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Rogue Legacy’s Surprising Lessons on Learning Disabilities

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Rogue Legacy, by Cellar Door Games, is high atop my personal “Best Games of 2013″ list because of its clever and engaging gameplay. But part of the reason I enjoy the game as much as I do is the way the game helped me come to a deeper and powerful understanding about physical and mental disabilities, both in others and in myself. To explain how the game accomplished this, I first need to explain something else.

I hate writing. Hate. I hate the process of turning the thoughts and stories in my head into words on a page or screen. I know that’s a strange thing for a writer to say, but it’s something I’ve always struggled with. I have no problem telling stories (or making them up) on the spot, but it’s a constant struggle when it comes time to put them on the page. It’s a cycle that leaves me feeling frustrated, depressed, and sad.

This struggle has plagued me all my life. When I think back to grade school, I see a kid who was clearly bright but underperformed in the classroom. In high school, my grades were atrocious. I’d try hard to do well and live up to the expectations set for me, but, eh, at the end of the day I just didn’t fucking care. My college experience was short. I loved listening to lectures and learning anything I could, but studying for tests, something I’d never done before, caused so much anxiety that I’d just blow off the exams. As you can imagine, I got booted for my grades after a few semesters.

It wasn’t until after leaving college, as I started trying to untangle the sad, anxious mess I’d become, that a doctor asked me if I’d ever been screened for dyslexia. My life hasn’t been the same since.

Dyslexia manifests itself in a lot of ways. Some people see letters upside-down or mirrored or transposed within a word. Others will see whole sentences jumbled up. My dyslexia manifests itself in a way that messes with the “shape” of words. I don’t really know how to explain it or if any of the proceeding will make any sense, but I’ll do my best.

In the paragraph that I just wrote, just before this one, I keep seeing the word “trainspotting.” Yeah, like the movie about heroin addiction with the creepy toilet baby scene. Every time I catch that paragraph in my peripheral vision, I see the word “trainspotting” sticking out at me like a sore thumb. That’s strange considering I know I didn’t write about Trainspotting. What’s happening is I’m confusing it with the word “transposed.” I’m sure it’s an easy enough mistake to make at first glance. To me, though, “transposed” and “trainspotting” look so similar that I can only tell the difference if I focus and read slowly.

Even now as I write, they stick out so much that it’s actually distracting. They may as well be highlighted in a different color in my word processor, only what I’m seeing isn’t a color or even a word. I’m seeing some shape that my brain tells me means something it doesn’t. Usually I can figure out what it’s really supposed to say, but it doesn’t change the fact that what I see isn’t what you see.

Like I said, it’s hard to explain. The good news is that even without knowing what was happening, my brain and body adapted to this challenge and grew around it. While it is a genuine learning disability, I’m at a point where it’s completely manageable and something I’ve grown to understand as my own reality.

In Rogue Legacy, you play as an adventurer exploring a haunted castle full of danger and rich in loot.

You also die. A lot.

Pretty much everything kills you right away. After your character dies, you have to start all over again. You can’t take any gold with you after you die, so anything you don’t spend on better gear or training for your character is lost. As a result, each playthrough tends to make you slightly better on your next one. The beauty is that after 100 deaths, you’ll suddenly realize your character isn’t a wimp anymore. After 750 deaths, you’ll actually be kind of a badass. After 1,000 deaths, it doesn’t even feel like the same game you were playing the day before. The game gets more fun the more you play it.

What makes Rogue Legacy unique is that after your character dies, you start your next playthrough as one of your previous character’s sons or daughters. In one life you’re playing as a female mage who can freeze time and on the next you could end up as a male barbarian who throws knives. As a result, rarely do consecutive playthroughs ever feel the same, and not just because the castle changes every time.

On top of all that is a system where characters can be born with randomly assigned traits. Some of these manifest in obvious but harmless ways, like when your sneaky ninja accidentally farts in a crowded room because he or she suffers from irritable bowel syndrome. Some of the traits manifest in ways that mess with the player’s head, like when you flail helplessly against an opponent that just won’t die only to remember that your big, tough barbarian king suffers from dementia and that enemy is actually just a figment of his imagination.

Still other traits actually benefit you in the game: dwarf adventurers can frequently sneak into places inaccessible to anybody else; A.D.H.D. makes players incredibly fast. Being gay doesn’t really seem to impact the player at all, but it’s included anyway. There are also traits that actively hinder the player: players who suffer from tunnel vision can’t see off-screen projectiles that would otherwise be highlighted; any reach advantage of someone with gigantism is negated by being a bigger target.

