distraction – if the player can avoid getting caught up in the mayhem.
Much like a classic RPG, the player is able to assign a range of points to specific stats and abilities that accentuate a specific way of playing the game. As in life. Some of these abilities, such as a vampiric ability to feed on blood, have to be balanced with some kind of societal or physical weakness.
Chaotic play can be both satisfying and a rewarding way to level up your skills in the slums and industrial districts that make up the game’s early levels.
However, later areas such as the parklands, or the game’s densely populated and affluent Uptown region will house their own armies of cannibals, tool-up mobsters and even Kevlar-wearing private security that will think nothing of machine gunning a player and their crew if undesirables appear in the wrong place and start acting in the “wrong way”.
That said, the game still allows you to weaponise unknown chemicals into a water pistol or a local water supply as a means of allowing anarchy to rule – could it be health potion, sulphuric acid or a rage virus. Unless you play as a scientist, human experimentation is the only way to learn what the game’s chemical do.
Anarchy in the second dimension
According to Streets of Rogue developer Matt Dabrowski, the second Grand Theft Auto was an important inspiration for what he called the “goofy top-down chaos that the game often devolves into.” However, open ended games such as Deux Ex and the first Fallout title were equally important points of reference.
He said, “My goal was to create a 2D immersive sim that allowed you to do a bunch of town-based RPG quests using wildly varying approaches. Spelunky and Binding of Isaac inspired the rogue-lite aspects of the game.”
“Rogue-lites were quickly becoming a big genre when I began development, and I wanted to do something with it that no one else was attempting. Jamming an immersive sim into a rogue-lite seemed like an interesting challenge.”
Squareblind.co.uk asked Dabrowski what had appealed to him in using a 2D approach to build a more complex open world structure that is usually associated with big budget 3D games such as GTA5 or Red Dead Redemption 2 – both from Rockstar games.
He cited programming efficiency as one of the key benefits in opting for a top down approach to gameplay and level design.
Dabrowski said, “The lack of a third dimension and the relative simplicity of art style meant that new structures could be created very quickly.”
“The other big advantage comes in the form of readability, A meticulously designed 3D space can be very visually overwhelming, whereas in Streets of Rogue, you can look at a 2D space and immediately understand what everything is and its purpose. This can also make strategizing/problem-solving easier and more straightforward for the player, since the entire scene is within their view.”
2D vs 3D
From someone well versed in the technical challenges of designing and building a 2D open world, Dabrowski seemed a good person to ask whether this design approach can ever match the complexity of the current generation of 3D sandbox game worlds. More importantly, is it even fair to compare these different game styles?
Dabrowski said that he believed 3D titles did have an advantage in building memorable and immersive game worlds to explore – not least from the visual perspective of placing a player directly in a world with its own streets, sky and atmosphere.
He said, “If we’re talking about the worlds in modern AAA titles like GTA5 or Fallout 4, those visuals go a long way in creating a world that feels real and alive, even if other world building aspects like the NPCs’ AI aren’t terribly different from a game like Streets of Rogue. The nice thing about 2D worlds is that a lot more can be left to the imagination, whereas in a AAA 3D space, everything tends to be rendered in meticulous detail.”
Part of the challenge in building an effective approximation of a world in 3D, according to Dabrowski, is the very “specific expectations” that gamers have about how these worlds are supposed to look and function. This is a sensation based on the player’s daily experience of living in a real 3D world.
He said, “In a 2D game, you have a lot more leeway to mess with expectations, and also the ability to easily get away with things that would be quite ‘expensive’ in a 3D world. For example, Streets of Rogue allows you to knock down any wall that you see. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 3D game do that.”
In making use of a more stylised, bit-art style to create the look of Streets of Rogue, a throwback to the colours and visuals of previous generations of games, it is possible to describe the art style as being somewhat retro.
However, Dabrowski argued that the game itself, not least in the ways a player can navigate, destroy and demolish their way through Streets of Rogue’s randomly generated levels, reflected a very modern approach to design and gameplay.
He said that the low visual fidelity used in the game was therefore vital to programme and support more complex, open ended gameplay.
Dabrowski said, “By keeping most graphical assets to 16×16 pixels, I was able to quickly add art for any new content that I created. It allowed me to spend as much time programming as possible — and for a game as complicated and systems-heavy as Streets of Rogue, this was an absolute necessity. I probably spent less than five per cent of the game’s development time on art.”
“While pixel art is often labeled as retro, I think that perception is changing, as so many modern games have adopted it as a purely stylistic choice. It depends on the type of pixel art. For example, some games have pixel art that very clearly tries to emulate a retro NES style, such as Shovel Knight. Streets of Rogue didn’t really set out to be retro, either in graphics or gameplay. I can’t think of any 8- and 16-bit era games that look or play like Streets of Rogue.”
The developer said he had taken some presentational aspects of older ‘retro titles’, for example the lifebars above in-game characters were taken straight from capcom beat em ups such as Street fighter 2. However, Dabrowski stressed that Streets of Rogue was in itself a very modern game.
So, just how close then is the experience of playing Streets of Rogue to the game’s original design intention?
For Dabrowski, the finished product is “very close” to what he originally planned.
He said, “Granted, the game wasn’t exactly meticulously planned out, but it matches the general vibe I was going for: A chaotic, goofy, emergent top-down rogue-lite. That said, there was definitely some evolution. Early on in development, I didn’t think the game would be quite as action-oriented, and had actually considered making the entire thing playable with a mouse, like a Lucasarts adventure game.”
One later change introduced during programming was the decision to move away from a more freeform approach to completing missions.
Dabrowski siad, “You’d have a major goal in a level, like ‘get past a police barricade’, and you could accomplish this in different ways, such as faking an access pass, or blowing through with a rocket launcher. But the idea was that at the beginning of the level, you wouldn’t have the tools to do this, so you’d have to do smaller missions to get them, or get them through other methods.”
“Ultimately I went for a more straightforward, streamlined approach. Also, I didn’t originally intend for the game to support multiple players, that just sort of came about because I thought about it and realized ‘hey, why not?’”
As a finished product however, Streets of Rogue is a game whereby players – either alone, or with friends – can live out any number of criminal or anarchic blue collar fantasies that can still feel a little too close to the somewhat unhinged, yet very real world we live in.
It is understandable then that players might look to eschew criminality and the vagaries of human morality completely in favour of playing as a scientist-hunting gorilla that enjoys stealing bananas and punching opponents through windows. In the world of Streets of Rogue, both are viable strategies to success, what could be more modern and immersive than that?