The general principle of RPGs, and the reason everything will be “an RPG” by the Year of Our Lord 2020, is the joy of watching a bar fill up. It's irresistible. Look at this bar:
See how empty it is. Just two stars.
For geek college students, who were the audience for and creators of the original Rogue, the closest experience to leveling up has been passing from one grade to another. You get marginally more capable with each year, the challenges ramp up a little more slowly than your abilities, and by the end you're barely paying attention, but there isn't much else to do. You are, after all, a geek college student.
School is the best scenario for most of us geeks -- given the economic support of our parents, maybe a scholarship, and the relative scarcity within the college eco-system of positional goods, given the possibility of receiving an A, which is the unambiguously perfect outcome impossible in any other environment, school is for many of us the only time we ever get to feel successful, however hollow that success may be in light of grade inflation, the apathy of our teachers, the stupidity of our competitors, and the knowledge that this is only supposed to be preparing us for The Real World. The ultimate advantage and the ultimate pain of being a student is the knowledge nothing you're doing counts.
In school we simulate living. After school we will die. The specifics don't matter. The eyes grow dim and unperceptive. The mind slows. Popular music alienates. The heart thickens. The genitals wither and dry. One day you find a lump.
Meanwhile you have amassed debts, ruined your credit, estranged yourself from friends, seen your parents die, and spent too much time worrying the government will give your tax dollars to the wrong sort of person. No matter how long you spend at a job, no matter how good you get, one day you'll start to get worse, and then you'll fall behind. Marriage usually ends in disappointment, remorse, or divorce, and the first year is by all accounts the best. A savings account is only useful if inflation doesn't outpace the interest.
In general, our bars go down. RPGs are religious. Just as God tells us there's a heaven waiting at the other side of all the pain and degradation, in short that things will eventually get better in spite of all indications that they only get worse, RPGs and their offspring posit a world without entropy.
In an RPG, capitalism works wonders. You invest in a better sword, productivity gains (in the form of damage) quickly pay for the purchase, and you begin killing bigger monsters, which gives you more money to invest in a better sword. The results are exponential. Jesus and the loaves and fish. Warren Buffet and his first dollar bill.
Weirdly, this simulated friction is not the perfection of the RPG model. The RPG's perfect expression is the roguelike, especially Angband. Roguelikes were invented by college comp-sci geeks as a way to pass time between tests. They have randomly generated dungeons with many floors, sometimes hundreds. Each time you go down or up a floor in a roguelike, the new floor could look like anything, even if you've already been “there.”
The roguelike is Buddhist -- every floor is an illusion, under which exists an algorithm imagining, in concert with the player. You explore each floor, establishing (creating) its shape with a simulated torch, only to leave the floor, dispelling it forever.
In a roguelike, you can and will starve to death. You will die often, sometimes without knowing why. Character death is permanent: the program deletes the file, ruthlessly, every time. Your avatar is an @ sign, and the enemies and letters and walls are all ASCII characters too. Learning to “read” the game is almost as satisfying as learning a language.
Angband is the best roguelike because of its balance of minimalism and complexity. The geeks who wrote it combined Tolkien's mythology with the geek-metal-album-cover aesthetic of 2nd ed. D&D. Unlike the original Rogue, you don't usually die from running out of food: a prismatic dragon gets you, or a balrog, which is effing metal. Unlike Nethack, you don't spend most of your time seeing what will happen if, if, if.
If you play the game right, your bars will still go up, but it takes much longer and it never gets easy. If you get the right rare loot, you'll gradually get more and more money out of your meager starting capital. Your bars will sometimes go down, though, and even if you play smartly you are overwhelmingly likely to fail. Most Angband players never beat Angband.
You beat Angband by getting down to floor 100 and killing Morgoth. I've never been below floor 38. If you do kill Morgoth, who most Angband players never see, you have two choices: either you commit suicide and get a text box that says you've won, or you continue to play. There are 100 more floors. Continuing to play is deciding to lose.
Real Angband players will always choose to keep playing.
I don't know what Morgoth looks like, but he must be represented by one of the limited number of characters on my keyboard.
The people who win Angband are those who abandon lust, forget hunger, ignore ambition; the perfect player of Angband is the Angband Borg, which is a computer program that does not know it exists. It will, in its perfect absence of ego, spend hours farming EXP from a room full of worms.
The perfect expression of the RPG genre is a heightened representation of real life. Angband is every bit as cruel. The only way to win is to forget the desire to win. The best strategy for making money off the US stock exchange -- the only one that actually works -- is to buy a broad sampling of stocks and hope the economy grows that year. We have a crash-and-boom economy because most people believe they are smarter than most other people and can therefore beat the market. Most Angband games end on the same mistake. The player thinks he can beat the odds. The player is wrong. The player dies when he forgets Buddha and becomes a capitalist.
The three differences between Angband and your life:
Angband puts a cool fantasy name on everything.
You are always holding a sword.
You can do it all much faster.
We only die one time in real life. In Angband we can die a thousand. There are so many little failures waiting for you. There are millions in Angband.