All together, it’s a cool system. The gameplay is a lot of fun and incredibly addictive. Hours melt away. But my favorite part about Rogue Legacy has to do with my experience with the dyslexia trait and how it put the game in a much larger context for me.

As far as I can tell, the dyslexia trait is purely superficial. In-game text is garbled, but decipherable if you take a second and think about the word. It’s clever and it got a chuckle out of me the first time I saw it. Similar to the baldness and gay traits, there doesn’t seem to be any actual impact on the game itself.

It was during one of my playthroughs with a dyslexic character that I happened to encounter the game’s first boss. A dramatic little cutscene played and text came on-screen to tell me the name of the boss: Khidr, the Gatekeeper. I had to pause the game and think about that for a second. Was the boss’s name really Khidr or was it something else and what I saw was the game’s dyslexia trait messing with me again?

I shrugged and kept playing only to get absolutely demolished by the boss. But the name stuck with me through my next couple of playthroughs. Was it really Khidr? That’s a strange-looking word that looked even weirder to my dyslexic mind. It didn’t seem familiar. Was the game just screwing with me, the player, because my character just so happened to be dyslexic? I genuinely couldn’t shake the feeling. Khidr. The letters stuck in my brain, which was trying to rearrange them to find something that would. Nothing made sense.

Probably 25 deaths later, a realization hit me: The boss’ name didn’t matter. It could be anything at all, but I still had to kill the goddamn thing. What difference does it make what it’s called? It’s not important that I call it the same thing as everybody else. In my reality (and the reality of my character), the bad guy was called Khidr. If I were to discuss the game (or the character were to ever recount her adventures to someone else) and I called the boss by the wrong name, they’d probably just correct me and we’d move on. It’d just be another instance of a way my weird brain screws with my life sometimes; it didn’t make things any different or worse for me. It’s just how I see the world.

Once I came to that realization, I had a neat little moment of self-awareness. I have this handicap that made life really tough for me early on, but I’ve overcome it. Hell, I’ve flourished in spite of it. Even my dyslexic character was very successful. She’d killed all kinds of enemies, avoided tons of traps, and ventured farther into the dungeon than anybody who came before her. What difference does it make if she has trouble reading things or occasionally calls something by the wrong name? That doesn’t make her any less of a badass.

After that realization, I started to think about the other traits in the game the same way. One adventurer had Alzheimer’s, the disease that claimed the life of my grandfather and casts a shadow that looms large over my family. I’m terrified of the disease, of how it affects both the afflicted and their loved ones. But in Rogue Legacy, it didn’t stop my adventurer from being a badass. Sure, he had trouble orienting himself in the castle because he’d forget where he’d been and where he hadn’t, but it didn’t stop him from living his life. The same goes for my grandfather: Regardless of how it ended, he still lived an incredibly interesting and exciting life. Yes, he faced adversity that others might not, but he still lived.

Another adventurer had color-blindness, which the game expresses by stripping away all color and rendering everything in grayscale. Not only is the game-world in grayscale, but all color is drained from the overlay showing health, magic, gold accumulated, and all current perks enabled. As a result, the game can become incredibly confusing. You can’t just glance at your health bar to see about how much life you have left – it’s roughly the same color as everything around it. Instead of my brain seeing that two-thirds of my life bar was still green, I had to detach myself from gameplay and actually read the little numbers on the bar.

How much extra time does this actually take? Certainly less than a second, but those seconds add up when you’re not used to seeing in grayscale. If my only option was to play the game like this, my brain would probably be able to adapt and it would develop other little shortcuts to figure out the data without relying on colors.

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If I were actually colorblind, I realized that I’d probably have that problem with just about every game I play. Subtle design decisions that developers make to differentiate objects and express ideas using color might be lost on me. My initial take was, “Wow, it must really suck to be colorblind,” but after another moment of reflection, it dawned on me that I probably know dozens of people who are colorblind and don’t even know it. Colorblindness might seem like a handicap, but people with it adapt around it. They live their lives the same exact way I do. Just like me, they’re working around the weird way their brain perceives the world around them.

Oh, and when I finally did defeat the first boss, I was using a colorblind character.

Whether or not the developers intended it as such, Rogue Legacy’s trait system helps illustrate the effects of physical and mental disabilities to people who may not be familiar with them. It’s a fascinating gameplay mechanic that shows that nobody is really ever perfect, but it doesn’t matter because humans don’t have to be perfect to get by in the world.

But the best part is that this mechanic exists in a game that would be great even without it. Rogue Legacy is so much goddamn fun that you might not even notice any of this. But I sure did, and that’s why it’s one of the most meaningful games I’ve played all year.

Site [Rogue Legacy]

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