Early Reveries of REM Cycles: A Dream-centric Roguelike

Despite still being in development, Indispensable Studios’ oneiric roguelike REM Cycles has a strong identity. As someone who’s fairly inexperienced with the roguelike genre (besides having played Crypt of the Necrodancer and not realizing it was a roguelike), the early gameplay gives me nostalgia for titles like The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (yes, I know that’s not necessarily a roguelike). Perhaps it’s the 16-bit graphics, or the “dungeon-crawling” aspect, or even the catchy electronic soundtrack. Whatever the case may be, what I’ve come to learn about roguelikes through this demo is that they are often bound up in nostalgia; heck, even the genre’s name hearkens back to an older game called Rogue, the ASCII based dungeon crawler. So, having a roguelike focused on the subject of a dream world seems very appropriate.

For those reading this who may be unaware, roguelikes are mainly categorized by the mechanics of turn-based battles, repetition driven by permadeath functions, and procedurally-based levels. Titles that are often held up as examples of recent roguelikes are Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, and FTL: Faster Than Light. There’s a lot of contestation of the term (with a lot of players preferring to call variants “roguelites”), but that’s beside the point. The point I’d like to home in on is the fact that REM Cycles smartly employs a dream world to explain their roguelike mechanics.

The most noticeably surreal mechanics of roguelikes are the repetitious actions and procedural levels. Everything shifts and changes constantly in dreams, but there are also times (especially in lucid dreaming) where you can experiment and repeat certain events and actions you did. You can also meet any number of strange entities or a diverse range of people in dreams, which is a nice conceit Indispensable Studios’ Emily Morrow picked up on for her game writing process. Her inspiration came from pondering what would happen if she randomly pulled 10 people from across the US out of their dreams.

The basic synopsis of REM Cycles is that you choose 4 characters to form a party that will inexplicably “wake up” in a dream world called the Cloudlands and venture forth to figure out why they’re there. There will eventually be a roster of 10 characters in total once the game is finished, and based off of the characters I met in the demo, the cast will be very diverse. Already there’s Kara the elderly medic, Aiza the hijab-wearing fighter, and Faith the black sniper. There are also varying depictions of masculine characters, with Matt the tank being a body-builder versus Isgard the beastmaster being a competitive gamer. The latter often makes amusing meta-commentary about how the dream world reminds him of “Birby 3: Attack of the Dream Critters”, how he needs to finish the lucid dreaming so he can prep for an online raid, or that he’s unafraid of the Cloudlands because it’s “obviously the tutorial stage.”

The bulk of the demo was made up of the party (now called the Oneironauts) setting out to retrieve Kara’s bratty ward Danny who runs off into the depths of the Cloudlands. There was a battle against some low-level enemies (interestingly titled “Dream Denizens”, which suggests they might not be inherently hostile). Combat is simple and straightforward, with each character being able to move once per turn and then use a skill (moves can be undone before they are made final). But, as per the roguelike genre, if all your characters die at any point in the game you start at the very beginning again. This is REM Cycles’ version of permadeath and by extension, repetition.

In addition to traveling and battling through procedural levels, REM Cycles will also feature support conversations styled similarly to ones found in games like Fire Emblem. For now, these conversations are for character development and context, but certain conversations that will be kept secret until you meet specific requirements. This provides incentives for repeat play-throughs but also lets you interact with the colourful cast of characters. The support conversation featured in the early demo was between Faith and Aiza. This conversation showcased Faith’s reluctance about opening up to others and her fears that people in the Cloudlands might not be as they truly are. I empathized with both characters’ plights; Aiza just wanting to sincerely connect, Faith unsure as a shy bibliophile if it was a good idea to be vulnerable in a world unknown to her. This conversation led me to think once more about how nostalgia helps connect us to other like-minded people.

According to psychology researchers, video games “may have the potential to elicit more nostalgia than any other medium.” This could have to do with several factors, but chief among them seems to be community-building, and how nostalgia in of itself bolsters individuals’ self-esteem. Video games are an escapist medium, but they can also be intensely social, or vehicles for finding new friends and communities to connect to. I think REM Cycles is certainly onto something with their surreal roguelike in this regard.

Similar to Wintermoor Tactics Club, Indispensable Studios is concerned with how our hobbies aren’t merely for entertainment purposes — they can be a means to deep consolation and connection to others. And I’m here for that! It’s about time we had more game titles that explore gaming communities in a more positive light. Not all of our online communities are akin to Gamergate, and REM Cycles is a light-hearted way to remind us that games are often about sharing and self-care via nostalgia.

REM Cycles is still in development for PC, but follow @REMCyclesGame on Twitter for live updates on the project!

Freelance game critic, writer, and advocate for indie and diverse game development. For more rambling thoughts follow @phoenixsimms on Twitter.

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